Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937)

Among Walt Disney’s greatest accomplishments, rivaling even the creation of Mickey Mouse himself, stands Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), which introduced Hollywood to the feature-length animated film. Disney wanted to create a visually stunning narrative that would appeal to both children and adults; he risked everything he had on the picture, and its success made possible all of the later Disney productions as well as animated movies made by other studios. Thus, the release of Snow White was truly a watershed moment in the history of film. Now, nearly 80 years after its debut, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs does show its age in a few places, but it still shines brightly as an animated masterpiece, with gorgeous images, a gripping story, and a cast of unforgettable characters.

Disney’s version adapts the familiar fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm, in which a princess is abused by her jealous stepmother for being more beautiful than the older woman. The Queen sends Snow White into the forest with a huntsman who has been ordered to kill her, but instead he warns her to run away and never return. In the forest, she is assisted by kindly animals and the assorted dwarfs, who try to protect her but cannot keep the Queen’s magic mirror from revealing that she still lives. Bent on revenge, the Queen resorts to dark magic to eliminate her competition, but true love finally arrives to save the day.

Although much has been said in the decades since about the “Disneyfication” of fairy tales, Snow White actually hews pretty close to its source material. It doesn’t balk at being scary, especially during Snow White’s flight through the forest and the Queen’s transformation. It does eliminate the repetition of the Queen’s attempts to murder Snow White, but that both improves the pace of the story and downplays the heroine’s irritating gullibility. The princess herself, as lovely as she is, is the most dated character in the picture. Her childishness makes the prince’s romantic interest seem forced, and she also displays a bothersome talent for domestic despotism when she orders the dwarfs around in their own house. Later Disney princesses have more developed and mature personalities, but Snow White sets a pattern for domesticity, passivity, and starry-eyed romanticism that takes a very long time for Disney films to break. On the plus side, the movie nails the concept of the Disney villain and paves the way for a great tradition that will include such memorable menaces as Maleficent, Cruella De Vil, Ursula, and Scar.

Snow White won a special Oscar honoring its achievement as a pioneer effort in animation, and it still shows us what brilliant traditional animation can look like. The 1937 film did for hand-drawn animation what Pixar would later do for CGI with Toy Story (1995), but along with great films using the medium both movies also opened the door for a lot of mediocre imitations. Unlike so much of the bad animation that has flooded the market over the years, Snow White lavishes detail and attention on every character and scene, using live models to give the dwarfs in particular their distinctive heft and bounce. Snow White’s innocent beauty and the Queen’s violent pride come to life thanks to teams of artists who rendered their subjects with equal measures of devotion and skill. Every element of the picture, from its uncredited voice cast to its musical score, contributes to Disney’s ambitious vision, but the animation itself is the heart and soul of the production, a revelation about the art form’s potential to tell deeply compelling stories of adventure, love, and even death.

For more of Walt Disney’s classic animated films, see Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Sleeping Beauty (1959). Animation is not merely an American medium; for a global perspective on Disney’s legacy, try modern masterpieces like My Neighbor Totoro (1988), The Triplets of Belleville (2003), The Secret of Kells (2009), and The Illusionist (2010). You’ll find very different takes on the Snow White story in Ball of Fire (1941), Snow White and the Huntsman (2010), Mirror Mirror (2012), and Blancanieves (2012). The 2007 Disney feature, Enchanted, pokes loving fun at the studio’s past princess tales, especially Snow White and Cinderella (1950).

NB - Although it's gone from Orlando, you can still ride Snow White's Scary Adventures at Disneyland in California. I have vague memories of seeing the movie for the first time, but I'll never forget the sheer terror induced by this ride when the witch popped out at every turn. Scary adventures, indeed! In the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, Snow White is attracting a whole new generation of fans with the opening of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.