Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Review: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

In 1937, Walt Disney produced the world's first feature-length cel-animated motion picture in color, and the first animated feature in America. You've probably seen it and are currently having trouble remember the names of a few of the eight titular characters. Of course, I'm talking about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

This film was adapted from a fairy tale of the same name, by the Brothers Grimm. In it, we see the story of a beautiful young girl who is hated by her evil stepmother but who, in the end, rides with Prince Charming to live happily ever after. If this sounds super familiar, remember that it set the tone for some of Disney's most successful animated films with basically the same plot. But I digress.

The story is a simple one, which was perfect for a medium which was in its infancy. Many people, including Walt Disney's wife Lillian, were not convinced the general public would pay to see a full length animated film. Had the naysayers been right, this film would have gone down in the history books as "Disney's Folly" and we would all be deprived of a great many cinematic classics.

Sure, I've seen this movie several hundred times probably, but I tried to watch it with a critical eye this time around. And what struck me is just how scary it can be in places. Snow White's stepmother (the Queen) is a dangerous character, when you get right down to it. She orders one of her servants to kill Snow White. Creepier still is that she asks the servant to bring Snow White's heart back in a box as proof. When he brings back the box with what is believed by the queen to be Snow White's heart, she keeps it as some kind of trophy. Also, she has a room in the dungeons where she keeps evil magic potions and spell books. Here's the thing: aside from a propensity to talk to animals and clean other peoples' cottages after barging in uninvited, Snow White is pretty well-adjusted so you have to imagine that either her father or biological mother was as well. And the stepmother/Queen must not have been around too long, because she doesn't seem to have tainted Snow White much. So, for the sake of argument, let's say it was her father who was well-adjusted. Why would he marry such a freak? Unless she put a spell on him, I guess. But what if it was her mother who was well-adjusted? We're never told what happened to the mother, so given the evidence of a mentally unbalanced, jealous, actually bona fide evil stepmother, I don't think it's too much of a leap to guess that Snow White's bio-mother's heart is probably in a box somewhere in the Queen's private office. Just let that sink in.

But you also never see Snow White's father, so my new theory is this: both parents were well adjusted, and loved her dearly. Then, Witchy Woman comes along with a load of evil paraphernalia including a magic mirror which is the heaviest-handed symbol of vanity ever put to film and which probably tells her that the current queen is way better looking and probably also a lot nicer and, seeing the castle, she says, "I'll bet there's some dungeon room I could keep all this stuff in. Time for a power grab!" At which point she hires some down-trodden peasant unhappy with the political climate to whack Snow White's totally hot mother while she herself concocts Love Potion Number Nine to slip into the grieving King's wine at the funeral. Of course,she didn't count on little Snow White, so she's got to rethink the plans a bit. After the wedding, she puts away her love potion and promises the aforementioned peasant a cushy cabinet position if he also murders the king. Of course, he gladly does this and is summarily caught and beheaded without a trial to avoid any possible whisper of foul play against the royal family. So now she's queen, and she's got this magic mirror that tells her she's totally the hottest, but she's got this beautiful little stepdaughter who might some day become more beautiful. So, I guess because at that point she figured another murder might seem a bit suspicious, she makes Snow White a scullery maid in the hopes, I guess, that the life of a peasant girl might ravage her looks? Because now that she's in power, all she wants is to remain the hottest.

Of course it backfires and Snow White becomes more beautiful the very day she meets Prince Charming, at which point we get the thing with the heart in a box. Only, this guy who can't bring himself to kill Snow White put a pig's heart in the box. For some reason, the queen waits a whole day to ask the mirror if she's now back on the top of the heap. Of course the mirror says, "Nope, still your stepdaughter, duh, your minion brought you a pig's heart," and she's so angry she concocts a plan to kill Snow White once and for all. Nary a mention what happens to said minion, but I'll bet it wasn't pleasant.

At this point, yes, I will admit that I am not talking about ANY of the titular characters. That's because Snow White herself is one dimensional; she is a beautiful but naive girl who wants to marry Prince Charming (whom she has only met once, briefly while singing to some birds) while the Dwarfs are seven guys who live in one house together, and each of them has a name to describe their defining characteristic except for Doc, the bumbling leader. So, basically, Snow White wanders into a frat house and then plays den mother until the queen shows up with a poisoned apple. I'll get to that bit now.

So, this poisoned apple that the queen painstakingly makes is kind of a mistake. Here's the thing, you wouldn't buy a "build your own helicopter" kit and put it together without first making sure that what you bought was a working helicopter and not just a model, right? That's kind of what the queen does with the apple; she makes the apple thinking, "This is going to totally kill Snow White!" When she's done, she then says, "Let me just make sure that this will actually do what it's supposed to..." and reads the second page of the instructions. That's the page which says, "Oh, hey, instead of killing the person, it'll just look like the person is dead and said person will stay that way until experiencing love's first kiss." So she takes a real risk here; I guess she thought that a Scullery Maid would have already had love's first kiss and that therefore any kiss she got would be love's second kiss and not a problem? Or maybe, she thought, "Who's going to fall in love with somebody who's dead?" That actually is a pretty solid argument, now that I think of it. Yeah, that was probably what she was thinking. Still, I would have read all of the instructions and then tried to find another potion, maybe one labeled "Deadly Poison Which Will Cause Permanent Death." That probably wouldn't be an apple. That would probably be broccoli.

It tries to warn you with its terrible taste

So the queen gets the apple to Snow White while the dwarfs all go off to work in the mines. She's not posing as the queen, though, because Snow White would recognize her. No, instead she poses as an ugly old crumpled up woman with warts because, you know, everybody trusts people who look exactly like every witch ever depicted throughout history. The animals which Snow White can talk to try to stop the deal from going down, but she ignores them and thinks they're being rude. Never mind that these same animals have established a reputation of helping Snow White clean the dwarfs' house and, oh, that's right, led her to safety when she was first abandoned in the woods. So, rebuffed, the animals head to the mine and have to forcibly drag the dwarfs back to their cabin because, again, the animals are mistaken as just being crazy. See, people, you should always trust animals and do their bidding. Must take a break and get Amethyst her dinner. Also some catnip.

Back. So the dwarfs get back and of course Snow White appears to be dead, and the queen is all, "Mua HAHAHA!" all over the place, and she tries to crush the dwarfs under a boulder but instead falls to her death. Which is too bad, because then she never got to go back to her mirror and ask it who was the best looking and hear it say "Well, since technically your apple didn't kill her, it's Snow White..." Totally missed out on a really good straight-to-home-video sequel there, Disney. Anyway, the dwarfs are super sad, because they think Snow White is dead. But instead of burying her, they put her in a glass coffin. Months pass, and finally Prince Charming comes around and opens the glass coffin and kisses her and, hey presto! she wakes up. They ride to the castle and they live happily ever after. Sweet deal! Though, of course, there's the matter of all the heart boxes, black magic potions, spell books,and creepy talking mirror which have to be cleaned up. But that's a job for the scullery maid! Oh, wait...oh man...

All kidding aside, though, this is a triumph of animated film. Most of the panning camera shots (that's the lingo, I know the camera's not moving but the drawings are changing, but still, animated films use the same lingo as live-action films) were done using layered drawings, meaning that the relative positions of objects in the foreground move differently than from things in the background, which is pretty well advanced. There are animated films made recently without such attention to detail. And the backgrounds themselves are gorgeous watercolor paintings (a technique only used by Disney in Snow White, Dumbo and 2002's Lilo & Stitch, amazingly). And the film was a great success. The AFI has honored Snow White as one of its top 100 films (#49 on the 1998 list, #34 on the 2007 list) as well as ranking it first of all animated films. Its simple story and beautiful animation are its two strongest points, and in an animated film, what more do you need?


Aside from watching the film, before reviewing I also consulted the film's Wikipedia article. And we all know that they are never wrong.


Molly said...

I was waiting for your criticism of Snow White's voice, but you didn't do it. What's up with that?? In it's defense, it's a style that is very dated and possibly even a little old-fashioned for it's time... not without it's charm, I think. It supports her character's one-dimensionalism. (is that a word?)

Elliot said...

The voice, yes. Actually, Snow White was voiced by Adriana Caselotti, and it's kind of a sad story. Walt Disney blacklisted her after this film because he didn't want to spoil the illusion. She was 21 years old and got paid $970 and only worked in two more films in her entire career (a brief line in The Wizard of Oz and an uncredited singing appearance in It's a Wonderful Life). But, ugh, it's so grating...especially her whole "I'm wishing...for the one I find" warble. Goose bumps given, but no, not the good kind.

Anonymous said...

The early Disney animated films are most definitely have the creepiest and the saddest/pathetic characters of all Disney-time. Could you feel any worse for poor Dumbo?