Revisiting SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937) in its 75th Year

2 Sep

I’ve been reading “The Disney Version,” Richard Schickel’s critical biography of Walt Disney, and after I finished the chapter on SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, which was released 75 years ago this December, I pulled out my DVD copy of the film and watched it. It may be the first time I’ve seen this since I took my daughter to it when it was theatrically re-released in 1987. Before that I’d seen it in two other theatrical re-releases: in 1958, when I was four and 1967, when I took my younger brothers. And I bought the DVD in 2001.

In any event, just as Richard Schickel did, I had mixed feelings about the film. Before I start quoting him, I wanted to get my own reaction down first. It is indeed a spectacular technical achievement, especially considering the time it was made and the fact that it was the very first American animated film of feature length, and there are a lot of elements deserving of high praise. Dramatically, however, it doesn’t really have much to offer. Snow White is a somewhat shallow and dull character and the only reasons to root for her are that she’s pretty, innocent and  nice to animals and the seven dwarfs. And the prince is just an idealized stand-in for all generic Prince Charmings, someone who’s handsome, sings well and promises to take the heroine away from all her troubles. He comes from out of nowhere at the beginning and returns to take her away to nowhere at the end, without a single appearance in between. (And who’s to say the castle he takes her to doesn’t have a wicked queen of its own?)

There is very little interaction between the Wicked Queen and Snow White. They actually have only one scene together and only when the Queen is in “old crone” mode and trying to get Snow White to bite the poisoned apple. If there had been an early scene between the two as Queen and stepdaughter, to dramatize their abusive relationship, it would have provided some semblance of an emotional core. Also, Snow White could have been a stronger audience identification figure if there’d been some indication that she resented being a scullery maid in her own palace. Weren’t there enough victims of the Depression sitting in the audience at the time who could have related to Snow White’s situation? Or was Disney simply embracing the bosses’ notion that everyone should just smile and sing “Whistle While You Work”?

Also, given that the Queen is supremely vain about her looks, why does she so easily decide to drink a potion to make herself ugly? What if the effect doesn’t wear off? What if she’s missing a bat wing or eye of newt needed for the antidote? What if the antidote doesn’t work? Why doesn’t she just wear a disguise involving heavy makeup? Isn’t she taking an unnecessary risk? These questions never occurred to me in previous screenings, probably because I’m now somewhere in the Queen’s age range and those issues are suddenly more relevant to me. The Queen is, in fact, the most interesting character in the film and the only one motivated by strong emotions and human drives. Her voice actress, Lucille La Verne, did a great job of making the character believable and compelling. I felt for her this time.

With so few dramatic incidents and confrontations to beef up the narrative, the storyline relies too much on the antics of the Seven Dwarfs. An inordinate amount of time is spent on the bathing sequence and on the dwarfs’ attempts to get Grumpy into the bath.  A few scenes later, too much time is spent on the dwarfs’ sleeping arrangements once they’ve given over their entire seven-person bedroom to Snow White. (The little princess-turned-scullery maid winds up being pretty high maintenance, doesn’t she?)

My criticisms echo some of Schickel’s. First off, he outlines the macabre aspects of the original tale and how Disney handles them in his adaptation:

“The solution to this multitude of grisly problems was to emphasize the roles of the dwarfs, who were not even named in the Grimms’ tale, and to play down the Queen’s part. There is infinitely more footage devoted to the funny little men than there is to the stepmother, whose attempts on Snow White’s life are reduced, in the movie, from three to one. Nor did Disney linger long over the scene with the huntsman. The grieving of the dwarfs over the death of Snow White is also sharply cut. And, of course, the original ending was totally eliminated (Snow White and her Prince simply ride off singing).”

He describes the problems inherent in animating Snow White and the prince:

“Some of the other graphic problems were never solved. For reasons suggested earlier, it was impossible to do Snow White and Prince Charming in acceptable fashion. They could not be caricatured because they had to meet conventional standards of beauty and handsomeness, and except for Snow White’s race through the woods and her dance with the dwarfs, the plot did not provide them with actions and movements of the sort that animation is notably successful in rendering. As a result, all the prince’s action and most of Snow White’s were Rotoscoped…

“No matter how subtly done, these figures never look quite right in the context of an animated film. Their movements are jerky and hesitant, lacking the smoothness, force and purposefulness of figures that are wholly the creation of an animator’s pencil.”

Rotoscoping is a process whereby animators make their drawings by tracing over live-action footage of actors performing the movements to be animated. This is done frame by frame, to replicate realistic motion on the part of the characters.

I liked the animation of the animals very much. There sure are a lot of them and they move beautifully in and out of each scene. There is personality drawn into them as well (especially the turtle) and I’m grateful they don’t talk. On the other hand, their keen understanding of English is a bit far-fetched and I was a bit dismayed to watch them plunge into drudge work so willingly once Snow White instructs them to start cleaning the dwarfs’ cottage. I imagined how Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck would have reacted if Elmer Fudd had ordered them to clean his hunting cabin.

Schickel quoted critic Otis Ferguson on the animation of the animals as “finely observed comedy, based on the detailed study of both animal and human behavior”:

“Take the young deer in the little scene where the forest life first gathers around Snow White: shy but sniffing forward, then as she starts to pat it, the head going down, ears back, the body shrinking and tense, ready to bound clear; then reassurance, body and head coming forward to push against the hand—half a dozen movements shrewdly carried over from the common cat. Or take the way (later) the same deer moves awkwardly and unsteadily on its long pins in the crush of animals milling about, as it should, but presently is graceful in flight, out in front like a flash.”

I liked the gruesome details provided in the scenes involving the Wicked Queen’s dungeon in the castle basement. Rats scurry about when she first descends. There are skeletons of long-dead prisoners in various positions. One poor soul clearly died while trying to reach for something outside of his cell and no one ever bothered to clean the place up. (Had the Queen only nurtured a better working relationship with her stepdaughter, then Snow White could have summoned the animals to help tidy up the joint.)

The film was very popular upon its release and generally got favorable reviews. There was some flack over the “scariness” of the Wicked Queen and her torment of Snow White, including the scene where the huntsman is ordered to kill Snow White and come back with her heart. Schickel devotes some attention to the ensuing controversy in his book. Here is one quote:

All over the country there were earnest debates about the appropriateness of Snow White for children, and everyone seemed to have a story about someone’s child who had hysterics in the theater or bad dreams for weeks after seeing the film. Disney received hundreds of letters from protesting parents. Typically, his reply was that “I showed Snow White to my own two daughters when they were small and when they came to me after and said they wanted to play witch I figured it was all right to let the other kids see the witch.” (Actually Diane Disney remembered Snow White a little differently: “When the wicked old witch flashed on the screen I was so terrified that I hid my face in my hands.”)

Personally, I don’t recall being particularly scared by SNOW WHITE when I was a kid. (Neither does my daughter.) It just struck me as odd that a beautiful queen would make herself so ugly. But then, I don’t recall being scared or traumatized by anything I saw at the movies when I was a kid. It was a different matter when I was an adult, but that’s another story.

Following his quote of Ferguson’s observation of the deer’s movements, Schickel offers a nice sum-up of the film’s place in cinematic history:

In the last analysis the distinction of the film—and for all its imperfections, it is a major cinematic achievement—rests on hundreds of details of this sort, small touches that one scarcely notices on a first viewing but that must finally be seen as the movie’s true subject matter. In the end, they disarm all criticism in much the same casual way that Disney brushed aside the dark mists that enveloped the basic legend. It does not matter that there is an occasional lapse into overly broad humor or sentiment. There is a genuine sunniness of outlook here, a sense that one sometimes gathers from works in the higher arts, of the artist breaking through to a new level of vision and technical proficiency and running joyously, freely before this wind of change, the agony of creation for a moment at least in a state of remission. Ferguson found the film to be “among the genuine artistic achievements of the country” and, in general, that opinion was echoed by other critics. Audiences responded—for the most part—with uncomplicated delight.

Despite their technical virtuosity, Disney’s best features have been been spoiled for me somewhat by my exposure to Japanese animation over the past 20 years and my embrace of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. Miyazaki has given us multiple proactive heroines over the years (Nausicaa, Satsuki from MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, Kiki in KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE, Fio in PORCO ROSSO, San in PRINCESS MONONOKE, Chihiro in SPIRITED AWAY, etc.) and the pre-Belle Disney heroines don’t quite measure up, at least in terms of control of their destiny and their embrace of adventure. And time and again, Miyazaki has succeeded in creating finely-wrought worlds that rival Disney’s in nearly every respect.

Now I need to pull out my DVDs of PINOCCHIO and BAMBI and reevaluate those as well. But first I have to finish Schickel’s sections on them.

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