December 2, 2022

Gabbing Geek

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AFI Countdown Challenge #49: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs

Disney's first animated feature film, a musical retelling of a Grimm Fairy Tale.

I’ve said many times that Star Wars is the first movie I remember seeing in a theater, but not the first time I went to the movies.  I know I was taken to see various Disney cartoons before then, and this was back in the day when there was no such thing as the home video market so Disney would re-release it’s animated films every so often.  That said, I don’t think I’ve seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that many times before.  Truth be told, you could say that about most of the Disney animated catalog, and I remembered visiting my parents a few years ago and seeing my niece watching Peter Pan, a movie I had not seen in years, and then the horror that was that movie’s depiction of Indians showed up.

However, as much as I don’t remember seeing the movies themselves, my parents did have a collection of old Disney records that retold the stories from many of those movies, complete with recordings of the songs in many cases.  I think they were my mother’s at one time, and my siblings and I played the hell out of them.  And yes, Snow White was one of them.  As a result, I think I know Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs better for its music and songs than I do for the actual film.

That’s hardly a bad thing.  Many of those songs are classics in their own rights.  I may have always preferred the old Looney Toons, but I will admit Disney in its best work could produce some fantastic songs.  Snow White has, of course, “I’m Wishing,” “Whistle While You Work,” “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and, of course, “Heigh Ho”.  As I was rewatching the film, the songs jumped out at me a bit more as being so familiar in many ways.    In fact, it seems for much of the film that Snow White can only speak in song, and that even when she isn’t singing, her lines rhyme as if they are about to set up a song.  They almost always do.

The songs are, of course, necessary, and not just because people like music.  Snow White is based, as the credits remind us, on a story by the Brothers Grimm.  I have a collection of original Grimm Fairy Tales from Barnes and Noble, and besides there being dozens of stories that Disney never adapted and are largely unknown to most people today, and while many of them are gruesome in the finer details, one thing that also jumps out is that most of them are really short.  Padding would be necessary to make the stories feature length, and cutting the more bloody scenes was necessary because Disney started this project in 1934 and standards didn’t change when it was finally released in 1937.

Nothing creepy about this…

The other thing to do would be to do something the Grimms never bothered with:  giving the Seven Dwarfs individual names and personalities.  For the most part, the film is successful with this.  Most of the Dwarfs have a tick, with Grumpy and Dopey having the most personality, one as the guy who doesn’t want a woman around at first but gradually changes his mind about Snow White, the other being a mute who is the comic relief even among the rest of the comic relief that is the Dwarfs.  As for the rest, Doc is the leader (most of the time) who gets his words mixed up, Sneezy and Sleepy fulfill their name requirements, and Bashful does a lot of blushing.  And then there’s Happy who…well, he smiles a lot.

The Dwarfs are the comedic elements to the film, and they perhaps get more personality than the taller characters who fit more character types than anything else, an odd thing to say since the Dwarfs themselves should probably fit that since they are characterized by their individual names.  Grumpy is easily the most dynamic character in the film.  Initially hostile to Snow White (who actually prays to God that Grumpy will like her), he seems to gradually lighten up and in the climactic moment when Snow White eats the poisoned apple, it is Grumpy who realizes what is happening and what the woodland creatures that Snow White calls friends are trying to tell the Dwarfs, and it is Grumpy who leads the other six back to rescue Snow White.

By the by, those “friends” ditch Snow White when she falls asleep in the Dwarfs’ home and they hear the Dwarfs come home.  Fine friends they are…

As it is, the Dwarfs are, in appearance, also the most “cartoon-y” of the characters in the film.  The woodland creatures aren’t as anthropomorphized as, say, Cinderella’s mice, such that even though they can do chores, they don’t talk, sing, or in many cases have opposable thumbs.  The Queen, Prince Charming, Snow White, and even the Huntsman are all rather impressively detailed.  That probably comes in part from the fact Disney recorded live actors to act as models for his animators.  Those actors received no credit in the film, but then neither did the actual voice actors for the characters.  Singer Adriana Caselotti was Snow White, and in her lifetime career…she was Snow White.  It seems Disney was reluctant to let her play other roles in order to maintain the illusion.  She had a single singing line in the Wizard of Oz and a stray appearance here and there as a result.

Still, watching it today, I found the animation to be a hell of a lot more impressive than a lot of Disney’s later films.  The animators packed a lot of work into simple scenes, with a lot of character movement going around the fore and background in many scenes, and everything was drawn by hand back then.  I remember learning Disney actually invented a few animation techniques to make this story work better, and it shows.  If Snow White looks the most like a real person of all the various Disney Princesses, then the care that went into doing their first animated feature film right must be the reason.  Sure, many of Disney’s animated films would go on to become classics in their own right, but everyone has to start somewhere.

And on a final note, I believe I have also read that Snow White is, as far as Disney is concerned, officially 14 years old.  Think about that while Prince Charming carries her off…

NEXT UP:  We’re skipping up to 1975 and the film that changed the rules for the summer blockbuster by being, well, the first summer blockbuster and the film that really made Steven Spielberg’s career take off:  Jaws.

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