Extended Thoughts on ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’
Directed by David Hand
Written by Ted Sears, Richard Creedon, Otto Englander, Dick Rickard, Earl Hurd, Merrill De Maris, Dorothy Ann Blank, and Webb Smith
Context is everything. Looking at anything in the appropriate context can change your view, or at least enrich it. When people in the 21st century look at a seminal American film such as Citizen Kane, they may be left cold by it, hampered by the hype surrounding the American Film Institute’s selection for the greatest film ever from this country. Hype can screw up the proper context for any piece of art, be it a movie, book, song, or TV show. If you watch something months after everyone else has heaped praise upon it, or months after people have excoriated it, you may find yourself expecting to see what they’ve seen and finding yourself at odds with the general consensus.
So it is with me and the first full-length animated feature ever, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This 1937 release is arguably one of the five most influential films ever made, simply because it is the first of its kind. Whatever issues I have with the film, the fact is simple: Walt Disney and his team of dedicated, dogged animators were able to create a true one-of-a-kind. We throw phrases like that around whenever we see something even slightly different from the norm, but make no mistake: the achievement that is on display in this 75-year old film is stunning simply because it exists. Though the technology has far surpassed what was available in the 1930s, animation of all types is still extremely hard work.
The effort is unquestioned, but I can’t give the product a pass. The folks working with Walt Disney succeeded with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, not just because the majority of people then and now considered it one of the finest films ever made. (Now, at least, it’s just considered the finest animated film ever made, to which I say, don’t make me laugh.) No, the animators succeeded because they proved that feature-length animation was possible and could make a lot of money. Plenty of people called this project Disney’s folly, something that would sink the consummate showman for good. Thankfully for Disney and his crew, those naysayers were proven wrong by the spectacle that is this film. For me, looking at it 75 years down the line, the issue is that Walt Disney may have known how to give mass audiences a wonder to behold, but he couldn’t tell a full story to save his life.
The plot of this film is simple enough: Snow White is the stepdaughter of the queen of the kingdom, who is not only beautiful but very vain. When the queen finds out that Snow White is the fairest in the land, she endeavors to kill the girl through her huntsman. The huntsman grows a spine at the last minute and tells Snow White of the queen’s plan, and that she should run away and never return. She does so, having been completely unaware that the queen has any true malice for her. After initially finding the forest a frightening, haunting place (in one of the truly awesome scenes), she stumbles upon a small cottage in the forest where seven dwarfs live.
She cleans up their messy abode, then meets each of them after a hard day mining for jewels. (Why do they mine for jewels? I have no idea, and guess what? NEITHER DO THEY. They even say so in a song.) In a clever moment, the dwarfs are initially gobsmacked at how clean their house looks, almost disgusted at it. After a while, though, they appreciate Snow White’s value as the person who can help them grow up and turn their lives around a bit. That could all be taken away, however, as the queen finally realizes that her huntsman did not kill the fair princess-turned-scullery maid. She takes matters into her own hands, transforming herself into an elderly hag with a poison apple to lure Snow White to her doom.
But the story is something you’re all likely familiar with. (If you’re not, I assume you’ve been living in a cave for your entire life and have just now reentered civilization. If so, welcome and thanks for stopping at this podcast first! You made a wise choice, friend.) While it may be timeless, I would argue that choosing such a slight fairy tale—and when you look at many other Disney versions of fairy tales, you’ll find that most of the stories are similarly lacking—is detrimental to the film’s success outside of the technical aspects. Even though this film is only 83 minutes, it drags, nearly instantly and frequently. What’s more, the older technique for animating feature films at Walt Disney Pictures meant that animators would be divided into sequences, not characters. So, we get more episodic storytelling than is necessary.
I’m not against episodic storytelling in principle. It can work very well, as long as it serves a purpose. When you’re working with such a short story as that of Snow White, however, there’s not much to latch onto. Do we need to have an entire sequence where Snow White says goodbye to each dwarf? Do we need a sequence where the dwarves trudge home and spend what feels like a good hour inspecting how their house has been cleaned by a mystery guest? When your movie includes a lengthy shot of a tortoise using its teeth to climb stairs—and yes, friends, that’s really something in this movie—you may need to go to the drawing board again.
Context, though, is key. I appreciate that the animators didn’t have the luxury that people working for Walt Disney Animation Studios or Pixar Animation Studios or the like have today, the ability to go back to redo characters, sequences, storylines, and so on. For all I know, Walt Disney himself looked at this film and saw areas that could’ve been expanded, reduced, changed, or just cut entirely. He may have only seen flaws, where many others see triumph and purely visceral entertainment. But I can’t imagine that he wasn’t proud of his achievement, of the vision he had that was brought to life by his animators.
I’ve always wanted to like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as much as everyone else does. I imagine that’s a common feeling for anyone who feels on the outs with the popular opinion about this movie or another. It’s not fun being on an island by yourself, or with only a few other people as your comrades-in-arms. Even if it was that you liked a movie, instead of loving it, wouldn’t that be enough to make you feel like you weren’t missing something? That’s what I find most frustrating about my reaction to this film. I didn’t even have to read other people’s reactions to know that I am alone, relatively speaking, on this one.
Technical wizardry only matters if you have some emotion behind it. That’s one of the reasons why I think Robert Zemeckis has failed as a director when he travels outside the realm of live-action. That’s the reason why Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs fails. It doesn’t engage me on a character-based level. For comparison, look at Toy Story. This 1995 film from Pixar is also arguably one of the most influential films ever made, simply because it is the first full-length computer-animated film. Nothing like it had ever been seen before, and it’s changed the landscape of filmmaking immeasurably. There is technical wizardry on display there that still stuns. Sure, Pixar has long since made leaps and bounds in its technology, but in 1995, it was jaw-dropping to behold.
There’s a very important reason, though, why Toy Story endured to the point that the third film in the trilogy was the highest-grossing film of 2010, and why it’s the best film trilogy ever made. (Yes, I said it. Yes, I am aware of the Lord of the Rings movies.) The technical achievements were amazing, yes, but the work the Pixar filmmakers did with the characters is why those films work and are truly timeless. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has timeless elements, from the iconic music to the usage of friendly-looking animals as comic relief. The characters, though, are less successful. The least memorable characters are both the blandest and the most obviously good: Snow White and her nameless prince.
Snow White’s sole trait—and it’s barely that—is innocence. The dwarves’ traits are their names, and even some of them are shortchanged. (That a person sneezes a lot isn’t exactly a trait. It’s more of a way to identify someone to your friends. “Hey, did you ever meet Bill?” “Who’s Bill?” “You know, the guy who sneezes all the time.” “Oh, Bill. Sure.”) But we know who they are by their names. We know how jealous and vain the queen is, how insane she’s driven to be the most beautiful person around. We know that she’s so nuts, she’ll make herself into the least attractive person possible just to get rid of her competition.
But Snow White is just…good. She’s nice. She’s sweet. But she’s also stupid. And a stupid lead character isn’t that fascinating. Why a princess-turned-scullery maid doesn’t get annoyed, angry, agitated, or the like at her lot in life is baffling. Yes, people take their licks in stride some of the time. But when you are working as a servant and then the person who put you in that position tries to have you killed, it’s time to wipe that smile off your face and get mad. Instead, Snow White stays passive through the entire film, from being mostly unaware of what threat is waiting for her deep in the forest to just generally being a pawn for the story.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is an unparalleled achievement, circa 1937. I see the movie, though, as a template for future films. Even the same could be said of Toy Story. Certainly, Pixar Animation Studios has gone far beyond what they did in that 1995 film. Walt Disney and his animation crew exceeded their reach soon after Snow White with experimental films such as Fantasia and even parts of Bambi and Dumbo. The template for Disney animation isn’t as impressive as the efforts to improve upon it; this movie was a learning experience for the animators. I’m just glad they continued to attempt the impossible; if they hadn’t, Disney might have been a one-hit wonder.
– Josh Spiegel