- Movie Rating -

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – 50th Anniversary Re-release (1937)

| July 17, 1987

It might have been easy for Walt Disney and his team to make Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs into a long-form version of what had come before, of animals that danced, and characters that moved across the screen.  If it were, we probably wouldn’t be talking about it half a century later.  He didn’t want to make a feature cartoon, he wanted to make art.

Before Snow White, most cartoons generally ran three to five minutes and were strung together with loose bits of comedy – chickens danced, cows played the fiddle and the landscape was drawn in broad outlines absent of dimension or weight.  In the years before television, animated shorts were quick fodder for the nickelodeon and later as an added attraction that came before the feature, on the bill somewhere between the news reels and Laurel and Hardy.  Animation was seen as a negligible novelty designed for instant gratification so, not unreasonably, Walt was given every reason not to push forward on this project.  His own family warned him that it would ruin him.  The banks that were issuing him loans had to be assured again and again that they would be paid back.  And most famously, critics theorized that watching an animated cartoon for more than a few minutes would cause permanent eye-strain.

Walt didn’t push his team to make the best film they could, he pushed them to make a greater film than anyone imagined possible.  But the team didn’t create Snow White out of nothing.  It was built on innovations that they had created before, using the Silly Symphonies, a series of 75 animated shorts that Disney produced between 1929 and 1939, as a teaching tool for his artists.  The Goddess of Spring (1934), for example, was used to illustrate how to create human characters and movements while The Old Mill (1937) was used as a test run for the multi-plane camera.

The multi-plane camera was used in previous animated features but Disney engineer Ub Iwerks built his own out of parts from an old Chevrolet Sedan [1].  It allowed objects in the foreground and the background to move independently of one another and independently of the central action.  It also allowed the objects to move at various speeds and various distances to create a three-dimensional space. This was long before computers, when animation was a painstaking practice in which each cell was drawn and painted one-by-one by hand (production of Snow White began in 1934). On the multi-plane camera, pieces of the artwork were laid on various platters on the camera that moved independently of one another, so the various cells could move opposite of one another.  The result was that a house in the background could have objects moving independently in the foreground like bushes and trees and logs and rocks.

By this innovation, the palette of the film has more depth, and makes for a much more immersive experience.  Take, for example, Snow White’s nightmare journey through the forest as the branches of the trees reach out and the eyes bear down upon her – the forest seems to exist around her, not simply behind her. The foreground objects move independently of Snow White so that she seems to exist in a three-dimensional space.  The effect is also used to great effect later when The Evil Queen takes her potion.  As the potion takes effect, the objects in the room swirl around her.  They move independently of her so that she seems to be standing in the center while the objects in the room fly around her.  One of the enduring things about these scenes is the generosity of the visuals.  Walt and his animators didn’t have to take it to this level.  It wasn’t important to the story to employ the depth of field and three-dimensional effect to tell this story.  But by pushing the visuals one step further, they achieved something more than just the bare minimum.  They elevated the visual template to a new and creative level.

This realistic tone allowed for a more concentrated connection with the audience that would keep their attention longer.  Steamboat Willie was fun but it was so cartoony that after five or six minutes, the gag wears thin.  The struggle with Snow White was how to make the animation just relatable enough that the audience would remain engaged for 90 minutes.  The multi-plane camera allowed the world to seem more three-dimensional, so that the eye could see that it wasn’t just characters in front of a flat background – one could sense that they could almost see around the characters.

The backgrounds themselves were personally observed and approved by Walt himself.  He felt that since the best-known fairy tales in the Western world came from Europe, he wanted the look of the film to have a more European style.  To do this, he enlisted the help of Swedish-American illustrator Gustaf Tenggren, character illustrator Albert Hurter and New York-born sketch artist Ferdinand Hovarth to give the film a much more immersive look both in the characters and in the environment – realistic without feeling so cartoony.  Originally the film had a much goofier comic tone, loaded with gags and silliness.  But with the help of Tenggren, Hurter and Hovarth, the look of the film was given a much more lush and lifelike tone and the comedy was scaled back.  Much of the film’s comedy is given to the smaller side characters and to the dwarves themselves.

The comedy is to be expected, but what was new about Snow White was the drama.  This is a story that it isn’t afraid to travel down some very dark roads and what is remarkable is that the comedy is pitched at just the right level that it doesn’t step on the drama.  The heavy drama is something that would become a constant in Disney’s work, yet it is not something that the P.R. department wanted to deal with.  If you’ve ever paid attention to the advertising then you have noticed that it all tips at making the film look like a happy dancing comedy with lots of lively music and colorful imagery but nary a dark corner in sight.  What is missing in the advertising are the darker portions of the film: the haunted forest, the old crone, Snow White’s wake.

From an advertising standpoint, this might seem reasonable, but from an artistic standpoint, it seems somewhat short-sighted.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been with us for eight decades and it endures because of its darker edges and the way in which Disney and his animators balanced those scenes with the songs and the comedy.  This was, of course, Walt Disney’s first animated feature and it indeed has scary scenes that are all for the enhancement of the story.  Darkness, sadness and despair are part of the tapestry.  If it were all happy, there would be no journey, no lesson, no soul, nowhere for the audience to plant its feet.  We wouldn’t be able to identify and the film would be no different than staring at a billboard.

Disney’s earlier characters (most of whom were reworked from other sources) were so well-rounded that we got a sense of standing in the room next to them.  Their journeys took us to some dark places to focus on real dangers along the way whether they occurred by design, by evil machinations, by mistake or by the unpredictable force of nature.  These elements are most crucial when the movie is viewed by a child because the elements seem more real.  The broad outlines of animation are very close to the storybooks that children read so their brains are already tuned to what they are seeing.  The fact that the movie is structured on such emotional levels that tap into the deeper recesses of a child’s imagination helps to understand why it stays in their imagination long after they have left childhood behind.  Again, this is a dark movie.  It delves into some painful territory but it is never so lost in its own darkness that we can’t feel anything.  It is just dark enough and then it brings us back into the light. 

On a subconscious level, these visual tricks may have played into the audience’s love for the film but their upfront response certainly came from the emotional content.  This makes up for the fact that the characters are not very specific; their personalities are laid on them almost entirely by description.  Snow White is snow white and virginal.  Prince Charming is charming.  The dwarfs are given names that define them, with the exception of Grumpy whose stone-cold heart is turned at Snow White’s apparent death.  No one ever steps outside of their expected roles.  That’s not a criticism because the base-level definition of the characters works to effect.  We love Snow White even though she’s not well defined.  She’s a pretty girl with a good and true heart and when she is apparently killed by the Evil Queen, we feel the loss.  Then when she is reawakened by the power of true love, our hearts are lifted.  Those emotions were unusual coming from a film made entirely of painted drawings and music.  It was universally felt.  It moved the entire world.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1937) View IMDB Filed in: Animated