I know, I know.
“What’s the point of this Mouse?” I hear you cry. Your feelings about this are probably the same as mine towards the Beauty and the Beast reboot; All questions of quality aside, who asked for this and why does it need to exist? Why do another review of Snow White when there are so many fantastic/terrible movies I haven’t had a chance to savour/suffer for your amusement/amusement? Well, a couple of reasons. Firstly, a confession.
When I initially reviewed Snow White back in 2012, I hadn’t seen it in literally years and I based my review on memories as faded and unreliable as an old VHS tape. I’m sorry, I was young, I was reckless. Mea Culpa. Second, oh my God, FUCK 2012 Mouse.
That guy was an asshole. So I thought that the fifth anniversary of the blog was a good opportunity to go back and revisit my first review and show that hack who’s boss. And lastly, because when I finally got Snow White on DVD I noticed something really enticing.
Yeah. You all thought that when I talked about Walt Disney being an immortal warlock it was just a bit. So how come there’s a DVD commentary by him when he SUPPOSEDLY DIED BEFORE DVDS WERE INVENTED?! HMM? HMMMMMMM??
Alright let’s do this. Snow White versus Mouse 2. Place your bets.
Snow White is not actually the first feature length animation (depending on how you count, it might actually be the seventh) but it might as well be considering it’s impact on the medium. Pick any random scene in this movie and there’s a good chance that there’s something being done there that had never been done before, that pushed the boundaries of what was considered possible with animation. Let’s take the very first scene.
The Queen approaches the magic mirror and passive aggressively asks it to tell her that she pretty. Instead, the mirror tells the Queen that she’s hot and all but she’s got nothing on her 14 year old step-daughter.
So the mirror was animated by Wolfgang Reitherman, who, despite his name, was not an infamous German Fighter Pilot who terrorised the skies of Europe during the Great War but one of the best animators to ever work in the Disney studio (he would later direct Sleeping Beauty, the entire Scratchy era and The Rescuers). The mirror presented a unique challenge and here’s why; in most facial animation you only bother animating the eyelids and the mouth, the rest of the face is rigid and unmoving. The rest of the work of conveying a character’s emotional state is done through body language.
So because the mirror is literally just a face Reitherman had to animate that entire face, resulting in incredibly smooth, beautifully realistic facial animation. Everytime the mirror opens his mouth the shape of his entire face changes. Reitherman was actually quite annoyed when the smoke effects were added later, as they partially obscured his amazing work.
We now see Snow White herself, singing I’m Wishing. My feelings on Snow have mellowed ever so slightly since my last review, mostly because I don’t think I realised just how young she’s supposed to be. That voice tho’. Oy. Caselotti’s performance is…
She is animated beautifully though. Using a combination of rotoscoping and model referencing the Disney animators set a new standard for realistic human movement in animation and they only made it look easy. To be honest, all the main realistic human characters created massive headaches for the studio, especially the Prince. In fact, that’s the reason he’s barely even in the damn thing, he was just too much effort to animate.
Obviously, that wasn’t an option with Snow White herself and the model had a tendency to misbehave and go off model. Her eyes, for instance, tended to wander like Bill Clinton’s at a beauty pageant and the animators had the devil’s own time trying to keep the size of her ribbon consistent from scene to scene. They had to find creative ways around this. For instance, in the scene where Snow White sings Someday My Prince Will Come to the dwarves, she is hardly seen, with the camera instead focusing on each of the dwarves in turn to show their reactions to the song. That’s good story-telling, but it was dictated by the fact that the dwarves were so much easier to animate.
A lot of this information, incidentally, comes from the DVD commentary I mentioned earlier, composed of old archive recordings of Walt Disney discussing the film. If you get a chance I strongly recommend giving it a listen if you have any interest in animation history. Walt is fascinatingly candid and often quite strikingly harsh about the film. He’s dismissive of the quality of the animation at times, and admits to resenting the film for overshadowing the much better films that came later.
The Queen orders the Huntsman to take Snow White out into the forest and cut out her heart.
To give you an example of just how completely Snow White changed the landscape consider this: The scene where the Huntsman almost kills Snow White was one of the most agonised over scenes in the movie. Why? Because the animators were worried that the audience simply wouldn’t care about the fate of a cartoon character. It seems ridiculous now, after generations have been traumatised by the deaths of too many animated characters to mention, from Bambi’s Mother to Mufasa to Ellie from Up. But it could not be taken for granted that audiences would actually form an emotional bond with Snow White and that they could engage with the animation on anything but the most surface level. So the scene was revised, again and again and again. Finally, when one animator was describing how the Huntsman would lunge towards Snow White with the knife one of the younger animators blurted out, “What if she gets hurt?!”. They then realised that they had started thinking of her as a person, not as a collection of drawings, and knew they were on the right track.
So the Hunstman can’t bring himself to kill Snow White and tells her to am-scray and scray she does am, running into the forest which her panicked mind turns into a nightmare world of leering eyes and grabbing hands.
We now enter probably my least favourite stretch of the movie, where Snow White meets the Usual Disney Forest Detritus who take her to the Dwarves cottage and help her cut through the layer of solid filth that has encrusted itself over every surface. This is where the movie feels least like a film and most like the extended Silly Symphony it was always in danger of turning into. The little bits of business the animals are given are all charming enough, and while I’ve never been in love with Whistle While You Work, it’s one of the unassailable classics of the Disney songbook so who the damn cares if I like it or not? But it feels unmistakably like padding to me, despite this movie’s reputation for pared-to-the-bone narrative efficiency. And it’s true, Walt was absolutely ruthless in cutting scenes and sequences (some which had been already fully animated which was devastating to the animators who had put months of labour into them). But this is, after all, a fairy tale originally meant to be told before bed time in around ten minutes. To get it to feature length there was going to have to be some padding here and there. The strongest elements of the movie, character-wise, are of course the dwarfs and the Queen/Witch so any stretch of the movie where they are not onscreen is going to suffer in comparison.
Speaking of the dwarves, we cut to their jewel mine where they are busy digging too greedily and too deep.
Let’s be honest, there’s a reason this movie has stood the test of time outside of its historical significance and the dwarfs are it. Oh, and also the songs. And the animation. And the Queen, fine, but the dwarfs are definitely the biggest of all the really big reasons why this movie is so beloved. The dwarfs were principally animated by the odd couple of Vladimir Tytla, a classically trained Ukrainian maestro and Fred Moore, an American with next to no training who compensated by being one of the most naturally talented animators in the history of the medium. That was the plan, anyway. In practice, because the dwarfs really are the stars of the show and Moore and Tytla were only human…
…some of the dwarfs’ scenes had to be done by other animators. This apparently led to some problems with continuity and keeping the models, mannerisms and characters of the dwarfs consistent but I will throw my hands up and admit that personally I can’t see it.
The movie really is a great example of extremely talented people facing setbacks and turning those setbacks into assets. For instance, the whole business of Dopey being mute works so well that it feels like it had to be planned, right? Nope. They simply weren’t able to find a voice actor who fit the part so they decided not to have him speak at all. And it worked! So well, in fact, that for a brief period Dopey was probably the most beloved of all Disney characters. The design is great too, the kind of instantly iconic character that only a fool would try to tamper with.
I made a joke back in the Cinderella review that if Snow White had been released today with the same success it would have already been spun off into endless sequels and TV series. What I should have known is that Hollywood never changes, because it turns out Walt actually was under enormous pressure to cash in on the movie’s success with a sequel, or at least another project featuring the Dwarfs. But Walt had learned of the dangers of rehashing past work following the monumental success of The Three Little Pigs. It’s weird to think of it now, but between Steam Boat Willie and Snow White Disney had another massive, game-changing, cultural touchstone-level success in animation (even though Pigs hasn’t had nearly the kind of staying power as the other two). Bowing to pressure, Disney dutifully cranked out a few sequel shorts featuring the pigs which were released to little fanfare and faded into obscurity. From that experience Disney coined his famous mantra:
Disney always strived to avoid repeating what he had already done. It’s why, despite coming close to bankruptcy so many times, it wasn’t until 1950 that he finally released another movie in the mold of Snow White. It’s also why he, by his own admission, came to hate Snow White, as the early crowning achievement he could never seem to top. Financially, at least. And it must have been especially galling when the failure of Pinocchio (the finest film released by Disney during Walt’s lifetime if you trust your faithful rodent) was blamed by critics on being too dissimilar to Snow White.
The dwarfs find Snow White chillin’ in their dwarfery and when they hear her story they agree to hide her from the Queen, who they know is an evil witch. Which raises some interesting questions as to how they…
Back at the palace, the Queen learns from the Paedo-Mirror that the heart the Huntsman gave her is actually the heart of a pig. Which causes the Queen to exclain “The blundering fool!” which kinda suggests she thinks that the Huntsman did this by accident. Like, he honestly tried to get Snow White’s heart but uh oh spaghetti oh he got a pig’s heart instead!
It’s one thing to give one of the all-time great villain performances, and another to give two and in the same movie, besides. Lucille LaVerne voices both the Queen and her aged alter-ego and they’re both fantastic, iconic and terrifying in very different ways. The Queen is a study in icy restraint, rarely raising her voice above a harsh whisper. What makes her stand out from her obvious descendants like Lady Tremaine and Maleficent is that there’s very little joy in what she does. Maleficent is evil for the sheer love of the craft, but Grimhilde is driven more by black, implacable rage. It’s only when she drinks the potion and transforms into the Witch that she allows herself to cut loose and it’s a darkly delicious delight. I used to think it was weird when I was a kid to think that a character so consumed by vanity would voluntarily transform herself into an old crone but now the scene strikes me as weirdly, darkly liberating. The Queen doesn’t have to worry about her appearance anymore and she’s free to laugh and gurn and punk her crow and generally let her hair down.
The transformation scene is a great example of the difference between a cartoon and an animated film. The Disney studio during the production of Snow White was like something between an artist’s commune and a university, with art courses and regular screenings of all the latest films to give the artists a greater understanding of film language. This included a hefty diet of horror films from that genre’s first golden age and in the transformation scene and indeed all the scenes set in the Queen’s dungeon you can see the influence of horror maestros like Whale and Murnau. In fact, this scene worked so well as horror that some cinemas in Britain refused to allow children to see the film.
Back at the dwarfs house, the dwarfs sing Snow White The Silly Song, in a sequence that probably holds the record for the most swiped animation in the whole canon as the entire dance was pretty much recycled in its entirety in Robin Hood along with some pieces from Jungle Book and Aristocats and god damn but that was a cheap ass movie. Half of the animation was robbed.
The dwarfs heigh ho off to work the next day and warn Snow White not to let anyone into the house. But wouldn’t you know it, as she’s making a pie for Grumpy who’s playing hard to get, the little tease, Snow White meets the Witch.
The Witch gives Snow White a poisoned apple (he said, recounting one of the most well known stories in Western literature) and Snow White collapses to the floor, as dead as College Humour. The woodland critters run and get the dwarfs and they return too late to save Snow White but not too late for VENGENCE! They chase the witch up a mountain where she dies through a combination of lightning, large rocks, gravity and being eaten by vultures. It is, no question, one of the more metal deaths in the canon.
The scene where the Dwarfs hold vigil around Snow White’s body presented yet another challenge to the animators. The dwarfs had to be still and unmoving, because they were in mourning, but still required some kind of motion to stop them going flat and becoming still images. Hence the constant stream of tears running down their faces.
The dwarfs can’t bear to bury Snow White so they put her in a glass coffin so that they can watch as nature does its thing. And the Prince arrives because, if there’s a body decaying in full view, why would you not want to come and put your lips on that?
So, have you heard of the “Prince Charming is Death” theory? It was first posited on Reddit that the Prince, the guy on the pale horse who takes Snow White away after she’s eaten the poison apple is actually the Grim Reaper. Ludicrous, of course. At the end the Prince isn’t taking her to heaven he’s taking her home. To his…golden castle. Floating in…the…clouds…
Snow White will never be my favourite Disney movie, or even close. But the last five years have made me appreciate how much of an unpayable debt both I and the medium of animation owe this movie. It was, and remains, a work of true genius and a landmark not merely in animation, or film, but in human culture. Definitely one of the four or five most influential films of all time, and while it might show it’s age here and there, it has held up stunningly well. I began this blog to find the best Disney movie to show my daughter first, and while Snow White mightn’t be her favourite she absolutely loves it. And that’s incredible, isn’t it? I certainly can’t think of another film from 1937 that my daughter would happily sit through from beginning to end.
Know what’s even more incredible? Decades from now, her children will probably do the same.
Perfect? No. Revolutionary? All the hells yes.
Snow White is still the weakest element in her own movie, but I’ve thawed on her ever so slightly over the years.
The Villain: 17/20
Fifteen out of twenty in the original review, was I high? I must have been high.
Supporting Characters: 18/10
FINAL SCORE: 76%
NEXT UPDATE: 28 September 2017
NEXT TIME: I’ll be reviewing The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, an animé that I know absolutely nothing about. Like, zero. Bupkiss. No idea what I’m in for. All I know is that there’s a teenage schoolgirl on the cover and that it’s Japanese.