I realize quite a few people have canceled their Disney+ subscriptions, but I still have mine.
Yes, yes. I’m a sucker. No need to rub it in. I mostly keep Disney+ around because I have it bundled with my Hulu subscription. I barely touch Hulu’s sister service. Once upon a time, it seemed poised to win the streaming wars, but has since fallen from grace.
But I still find occasion to peruse its library. It’s the only place with a sufficient amount of Muppets content, after all.
And, as an added bonus, it has almost the full library of Disney animated classics, including many treasures that go unappreciated simply because they are long in the tooth.
With a renewed focus, in recent weeks, on one classic in particular, I decided to dust off the old Disney+ subscription to gather my thoughts on this particular masterpiece. And masterpiece it is, though some have called that into question of late.
And I find myself asking, “Is this really the state our world finds itself in? Must we now ask whether Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs deserves its status as a cinematic landmark?”
It Needs No Introduction
Do I honestly need to bother acquainting you with the history of this movie? You were born on planet Earth, weren’t you?
It often gets credited as the first feature-length animated film, and it was certainly the first one produced by the Walt Disney company. With Walter Disney himself executive producing, and his vision driving the project from concept to reality, it the earliest of the “Disney Classics” line of animated features.
And it was a smash hit.
Long before the existence of home video releases, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs continued to rake in money across the decades through countless theatrical rereleases. Originally gracing screens in 1937, it, like many other high-grossing films, continued to be watched in theaters into the 1950s and beyond. This is one of the reasons that, if inflation is accounted for, Snow White is still the highest-grossing Disney film in terms of box office.
And every princess movie, Disney-made or otherwise, shares DNA with this film. Like a grandmother who birthed eight litters of octuplets, each of which birthed eight such litters of their own, the film’s descendants are destined to outnumber the stars in the sky. Every fairy tale adaptation, every animated picture, and every epic story of true love in modern movie canon can trace its roots back to Snow White.
And, as a labor of love from countless artists, it can’t help but continue to draw attention, like an iconic painting hanging in a public museum. It is the subject of study for every animation student, and possesses a quality of technique that many future animated films—including more than a few Disney classics—fall short of.
You didn’t need me to spell that out, certainly. And if you didn’t, then how could the significance, and the merit, of the movie ever be in doubt? Who could possibly think this movie doesn’t have anything to offer?
Perhaps it only proves how I was always a writer, but as a boy, I thought Snow White ranked among the weakest of the Disney Classics, and was quick to point out how, compared to later animated films, Snow White‘s story lacked cohesion.
The dialogue is obvious and uninspired. The runtime is padded with filler. Most of the musical numbers have no thematic connection to the story, and the slapstick is aimed at a much younger, much less sophisticated audience.
And all of that is true. But we would all do well to remember that this movie was a first effort, and highly experimental. The safest play for Walt Disney was to tailor the this piece into a spectacle with mass appeal. That required it to be tooled for family audiences, and not for a too-big-for-his-britches future writer.
This is why, last week, I sought out Disney+ to rewatch the film. To see it with new eyes.
Here’s what I found.
The Last Silent Movie
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs may not be a silent film, but it is certainly a product of the silent film era.
The extreme facial expressions (rotoscoped from actors trained in silent movie methods), the sweeping gestures, the slice-of-life moments of a girl cleaning house and making pies—they all speak to silent film sensibilities.
As such, this movie is an artifact of golden-age Hollywood. It employs attention-capturing methods rarely seen in movies today, and leans on its actors to a degree most modern movie stars would not be able to accommodate, which is all the more impressive when you realize the actors themselves do not appear in this movie.
The practice of rotoscoping remains controversial to this day, but in the case of Snow White, it brings the brilliant facial acting of black-and-white silent films into the technicolor talkie era, and I don’t know if any other movie has successfully done that. And, thanks to the accessibility of Snow White as an animated fairy tale, it allows these techniques to continue being enjoyed, nearly a century after Hollywood forgot how to employ them. If anything, Snow White is the perfect introduction to silent film, and perhaps the only way in which the popularity of such films has been allowed to continue.
The Painstaking Animation
As I said, rotoscoping is controversial. Disney used it as a way of cutting corners, and without it, the already substantial production costs of Snow White would have been even more dangerous to the company’s bottom line.
However, in the 1930s, even a rotoscoped animation had to be painstakingly brought to life through manual application of ink and paint. Every cell of Snow White‘s animation was created by human hands. And because those human hands were all too aware of how this might be their only chance to prove that feature-length animation could work as a viable art form, they labored with extra diligence to create something fluid, beautiful, and remarkable.
Animation engineers also employed a multi-plane camera to give the film a parallax effect, suffusing the animated world with the illusion of depth. Extra work like this could easily have been skipped in the name of economy, yet the creators of this movie decided it was worth it to do things the hard way, for the sake of quality.
And the results speak for themselves. The movie is a visual feast.
Possibly the Best Song in any Disney Movie
My earlier assessment that many of the movie’s musical numbers act as filler, without thematic attachment to the story, remains valid. There’s a song about working in a diamond mine, a song about working to clean up a house, a song about washing hands. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Australian mega-band The Wiggles.
There is, however, one great song in the movie’s soundtrack, which ties into the film’s fairy tale setting and the central theme of true love.
And I’m not talking about “Someday My Prince Will Come”.
The prince’s song, which plays at the beginning and end of the movie, and which has such a powerful melody that it gets referenced several times in the score, is brilliantly written and beautifully performed. It is easily one of the top three Disney songs in the dimensions of beauty, sentiment, and musicality, right up there with “Love Goes On and On” from Robin Hood.
This is the movie’s showstopper, and it continues to be a powerful number, even 80+ years after it was first performed. It doesn’t get nearly the recognition, the love, and the cover performances that it deserves. And the only way to change that is to get more eyes on this movie.
The Seven Dwarfs
Much of the movie’s padding comes from comic relief, which is relayed through the medium of the seven dwarfs.
The dwarfs are most interesting, from an animation standpoint, because they are actually animated. It’s as if the filmmakers understood that the one part of the movie they couldn’t afford to skimp on was the dwarf characters, who take up the bulk of the runtime.
Which is odd, because the original Grimms’ fairy tale scarcely gives any attention to the seven little men. In the Grimm version, they form a single collective character with no distinctive members. Walt Disney and cohorts decided to fill that vacuum with names and personalities, creating an infinitely marketable and instantly loveable gang of unruly bachelors, who rely on Snow White to become the yin to their yang.
Now, the comic relief is juvenile. There’s no getting around that. But this highly personalized interpretation of the seven dwarfs is likely the movie’s most unbreakable legacy, as the characters continue to serve as Disney company mascots to this day. And while the prince’s song may be the movie’s showstopper, it’s the tenor-baritone chorus of “High Ho!” that is best remembered.
To wit: kids love these characters. They want to watch them over and over again. They may be Walt Disney’s most loveable creation, after, of course, his version of Winnie the Pooh.
The Proof is in the Gooseberry Pie
Jealousy is an ugly thing.
And it seems obvious to me that jealousy is the only reason why anyone has called into question the merit of this movie. Its impact cannot be denied without undermining the credibility of the denier. And while, like many first efforts, it has kinks to work out, a staggering amount of talent went into this movie. It is a jewel of the medium, and luminaries of the past century have been quick to agree.
For some decades, it was difficult to get your hands on, but thanks to modern streaming methods, it is available through a variety of means. Not only does Disney+ offer it worldwide, but in many countries it can be bought or rented on YouTube. You hardly have an excuse not to watch it, especially if you take animation seriously as an art form.
If any movie deserves to live happily forever after, it’s this one. Modern moviemakers would do well not to touch it. They no longer have the skills to produce anything better.
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