A Study in Disney: ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937)

| November 14, 2021

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) | MUBI

How does your average 21st century modernist deal with a movie like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?  From a technological standpoint, Walt Disney and his team put together a film of such cultural and artistic magnitude that even he struggled to follow it up.  On the other hand, his story elements were so traditional with regard to gender roles that it today it runs the risk of being buried by progress.  Is this fair?  Is it right to measure an 80-year-old film with the yardstick of modernism?

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a representation of ambition at the highest level.  Disney’s intent in creating the first successful animated feature (there had been others before) was not simply to discover the new world but to mentally take us to another planet.  His technological innovation, immersed us in a three-dimensional animated world in which the characters moved independently of the foreground and the background so that we got a sense of space.  And it was all created under the shadow of criticism from outsiders who were convinced the film would ruin him.  Those critics, by the way, ended up being the same people who were beating back the tears when they saw the finished product.  Disney had not only created a technological triumph but a uniquely emotional experience as well.

And yet . . . and yet.  Where do we find ourselves today in the pantheon of cancel culture and the ferocity of 21st century feminism?  It is important, perhaps, to remember that Snow White was a portrait of the expectation of the times, of a matronly figure whose expected goal was to remain pure and virginal and keep chugging along until her prince came alone to sweep her off her feet.  She represents what was seen as the perfect woman while the Evil Queen was viewed as the dangers of a powerful independent woman; vile, vain, hateful and disturbingly obsessed with her looks.  It is an odd construction when see through our modern lens.  Even the word “dwarf” seems out of fashion.

Is this a bad thing?  Perhaps.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has attitudes that were common for 1937 and like other films that have fallen under scrutiny like Gone With the Wind or The Birth of a Nation or any number of Disney’s earlier films, it is a product of the moment.  Time marches on but the movie remain the same.  They are a window onto a time and place that is long gone and along with it remain the ideas and attitudes that were casually excepted then, but that our modern standards disallow.  Still, it can be appreciated as a simple fairy tale made with great generosity, ingenuity and creativity.  It didn’t have to be this intricate, this colorful or to have this much physical or emotional depth.  It is special, now and forever after.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.