Saturday, March 26, 2011

Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Year: 1937
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 34
Writer: Ted Sears, Richard Creedon, Otto Englander, Dick Rikard, Earl Hurd, Merrill De Maris, Dorothy Ann Blank, Webb Smith
Director: David Hand, William Cottrell, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce, Ben Sharpsteen
Star: Adriana Caselotti, Lucille La Verne, Roy Atwell

It’s often remarked that animated adaptations of fairy tales “Disney-fy” them, meaning that all the darkness and death have been removed from the story in order to make them more family friendly films. Obviously, these people have never seen the Walt Disney produced “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Not only do you have the poisoned apple and the glass coffin, but you have horrifying trips into a haunted wood, psychedelic experiences of black magic, a hunter who guts a pig, stuffs its heart into a box and then pretends he tore the heart out of the title character. Sure, the film doesn’t include the Brothers Grimm’s original ending, where the Evil Queen is forced to wear hot metal shoes and dance until she dies, but in this version she is struck by lightning, falls off a cliff hundreds of feet into a ravine and is then squashed by a falling boulder. To me, it’s a toss-up which one is more grotesque.

The film begins with Princess Snow White thrown in rags and forced to clean her evil stepmother’s palace. She dreams of finding someone to love, and a convenient Prince (though he is never identified as such) just happens to be riding by on horseback and instantly falls in love with her. Her stepmother, the Queen, is obsessed with being the most beautiful woman in the land, so instead of forcing unnecessary plastic surgery on her step-daughter that would hinder her beauty, she orders her Huntsman to murder Snow White and return with her heart in a really nice box. The Huntsman allows Snow White to escape and she happens upon the house of the Seven Dwarfs.

Though it would be over a decade before her rise to fame, Snow White sounds and carries herself almost exactly like Marilyn Monroe. Though she doesn’t have the bust-line Monroe did (family film, people! Family film!), Snow White wanders through scenes shaking her booty and waving her arms randomly. In other words, she carries off being an idiot extremely well. She might get first billing in the title, but this movie is really about the seven dwarves she meets and the queen she shares a single scene with.

And that Queen…holy crap. We first see her draped in black, cloth covering almost every inch of her body, save for her face (her hair is covered as well), and the animation reveals subtleties in her expressions that even modern animation can’t quite match. Her castle is huge and empty—the only characters she communicates with are the Huntsman and the mirror that will never tell her what she wants to hear, which of course makes her need to go back for more. Here is a woman so obsessed with murdering her (let’s face it) simple-minded stepdaughter that she will literally strip herself of her most coveted possession, her beauty, to achieve her goal.

Those rascal-y Seven Dwarfs get the most screentime here, and you can tell that the filmmakers were having a fun time bringing them to life. Too much fun, it seems. Alas, their scenes today lag and linger much longer than they should. They think Snow White is a ghost. They wash their hands. They dance. They play music. They look for places to sleep. They say “Heigh Ho!” quite a bit (okay, that’s enjoyable). Looking at the film today, you can tell the animators are going wild, but there’s so little substance to the scenes that they can’t help but feel thin and a tad tedious.

The film is still surprisingly smart in how it approaches storytelling from time to time. Yes, it’s a film of clich├ęs and big sweeping plot development (who is that Prince guy again and where is he for most of the movie?), but that doesn’t mean that the slew of writers who worked on it didn’t know how to tell a good story. From the first time the dwarves encounter Snow White, Grumpy is (unsurprisingly) the most vocal about not trusting her and not allowing her into their home. Moments before the Evil Queen arrives to feed Snow White the poisoned apple, Snow White kisses the dwarves goodbye and we realize that she has finally won over Grumpy. Even he loves her. The family is complete. That makes what follows even more heartbreaking for viewers, especially because the very last thing she does is finish a gooseberry pie made especially for Grumpy.

But let’s face it, the movie’s real triumph is the world it creates. The forest Snow White races through ranks right up there with the ferry ride in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” as one of the most terrifying sequences in a family film. The Dwarves’ home is filled to the brim with beautiful touches, and the animation is flawless throughout. Call me old fashioned, but this is a damn fine animated film that looks better than the CGI-worlds we so often find spewed before us in current animated movies.

“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” isn’t the best animated movie produced by Walt Disney Studios. My money is on “Beauty and the Beast,” but how can you discount other masterpieces like “Fantasia,” “Pinocchio,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty”? To me, any of those films are more emotionally resonant and have more well-defined characters. And yet there’s something downright haunting about seeing where it all began and seeing Walt Disney and his amazingly talented creative team make such a good movie right out of the gate. The other films I’ve listed might have improved on the intricacies, but their broad strokes remain firmly reminiscent of, and in debt to, this film.

My Score (out of 5): ****

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