Disney’s First Five #1: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

My love for all things Disney is no big secret. Over this last weekend my wife has indulged me tremendously as I sat on the edge of my seat refreshing Twitter repeatedly so that I could get the latest updates from the D23 Expo (official Disney fan club convention) as Disney announced the newest animated and live action movies, as well as a plethora of Disney Parks news (which I am still hyperventilating about). Disney is just one of those things for me that transcends my cinephilia.

And so inspired by my D23 euphoria I decided that it was high time that I returned to the some of the cornerstones of my childhood and revisit the great beginnings of the house that Walt built. And what a beginning it was. I doubt any studio can claim a stronger opening line-up than Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. And seeing as Snow White started it all and it is turns an astonishing 80 years old this year, I figured what better place to start than that?

I have had a topsy-turvy relationship with Snow White. I’m pretty sure as a child there was a period of 3 months where I played at least a part of Snow White every day on my VHS player, such was my love for Snow White. But then as I grew older and college happened, the problematic aspects of Snow White’s lack of agency and her template for domesticity for young girls hampered my ability to enjoy it as much as I had as a child. For a good long while I just didn’t watch Snow White figuring I had many other Disney movies I could watch anyway. So this represents really the first time I have revisited this movie ever since I’ve really started getting into movies.

And what an absolute delight it was to see this again. Gladly, watching this movie evoked more of my childhood than my gender studies class because at the end of the day, problematic gender politics or not, this movie is pure genius. It absolutely blew me away just how great the animation is. I always knew the film was old, but I was genuinely shocked when I realized that this was completed in 1938 which was before we had penicillin, color TVs, or the atomic bomb. The fact that it still manages to look timeless today is an absolute testament to the greatness of these animators. It is even more astounding when you realize that only ten years passed between Steamboat Willie (1928) and the completion of Snow White. I doubt that there has been a bigger leap in artistic development than that in history.


© 1937 Disney.

But I think that what is most astounding is that there wasn’t any major technological advancements between Steamboat Willie and Snow White to account for the leap. Unlike so many CGI-filled affairs in which whatever one can envision can be visualized, the animators were working with severe limitations. Snow White is simply the byproduct of everyone involved in the film pushing their art to the limit.  And by squeezing every ounce of potential out of the art form, they produced a masterpiece.

The biggest limitation of course was trying to make a feature length animated film in an age when the longest animated film rarely went over 8 minutes. Every additional minute required much more work and people-power to make happen. The narrative structure of Snow White would have to be invented on the fly as there had never been anything animated ever approaching that length. Though it is a moot point now, it was an open question if animated film could sustain itself artistically and creatively over a feature movie length.

Luckily Walt and the animators did not look at these daunting challenges as problems and instead saw the opportunity in animating Snow White. In particular they figured out that a literal retelling of Snow White would simply be prohibitive in terms of its length  and so instead decided that as much as possible the story would have to be told visually. And it is this decision that produced what I think it one of the most efficient movies in history.


© 1937 Disney.
© 1937 Disney.

Just look at the two shots above coming at the beginning of the movie. To the first image we have the evil queen, shrouded in shadow, staring ominously from above. Though beautiful we see she is alone and behind windows that are like bars, isolated by her narcissism and jealousy. And the object of her ire is down below, the bedraggled and obviously mistreated Snow White, who though stuck doing menial work is seen here being gentle, kind, and, as evidenced by a flurry of doves around her, beloved by all. In just those two shots Walt manages to tell us everything we need to know about the protagonist, the antagonist and the nature of the conflict of this story.

Apart from the obvious charm and magic of Walt’s touch, it is this efficiency of storytelling that is the calling card of this movie. The Evil Queen is given what has to be less than 15 of screen time and yet the animators are able to create a villain that is menacing, terrifying, and iconic (something most modern filmmakers can’t seem to be able to do even when given completely bloated runtimes). They achieve this strictly by providing a stark contrast between the Evil Queen’s scenes and the rest of the movie. While Snow White is almost always surrounded by people and creatures with whom she can show her gentleness and kindness to in peaceful pastoral settings, the Evil Queen is often shot alone, terrifying all those in her presence. Her scenes borrow more from the German Expressionism of films like Nosferatu and Dr. Caligari than anything else in the movie. Simply by the visuals alone, we are able to know whose side to be on.

© 1937 Disney

The efficiency of storytelling continues with the genius of how they animated Snow White herself. Part of what always bothered me about Snow White as a princess was how overtly effeminate she was and how she kept overacting. But then I realized that the physicality of her performance is not merely a sign of regressive gender roles, but is rather an intentional way for the animators to work with the limitations of animation to convey the maximum amount of meaning and emotion in the most efficient way. Since Snow White is the most realistic person being animated in the movie, the animators could not use their usual bag of tricks to convey meaning and emotion because they could not rely on exaggerated facial features or even cartoon physics. And so brilliantly, they decided to animate Snow White as if she were a silent film star.By choosing to externalize her inner motives as a character through her physicality, Walt once again figured out a way to layer richness and depth into the story without having to extend the runtime. This physicality is so thorough that it renders almost all her actual dialogue redundant.

One more example of the efficiency of storytelling here and then I’ll move on. The seven dwarfs in this movie only really get the middle 40 minutes in order to (a) establish each of themselves as characters and (b) build up enough of a friendship with Snow White so that by the end they are believably ready to fight in defence of her. This is not a lot of time at all, and many lesser movies have completely botched creating believable characters and friendships with more time. But in Snow White not a single moment of the dwarfs appearance onscreen is wasted. The animators focus every action of the dwarfs to those two goals that I mention above, using everything from their individual physicality all the way down to their shadows to convey personality. Take a look at this iconic scene:

© 1937 Disney.

All the animators have to work with here are noses and eyes but they still manage to evoke the very essence of all of their characters. This attention to detail goes such a long way in giving depth to the story in as efficient a way as possible.

Now of course when I say the movie is efficient, I do not at all mean that it is barebones. For while the efficiency of the animation goes a long way in building believable characters and motivations, it is the sheer abandon with which the animators try to fill the screen that moves it to a transcendent level. It is absolutely audacious that in a time when every second of animated film required hours and hours of work that Snow White contains as many fantastic visual gags as it does.

It is equally audacious that Walt and his animators found time to animate more than a half-dozen woodland creatures with multiple numbers of each kind just for the sheer joy of it. But it is this scene and scenes like this that help infuse the movie with most of the warm humour that helps balance out the more serious (and scary) aspects of the movie. And by striking this balance between humour and pathos, Walt found the key to how animation could sustain itself to feature-film length.

And in talking about all this I still haven’t talked about the music, which again does so much to transport us into this fairyland. The score itself is simply filled with lush earworms but the songs themselves are truly what helps make this movie soar. An over-analysis of the film can allow us to make fun of the fact that Snow White falls in love with the prince on the basis of one song. But in real time, we believe that silliness plausible simply on the strength of that song. It is that good.

All this to say that by the time we get to the final scene, the movie has earned it’s emotional payoff. We, like the dwarfs, are heartbroken at Snow White’s apparent demise. We are relieved that the Evil Queen is no more, even if it does nothing for our grief. And we believe that the tears the dwarfs shed are real. By packing every frame with important narrative details, balancing humour and pathos, and making the film gorgeous to look at and listen to, Walt and Co. pulled off a film that was every bit as effective and powerful as any of its  live-action counterparts.

Critics were right in the years of production to have called this project Walt’s folly. By all conventional wisdom the whole thing should’ve been a crazy pipedream, a case of Icarus flying too close to the sun. And yet it is is precisely because Walt pushed the art-form to its absolute limit that the movie works as well as it did. And 80 years later we still haven’t stopped talking about just how miraculously good this thing is. The “prince ex machina” ending feels abrupt and a little contrived, and the gender issues in this movie still remain at best slightly problematic. But the fact is that right out of the gate Walt created a masterpiece. And cinema is all the better for it.

Rating: ★★★★½ 



7 thoughts on “Disney’s First Five #1: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

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