My mother was born in Cuba in the 1950s. She remembers a lot of stuff from her time there that sounds strange to me, but our childhoods share one thing, if you can believe it: The first movie we ever saw in a movie theater was the same one. It was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature-length, cel animated film. Released in 1937, it must’ve played some movie house on Isla de Pinos for a few pesos a seat in the last days of capitalism. It re-released for a big golden anniversary theatrical run in the United States in 1987, when I was three.
That’s the power of Disney, I guess: On the other end of fleeing from a Communist dictatorship, years after gaining fluency in English and U.S. naturalization, and after having two kids, the same damn movie was there waiting for my mom to take her kids to. Convenient!
This column on Disney movies of the past century isn’t just going to be about their animated features—the company has done so much in so many places, and you don’t need to hear more about how Hercules is, in the most charitable way I can state it, a work that doesn’t even understand why it is this close to being white Christian dominionist garbage (albeit with solid 7/10 songs). But Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs demands to be revisited. It signaled what the Walt Disney Company became in the handful of decades before the theme parks and the television purchases—before becoming the many-headed beast it’s become today.
The company started with a mouse, but with Snow White, it became the home of princesses.
There’s not much you can do to make a story that takes a breezy five minutes to read aloud to sleepy children fill an entire feature-length runtime, but one way is to make it a musical, which was Disney’s stock in trade at the time. But where Disney’s old shorts that ran in theaters were elastic affairs in which Mickey and the gang bent their bodies around and acted like, well, cartoon characters, you immediately see that Snow White is not the same kind of show.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is edited and composed in the style of a film from the Golden Age of Hollywood. The camera mostly pans and widens and tightens the way it would if it existed on a physical set, and the “sets” themselves look only very slightly exaggerated in most scenes so that it’s all the more effective when the film does go the route of being completely fantastical: A forest of distorted creatures made real by Snow White’s fear of the dark; a witch’s dungeon; a golden castle above the clouds.
The animation on display certainly does exaggerate and distort sometimes, but that’s not really what the animators are there to do: The goal here is to create cute woodland creatures, pounding rain, crashing lightning and the realistic movement of a woman dancing and singing that looks as if it absolutely must have been modeled on someone in real life twirling her dress in joy.
The story is pretty close to the Grimm version: Snow White’s evil stepmother, the queen, can’t abide the child being more beautiful, so she puts a hit out on her that Snow White escapes from, because she is too pretty to kill. The dwarfs take pity on her and she signs up to be their housekeeper in exchange for food and lodging and two or three musical numbers with them (one of them is pretty okay). The queen disguises herself as a hag peddling apples and tricks the girl into eating a poisoned one. The dwarfs believe her to be dead, but the girl is merely pinin’ for the fjords and awakens when a prince kisses her.
It sounds simple because it is, but it’s all animated as lavishly as anything that’s ever been done in the history of the medium: Beasts and fowl move like they’re real, even though they’re given anthropomorphized expressions and characterization. Rain lashes the mountainside as the dwarfs pursue the transformed queen to a final confrontation. It’s captivating because nobody does cel animation anymore. The art form is this close to simply being lost forever, if it hasn’t already been. It’s unlikely there will ever be another movie that looks like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, because it could only ever be made by a massive studio, and no massive studio will ever bother using these traditional techniques again when their animators can use touchpads and A.I.-assisted in-betweeners, when they don’t use 3D imagery that’s fully computer generated.
Walt Disney harkened back to the days of his youth in selecting the story as his company’s first foray into animated film: He’d seen a 1916 film version starring Marguerite Clark. It’s partly from that version of the story that Disney got the concept of friendly woodland critters, as Clark’s Snow White is guided through the woods by a bird at one point. Disney anticipated he could get the feature-length film done for $250,000. After his own brother and wife tried to talk him out of it, and after spending six times what he’d planned when all was said and done, the movie was a hit with critics and raked in $8 million once it hit theaters.
It’s a formula the studio returned to again and again: A timeless story told through the medium of animation that heightens the fantastical elements. When the studio wandered in the wilderness during the ‘70s and ‘80s after a major exodus of disgruntled animators, it was a princess who brought it roaring back.
As with anything Disney ever touched that turned to gold, though, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ cultural footprint has become huge enough to sunder mountains and reorder society. I would link to the mountain of scholarship on Disney’s portrayal of women in its films, on mothers and daughters, but you already know what it will say. If you go back and read the earliest editions of the Grimm tales, you’ll also see the tradition of bowdlerizing (that is, censoring out the scandalous bits) these kinds of tales a whole century before Snow White was a glimmer reflected in a young Walt Disney’s eye: Between the 1812 and 1819 editions, the Brothers Grimm changed Snow White’s antagonist from her own mother to a stepmother, and wrote that the poisoned apple lodged in her throat was knocked loose by a bumpy carriage ride rather than a slap from a prince’s servant who was sick of dragging her dead ass around everywhere.
It’s a tradition the Disney Company has followed long after Walt’s departure, never more egregious than at the end of its “Disney Renaissance” in the late ‘90s, when Pocahontas, Megara and Esmeralda were all getting happy endings that were somewhat inconsistent with their original portrayals (and in Pocahontas’ case, inconsistent with stuff that actually happened here, on the non-fictional planet Earth).
When you count up all its money from its various re-releases over the years (and there were many), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs remains one of if not the most successful animated film in the history of the medium. And that has really set the tone of animation here in America, which remains entirely the province of children’s entertainment, no matter how successfully others have pushed the envelope.
Snow White is an incredible work, a cornerstone of a dying art form, and like every Disney masterpiece it is simultaneously indispensable and bears the blame for so, so much.
Join us again next month for another edition of Walt Disney’s Century, when we revisit one of the company’s most awe-inspiring flops: Fantasia.
Kenneth Lowe is so romantic, I could not resist. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.