FIVE STAR FILM: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (USA, 1937)
Directed by David Hand
Starring Adriana Caselotti, Lucille La Verne, Roy Atwell, Pinto Colvig

The recent release of Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman makes this the perfect time to re-examine the Disney version of Snow White, whose success and reputation these films are trying so hard to emulate. The temptation would be to go in intending to rip the film to shreds, holding it up as a glorified relic to give the modern versions of the fairy tale a fighting chance. But for all the cynicism surrounding Disney (most of which is justified), there is no getting away from the fact that their first feature-length animation is a masterpiece.
In an age where fairy tales have been thoroughly deconstructed, and their positions on gender and sexuality have been analysed down to the letter, it would be very easy to dismiss Snow White as outdated, chauvinist claptrap - or to blame it for the arguably worse, more offensive claptrap that followed. While the film isn't as overtly limiting in its depictions of women as some of the more recent Disney offerings, you can make the point that its success set the template for everything that followed, and therefore it deserves its fair share of the blame.
If you were incredibly cynical, you could sum up the story of Snow White as follows: an icy bitch tries to kill a prissy brat because she's prettier than her, and apparently looks count for everything as far as women are concerned. The brat breaks into the house of seven men who are old enough to be her (grand)father, becomes domesticated while they do the work, falls for the oldest trick in the book (being tempted by an apple) and is then given the Vladimir Lenin treatment. Then, just when all hope is lost, a man whom she barely knows comes along and saves the day.
All this criticism and more, from people far better versed than me, holds up to some level of scrutiny. And Disney's subsequent record leaves them open to accusations of exploiting and slowly deflowering their first child. And yet, for all the self-righteous resistance you attempt to put up, it remains completely irresistible. Whether you view Snow White as a gigantic technical leap forward or as a strong and distinctive retelling of the Grimms' fairy tale, the film still fundamentally works, as a piece of animation, as a piece of storytelling, and as an outstanding visual experience.
It's important to understand just how ground-breaking Snow White was on animation. As I mentioned in my Peter Pan review, the film was dubbed "Disney's folly" when first announced. The conventional wisdom of the time was that the only way to make money with animation was through shorts: you could produce a large number of them relatively quickly, allowing you to build up a regular audience, and always had something in reserve if one of your cartoons fared poorly. Feature-length animation was a huge financial risk which threatened the future of Walt Disney as a creative artist. Hence he and director David Hand were as thorough as possible with the finished product - and it shows.
By creating a 90-minute cartoon with very high production values and such relatively large narrative scope, Disney shifted the goalposts for what animation was capable of doing. While the studio continued to produce shorts, particularly in the form of US propaganda during WWII, the emphasis was now on full-length animation which could compete with the live-action talkies. You may go so far as crediting Snow White as the first of many breakthroughs in the quest to put animation on equal footing with so-called 'proper' filmmaking.
If you choose to ignore the influence of Snow White on the film industry, it still holds up as a product of its time. The animation is outstanding, utilising the technique of rotoscoping to create realistic physical movements for all the characters. Like Peter Pan, the majority of Snow White was created by filming the actors on partial sets, with the animators using stills of the actors as a basis for character construction. Disney's philosophy was always to treat the magical or fantastical as if it really could happen, and be making the characters both look and feel human, we settle into the story much quicker than we might in a more modern, CG effort.
The visuals of the film also demonstrate the amount of choreography that goes into animation. In an animated film nothing is improvised or made up on the fly, and Snow White feels like it has been worked out to the tiniest detail. That's not to say that it feels cold or clinical - quite the opposite. The musical sequences in particular are inventively choreographed to work in outlandish and hilarious jokes as the physical comedy builds. One of the best moments in the film finds Dopey playing the drums, and having multiple sticks run through his sleeves to create a drum roll.
Disney has often been accused of softening the edges of its subject matter, with "the Disney version" serving as a pejorative means of defending the source material. But whatever truth this may hold today, there is still plenty of genuine darkness in Snow White, which is both indicative of the original fairy tale and an intelligent elaboration of it. The scenes of Snow White running through the creepy trees are every bit as scary as the Pleasure Island scenes in Pinocchio or the Pink Elephants in Dumbo. It's not hard to see what Dario Argento was talking about when he claimed to have based Suspiria on this film.
Although it takes certain liberties with the original fairy tale, Snow White does retain some of its substance. The story is at its heart about characters dealing with jealousy and resentment, contrasting the wicked Queen's fortunes with those of the dwarfs. The Queen feels threatened by Snow White's beauty and youth, but also by her popularity, whether with the birds or with a handsome prince. While most of the dwarfs welcome Snow White in, Grumpy resents her for poisoning his friends' minds with her "wicked wiles". While the Queen's spite result in her destruction, Grumpy manages to overcome his suspicion of women and plays a sizable role in the rescue.
There are also vague Biblical elements to the film, which are reflective of both Disney and the German traditions from which the source emerged. The most obvious element is the poisoned apple: the Queen is Lucifier, who takes on a more trusting form (the old woman) and tempts Eve (Snow White) to eat the forbidden fruit in return for what she truly desires. The Queen's demand to have Snow White's heart reflects the Devil's desire to remove humanity's capacity for love and compassion. And of course, the ending in which Snow White comes back to life is a clear paraphrasing of the resurrection, with the handsome prince standing in for God.
While none of this imagery is conveyed in an overly heavy-handed way, it is the music of Snow White which guarantees its approachability. 'Whistle While You Work' and 'Heigh Ho' are still infuriatingly catchy, while 'Some Day My Prince Will Come' is orchestrated with suitable grandeur. Frank Churchill would later go on to write 'Baby Mine' for Dumbo¸ while the incidental composer Paul J. Smith would later work on Pinocchio and Bambi. Their inventive melodies are brilliantly arranged and the lyrics remain wittily acrobatic.
For all the baggage it carries as part of the Disney brand, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs remains the jewel in Disney's crown after the best part of 75 years. Its ground-breaking technical work is matched by its breezy storytelling, rich imagery and the extent of our emotional involvement. Its influence on American film is vast and various, and on its own terms it still holds up as a fantastic piece of fantasy filmmaking. In spite of everything you care to throw at it, however true or justified your complaints, it is still the fairest in the land. 

Rating: 5/5
Verdict: The jewel in Disney's crown (in spite of everything)

Click here to read my earlier Letters of Note post about the naming of the seven dwarfs.