Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937, David Hand)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

A handful of movies emerged at the perfect moment to change everything, and this is one of them. It tells many stories: of the culmination of a decade of work by the studio of artistically giant dreamer Walt Disney, a man so passionately devoted to ideas that his hand could no longer keep up with his brain enough to allow him to direct his brilliant animated short films by the mid-’30s, could only spout off thoughts and boss around employees while he’d always remain the spiritual leader; of the simultaneous growth of filmmaking and animation as an art form that had so recently seemed almost otherworldly; and, of course, of us — the children, the people, the culture. And that’s world culture, mind you, not just American; perhaps no feature film made up to this time had possessed such innate appeal across all borders. We can work ourselves up enough to imagine the throttling experience of seeing this first-run, what a revelation it must have been to everyone but especially children, but it’s not really necessary. That’s all contextual history-class stuff, when indeed, what matters about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is what it proves about how little we’ve changed, which is a testament I suppose to its influence but also to the gut-level human emotions it captures. It’s a stark contrast indeed to see children and their parents enraptured by a true artistic masterpiece like this in all its warm humor and unflinching solemnity when the modern studios can offer them nothing but loads of Minions bunk to stimulate them. Want to know what’s wrong with modern children’s cinema? Watch Snow White again.

Then again, this isn’t simply a children’s film, nor was it ever intended as such. At present count, 445 animated feature films have been released theatrically in the United States; this was the first, and it was a risky enough proposition (nicknamed “Walt’s Folly”) that many felt there was little chance it could succeed, predicting that children would be distracted after seven or eight minutes, or that the bright colors would be too much for an hour and a half. It’s meant to elevate an art that Disney and his crew had already mastered into a more florid and comprehensive piece of storytelling. The track from Steamboat Willie and Skeleton Dance to Snow White was remarkably rapid — less than a decade — and a true appreciation of the technical mastery of the feature requires a knowledge of that evolution: the addition of color with Flowers and Trees, the introduction of the multiplane camera (which allows complex perspective shots, achieved in an elaborate fashion that can be described only as ingenious) and the test-run for an elaborate feature in the gorgeous The Old Mill, and finally the overwhelming sense that the Disney studio’s sense of discovery and excitement was occurring on a wondrous parallel with the rest of Hollywood. Up to this point, they’d never seriously stumbled, regardless of what lay ahead, and the near-perfection of Snow White as cinema, to stand up favorably with any live action feature of the period, says all we need to know about Disney’s mastery; its streamlined, unforgettably effective storytelling remains a hit to the heart and the jugular that has proven difficult to improve upon.

It’s a fairy tale, of course, but a markedly intelligent and economical one that skirts the problems presented by the clichĂ©s of a Princess and her Charming beau in its galvanizingly beautiful Germanic presentation of its story as allegory — simple though it is, its emotional heft and ideas are anything but. When beautiful and introspective Snow White, who sings songs to herself as a distraction from her unhappy life but is embarrassed to be discovered doing so except by the animals with whom she bonds, eventually is prodded to entertain the dwarfs with a story or a song and she then emits “Someday My Prince We’ll Come,” it’s as if time suddenly stops. The song (and Adriana Caselotti’s vocal performance of it) contains everything central to this or any love story — the yearning, the desire, and plainly just the need to be understood. She’s surrounded by a support system she’s discovered herself as a function of her budding adulthood — the film is finally about a girl becoming a woman, a topic few modern films for children or adults would dare tackle — and is grateful, but longs to love and be loved romantically, and expresses such as eloquently as any character in any film ever has.

The love we’re presented with here is archetypal, of course, with Snow White’s only flaw that quiver in her voice and the Prince a soulless vessel we barely meet. The film’s less about Snow White herself than about how Snow White is seen by others, us included, and how she provides us with a sense of redemption. Because while this is all fantasy, it’s fantasy that strikes deep into us because it’s a world we wish could exist, one in which there is an absolute good and an evil that must be destroyed, and one in which, as Michael Barrier has put it, “love can conquer all.”

Many modernist critiques of the film miss an essential point by skirting over Snow White’s adolescence, requiring her to somehow be a more cynical or hardened figure. This, I feel, would lessen the film’s impact for the way it depicts a childlike innocence and its confrontation with the good and bad of the universe it must encounter as it grows. This is expressed most quickly and wondrously in the film’s most terrifying sequence, which finds Snow White chased by the woodsman, who intends to kill her and present her heart to the Queen but instead breaks down — thrown by her beauty? or his compassion? — and urges her to run away. The haunting race through the forest that follows is a defining of fear, dread, growing up in the most expressionistic and primal of terms, but it also embraces and carries forward our empathy… as well as Snow White’s, for her encounter with the Woodsman is the only time in the film she will meet someone without communicating her basic care for and need to protect others.

The best of her interactions, of course, are with the Seven Dwarfs, unforgettably fleshed out and drawn as individual and remarkably three-dimensional figures by a team of brilliant character animators, paramount among them Bill Tytla, who worked on Grumpy and thus figured in, to again echo Barrier, some of the most undiluted expression of any human emotion ever captured on film. All of the dwarfs are memorable and full of genuine wit and sparkle, though, yet Dopey — with his Harpo Marx naivete and horny-old-man cheeriness that’s rightfully chided and charmed by Snow White, who turns his head downward each time he puckers up for a kiss — and Grumpy are the heart of the film. The former figures in the ecstatic and iconic dance sequence, a celebration of nothing more than mere happiness, with not a notion of what horror is forthcoming, as he mounts Sneezy in a suit and the pair dances into oblivion with Snow White. As for Grumpy, he becomes the voice of the audience’s cynicism (one reason the film plays so remarkably well seventy-five years after its release) while offering an implicit satiric jab at the misogyny and old-world isolationism he embodies, misogyny that would certainly have been familiar in an industry that then forbade the employment of women as animators. But at Snow White’s wake at the finale, when the film’s color and action suddenly become hazy and gigantically sad but never maudlin, Grumpy has broken down completely, and it’s so personal and heavy and real it’s hard to watch. No better case exists for the emotional directness possible in animation. The half-hearted, possibly imagined happy ending follows, but as we leave we’re still haunted by Grumpy’s face, the hardening of a bitter old man melted down into pure ache.

Evil is seductive, of course, a point Snow White makes intelligently by rendering its villain, an isolated and vain Queen who becomes an evil apple-peddling Witch, a fascinating and complex character — a corruption of Snow White’s femininity, a vision of a loss of innocence, and a subtle criticism of the way that the image-obsession of a male-dominated society oppresses all women. Her own drive to be “the fairest of them all,” an aspect she evidently sees as simply an end unto itself since she appears to live completely alone, becomes a violent obsession. She takes joy in her evil, she’s charming and beautiful and fascinating, and hence she is among the strongest screen villains we’ve ever had. Her elegance, her darkness are their own power atop the film, and hers is a mirthful influence that separates this from Disney’s earlier work and allows it to reach Gothic heights of timeless legend.

Woody Allen would memorably posit the Queen, not Snow White, as his ideal mate in Annie Hall, and it’s not an unusual position. But we mustn’t forget that Snow White is herself a valuable and striking character, not just in her wonderful visual design that represents a miraculous quantum leap in the Disney team’s representation of humans, but also in the manner that she is both the protector of others, such as the animals and the dwarfs, and is in turn protected by them. She will instruct the old men on washing up and taking care of themselves, but they will feel a parental and all-consuming responsibility toward her in what is a surprisingly equitable and sophisticated relationship. Disney doesn’t shy away from exposing its comic possibilities — the clever business of the dwarfs having dinner and trying to sleep and their bungled investigations of a disturbed house are all expertly handled — but by the end, of course, what’s emerged is a moving portrait of an unusual dynamic rarely seen in the movies.

The ending, in which the eternally asleep Snow White in her coffin has the dwarfs eternally at her side, feels like a hazy, unreal dream and, as many have theorized, could very well be one. It functions as an expansion from the busy trauma of the climactic chase, which itself offers none of the relief and benign silliness of action scenes in the later Disney films, even those (such as Dumbo) that toy with equally rich emotions. After the Witch is killed, crucially not by any of the dwarfs — who simply corner her — but by a lightning strike, we join some sort of painterly world that seems to communicate from another plane entirely, a glowing specter of somber and nearly religious piety. Snow White’s awakening and her departure for a land in the sky feels like a function of what these dwarfs wish they could will into existence. But in a world in which a woman can become a witch and can inflict death with nothing more than a poisoned apple, perhaps it’s the will to believe that matters. Perhaps it’s our will to believe, as well as the dwarfs’, that can save Snow White and let her into the arms of her love — but it feels not a little significant that she’s in turn taken away from them with mere seconds of final goodbyes.

Thus, Snow White is a sad, brief, scary, creatively restless, surreal, and poetic experience that nearly burns itself out with loss and pain. It’s also a masterpiece, and one of the few films that can be proven to have altered viewers’ lives, something it can still do today. It doesn’t merely placate or coddle the children who see it — it expands them, disturbs them, fills them with glee and triumph and sorrow. And fear, which may be most important. We know this to be the case because of anecdotal or first-hand evidence, of course, but we also know it because as adults, we can still see Snow White and find ourselves almost unreasonably moved, altered, warmed. Walt’s Folly is something that seems carved in wood or etched in stone to us now, an immaculate thing teeming with life that feels ancient yet present. Not only is it just about as good as cartoons get, or about as good as movies get, it’s about as good as storytelling itself gets. I’m hesitant to ever say something like this about any film, but in this case: we as a society are better for Snow White‘s existence.

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