What better way to follow up my review of The Little Mermaid, the film that brought about the Animation Renaissance than with an account of one of the few films that can be considered more important, the animated feature that started it all?
In the 1930s and before the idea of extending a cartoon, those quirky little oddities for kids made from moving pictures, into a feature length film was foolish, an idea marred by a fundamental flaw. Surely the audience for that kind of entertainment, children, wouldn’t have a long enough attention span to sit through a continuous story in excess of an hour. It was this thinking that led to one of America’s foremost animation studio’s ambitious project being labelled ‘Disney’s Folly’.
It’s not quite accurate to refer to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as the first of its kind. A good half dozen animated features had been produced in Argentina, China, Egypt and Germany since as early as 1917. The great original was Argentina’s El Apóstol which used cutout animation to tell a satirical story. Disney’s feature debut is the first full-length American film and the first in Technicolor. When the film finally debuted it was an unqualified success, gave birth to the tradition of American movie animation, inspired eight theatrical reissues and launched the long and glorious history of Walt Disney Studios.
But it so nearly wasn’t so. The lengthy development was fraught with inevitable problems and opposition from key parties. At one point the whole project rested on the decision of a single man, a banker who had the power to sign over the investment money the studio needed to complete the film. Disney screened portions of what they had already done for him, detailing their plans for the much needed cash. It wasn’t looking good during the screening which the impassive fellow watched in unmoved silence but when it came to his verdict he is quoted as saying ‘you’re going to make a pile of money’ and with that the rest of the history of animation happened.
But how does this three-quarters-of-a-century old film stand up today? Watching in a cynical modern world in which Shrek has lampooned this kind of saccharine storytelling the film still holds up remarkably well, in some areas at least. In others it is very much of its time, its sugar-sweet heroine is hardly a feminist icon, created to be the damsel in distress as needed, a picture of absolute innocence and naiveté to the extent that she is almost comical, especially in the way she conforms to all the most antiquated gender stereotypes. Snow cleans, cooks, sews and sings and her prettiness is openly displayed as her chief redeeming feature. That said it is possible to misread her character as backward. There’s a purity and an honesty in her character that cannot be called outdated and it’s not like the film was created with any kind of gender politics in mind.
Much like The Little Mermaid a modern appreciation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs depends on ones tolerance for cuteness. There are so many gentle forest animals with big eyes and bigger grins performing household chores in the happiest of ways it’s a bit silly. The leisurely pace and simple plot hide nothing approaching depth or greater purpose. The reason the film still works so well and endures as a family classic is because the things it excels at the most are timeless.
The laughs are all charmingly played particularly whenever the dwarfs are in frame. Doc, Bashful et al are the beating heart of the film which doesn’t really get going until they turn up, each character designed, scripted and voiced so perfectly you could guess most of their names without having to be told, the variety and simple appeal in each diminutive man never gets old. Then there are the songs which, though mostly candy-cane sweet, are undeniably catchy and have been influential on popular culture. You’ll have to go a long way to find someone who doesn’t know the first line of Hi-Ho and Whistle While You Work is so iconic that even people who have never seen the film could probably hum it note for note. Most of all the film is a wonderful example of all the things that make animation the unique pleasure it is. Half of the colours on show hadn’t been invented before and the detail in the motion still outshines some present-day films. It’s hard to find a film happier to belong to the medium it does.
It doesn’t end there either because there is some real darkness to balance out the cutesiness. Who can forget the wicked Queen’s remarkable transformation scene? And the drawn-out tension in the third act as she tempts Snow with the poisoned apple has lost none of its potency. The simple fairytale will never date, the story is so well known that I haven’t even bothered to describe it, you already know. Not everyone will be convinced the film stands up in the cold light of more sophisticated achievements but the heritage of the film cannot be denied. If you love animation you owe that to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The mixture of fairytale tropes, luscious animation and memorable musical numbers maintain this ancestor of films like Tangled as a family favourite. Elements have dated but for fans and most importantly kids it remains top-drawer.