Ah, Walt Disney! Who doesn’t love the House of Mouse? Well, ok, granted I’m sure there are many people out there who don’t care for Disney, although nowadays, you almost have to by default, given that they own almost everything. Star Wars fan? Then you’re a Disney fan too. Dig those Marvel superheroes? Disney’s got you on that one too. For myself, I’ve always been a Disney fan, and probably always will be. There something about a Disney movie that brings out the inner child in me and they rarely fail to leave me without a smile on my face and a lighter spirit. In this light, I thought it would be fun to go back and look at all the Disney animated features throughout the years and see how well they have held up. I hope this series will bring perhaps a new perspective on some old classics and maybe even reveal some forgotten stories. So, as Julie Andrews once sang, ‘Let’s go back to the very beginning, a very good place to start’, which in this case, is with 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
There is an inherent difficulty, I think, with adapting a fairy tale and that is to make the story interesting. In their nature, fairy tales are meant to be short morality stories, and as such, there isn’t much time for lengthy character development, which in turn gives other storytellers plenty of room for embellishment. In short, the story of Snow White is that an evil Queen, jealous of her stepdaughter’s beauty, sends her out into the woods with a Huntsman, who has orders to kill the girl. Unable to do so, the Huntsman sends Snow White to hide in the forest, where she takes refuge in the home of the Seven Dwarves. The Queen, upon discovering this deception, disguises herself as an Old Witch and brings Snow White a poisoned apple, one bite of which puts her into a ‘sleeping death’, and the only antidote is a first love’s kiss.
Disney sticks to this story very well and tells it with plenty of humor and surprising suspense. The humor often comes in the form of the Seven Dwarves, who are famously named after their individual character quirks: Doc, Grumpy, Dopey, Sneezy, Happy, Sleepy and Bashful. Each Dwarf has a distinct personality and while some are certainly funnier than others (Doc in particular with his confusion of words always gets a laugh out of me, i.e. “What are you and who are you doing here?”), they all have their moments to shine. Their musical set pieces, the Dwarfs’ Washing Song and Yodel Song are quite hilarious, although it was helpful with Bashful’s story to recently learn that a polecat is another name for a skunk.
Of course, the Dwarves are not just there for the laughs and especially touching is Grumpy’s story arc, as he goes from outright hostility to Snow White (“Women and their wicked wiles!”), to begrudgingly tolerating her good bye kiss on the forehead, to finally leading the charge to her rescue from the Witch.
Speaking of, how does Disney’s first villain fare? Very well, I am glad to say. The Evil Queen, who oddly enough is never given a name, while regally imposing, clearly shows the dangers of envy and vanity. In what becomes a bit of a tradition with Disney villains, she has an outer façade of elegance and charisma, but her actions are increasingly cruel and the more the story progresses, the more her outward appearance reflects her inner evil true self. However, with most villains, their obsession and insanity gradually crack their veneer until in the end, they are consumed by madness, but the Evil Queen quite literally transforms herself into the manifestation of her inner ugliness. The scene in which she becomes the Witch is a masterwork of frightening animation and the Witch herself has a surprisingly sadistic sense of humor. Also, I enjoy the irony of the old Witch cackling, “Now I’m the fairest in the land!” When she offers Snow White that poisoned apple, echoes of the Snake in the Garden come to play, as she promises her that eating the fruit will make her dreams come true, tempting not only her senses, but the desires of her heart as well.
As for Snow White herself, the original Disney Princess, she is the only mild disappointment for me, if only because I find her voicework, by Adriana Caselotti, to be very grating. At first appearance, she seems to be of shallow character, pining only for the someday when her prince would come and carry her off into the sunset. Later, though, her actions and words emphasize her kindness and unbreakably cheerful attitude. Even after being nearly murdered and running through a dangerous forest, she chastises herself for her own fears and reminds herself that “There’s no use in grumbling, when raindrops come tumbling. Remember, you’re the one who can fill the world with sunshine.” In other words, a positive outlook goes a long way towards allaying our own fears. You can clearly see her good-natured spirit shining and the effect it has on everyone, from the woodland creatures to the initially fearful Seven Dwarves. She may be more passive in the story then I would like, but all in all, I felt she comes across better than I remembered.
So, in the end, this remains an important movie, not only in Disney history, but in film history in general. The animation is fantastic and there are even moments where I had to scratch my head and ask, “How did they do that way back then?” such as the ripples in Snow White’s wishing well and the reflections in the water as the animals walk past a river. The humor is as smile-inducing and creative today as it was then (I love the numerous inventive ways the woodland creatures find to clean house and it’s impossible to dislike the happiest turtle in animated history). Above all, amidst the limited trappings of the fairy tale story, it champions a kind heart, a positive spirit and the dangers of focusing too much on how you value your reflection in a mirror.
Alternatives: there aren’t many other versions of the Snow White story, at least, none that I can think of and the less said about the dreary Kristen Stewart version, the better. However, I will mention one of my all-time favorite Disney live-action films, Enchanted, which lovingly riffs on many of the Snow White tropes, including animals doing household chores and the whole poisoned apple concept. A great movie that has the kind-hearted spirit, if not the plot, of Snow White.