Thursday, July 26, 2012

Disney Canon: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

I love animation and I love Disney films, So another of the projects for this Blog, is a re-watch of the animated Disney films starting with the very first and working our ways through the studio's filmography... I'll try to write a post weekly, but bare with me, they're a lot of films...

Having jusr watched it, I can say ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ might as well be the most dated film in the Walt Disney canon. This is understandable, since it was Walt Disney’s first feature-length film.

Let’s begin there. Technically, ‘Snow White’ wasn’t the first feature-length animated film of all-time, but it was the first one produced in America. That was a huge deal back in the day. In 1937 nobody thought an animated film longer than a few minutes could be successful, thinking it would make people sick (something that seems ridiculous in our days of talking donkeys and kung fu pandas). So Disney had a lot of trouble financing his movie. He even had to mortgage his house when the film ended up costing four times what Walt had estimated. Anyway, when the film opened, it was an enormous success. It became the most successful 'talkie' up to that point and slam-opened the door for new animated films to come.

The most dated part in ‘Snow White’ is the title character herself. Many feminist groups have expressed their feelings about the portrait of women in Disney’s classic princess movies, but let’s face it, the world looked at women very differently in the 1930s. So of course it is natural that Snow White is completely naive and her only wish is that her prince will come save her. It's also only logical that her first impulse when she arrives at the dwarfs’ house is to start cleaning. I think it can’t be that easy for a girl in this day and age to identify with Snow White, especially when you can get other more forward-looking princesses like Belle and Ariel in you DVD collection.

That being said, ‘Snow White’ still holds up pretty well despite its view on femininity. It is safe to say it pretty much invented the animated film as we know it and it is impressive to see how much of what would become the classic tent-poles for a Disney film is already there: The helpful little animals, the songs, the scary childhood-scarring sequences and, most importantly, the stash of funny supporting characters that would be a constant (and become the most popular part) in future films. You can see one of the longest cinematic traditions starting right here.

The plot is very thin and that is when all the archetypical tent-poles we mentioned kick in. He spends as much time in extended comedic sequences involving the dwarfs as he does advancing the plot itself. That's because he is, above all, presenting an entertainment. Specifically, a kids' entertainment. He knows children like comedic sequences that highly resemble what was done in animated shorts of the time. He knows they like catchy songs. He even has the witch talk directly to the audience as an actor in a children's play might do. Being filled with sequences that seem specially designed to play with audiences, it's no wonder the movie became a huge hit.

The spectacle is highly entertaining even this many years later, but the relationships between the characters are way too simple and still feel like it. There is, for example, absolutely no interaction between Snow White and the Evil Queen except for the fantastic apple scene (and in that scene, Snow doesn't even know she's interacting with her step-mother). The motivations are clearly defined, but not really explored. Something that is completely understandable and forgivable given the early nature of the film. Still, the quality of the animation is superb. The evil queen looks and feels like a live-action human and is one of the scariest, most memorable movie villains. 

Overall the film is more than well worth watching. It’s a movie that still holds up as entertainment even if it feels a little dated and I’m sure kids will still get a kick out of watching it. It is, after all, a cinematic milestone like few others. 'Snow White' is a hugely promising start to a new medium and a studio that was just entering the feature-length movie business. It remains one of Walt Disney's greatest achievements both historically and artistically.

Next Time: Disney gets ambitious after the success of Snow White with 'Pinocchio'. Now, let the seven dwarfs sing a little something for you.

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