Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opens with this note of thanks from Walt Disney: “My sincere appreciation to the members of my staff whose loyalty and creative endeavour made possible this production.” It is right that he should thank the crew, for not only is it the first film in Disney’s impressive canon of fifty two films, it is also the first feature length animated film ever made. Disney had made several shorts before, yet this was a wholly new and ambitious prospect, to the extent that many people tried to talk Walt out of doing it. But Walt Disney was a pioneer and an innovator, and insisted that the film get made. So his mark of appreciation in the opening credits feels like a sigh of relief, a way of Walt patting everyone on the back and saying “We did it!” And the note still rings true today as, 76 years later, it is just as enchanting and as magical as it surely would have been to wide eyed audiences in 1937. Walt and his team did not just make the first animated feature film, but they made one of the best.
It’s the quintessential fairy tale, following the well trodden arc from rags to riches, and in the process thwarting a villain’s plan. In fact, it’s such a familiar story, containing so many of the tropes we have come to associate with Disney’s film making, that we may actually be more familiar with the countless pastiches and mockeries that have followed in its footsteps. As such, many of the elements in it seem dated and cloying when seen today. For instance Snow White’s Franciscan ability to communicate with the animals comes across as faintly ridiculous, highlighting the film’s central problem of a Princess who is too squeaky clean and perfect to really grab our attention. She communes with nature and sings in a pitch several octaves too high, whilst generally being gentle and kind and winning over the hearts of everyone she meets. Her desire to simply cook and clean epitomises the Disney Princess figure that people love to criticise, and in that sense, Snow White is unashamedly of its era.
When viewing Disney’s first animation today, however, it is essential to look past the overly wholesome surface to appreciate the quality of the film beneath it. Yes, this is a story that we know so well, and does everything we expect from a Princess film, complete with a clean cut Prince riding off into the sunset with the heroine, but to pick such clichés apart undermines the innocence and the artistry of the story being told. The simplicity of the fairy tale structure and characters helps create the fantastical, other worldly atmosphere of the film, meaning that Snow White is one of the purest pieces of escapism, aimed at capturing the imagination of children but still deeply affecting for adults that watch it, too. It’s undeniably old fashioned now, but one suspects that this style of story was old fashioned even in 1937, and that’s part of the appeal. The techniques developed to make such a film were, at the time, cutting edge, but they were being used to tell a tale as old as time – something seen in the use of CG in Beauty and the Beast, and more recently in Brave. It’s fantasy, and one that we love to get lost in.
This old fashioned form of storytelling is still appealing to us today largely because of the film makers’ investment in character. Whilst Snow White herself is rather perfunctory, the seven dwarves are a lively irrepressible group that are always a joy to watch. It may seem simplistic to name them all after personality traits – and grossly unfair to poor Grumpy and Dopey – but it’s a brilliant way of quickly establishing a dynamic between the seven of them. The key to successful character animation is personality, and with these easily identifiable markers the animators are able to imbue each one of them with personalities that make them winning company to be with. They are unforgettable creations, their sagging and squashy faces so naturally expressive as to separate them beyond their names. There is a dance sequence around the middle of the film that doesn’t contribute to the plot in any way, it’s just an exuberant, witty moment of revelling in the different characters, and in the potential of animation. It’s a lively scene that shows the production team’s confidence in what they were creating: this shows none of the hesitance you might expect from the first animated film ever, and the enjoyment evident in making the film continues to add to the appeal of Snow White.
The other character crucial to the success of Snow White is the villain. Whilst not quite as strong as the dwarfs, the Queen is nevertheless a truly memorable creation, her transformation into the old hag that gives Snow the apple is terrifying. She’s wonderfully OTT, living in a rat infested castle which she leaves by boat along the dark waters of a Stygian river. This wicked witch, combined with the scary sequence in the woods when Snow White is fleeing, means that this is not a film for faint hearted children – something which is actually a hallmark of Disney; the studio rarely shies away from scaring or even traumatising its young audience. I’m a little bit nervous about revisiting Pinocchio.
Perhaps what is most impressive about Snow White is the sheer quality of the animation on display here. There is no sense of cutting corners, even in such an ambitious project as this, and every scene is beautifully detailed, the pastel colours of the landscapes giving the film an ethereal feel. What most stands out is the way so many of the shots are framed. It’s almost as if the team of directors knew that they were creating something iconic, using light to draw attention to the key details within the frame, be it a coffin, a broom or an apple. They perfected the aesthetic of a fairy tale before the sub genre had even taken off in cinema, the haze of hand drawn animation and the muted colours all adding to the fantastical atmosphere. It so often looks like a painting that the look of it remains one of the most arresting aspects of the film today.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a wonderful start to the Disney Canon. Whilst it could easily have been reduced to a historical curiosity, the warmth and invention of the characters, the humour and the playfulness on display and the stunning animation mean that this is a film that still captivates in a way that only Disney can. Yet one nagging problem about this film still remains. Shouldn’t it be Seven Dwarves not Seven Dwarfs?