Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

17 05 2010

Few people today fully appreciate the ground-breaking work apparent in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Now over 70 years old, this film is where animation grew up and matured into a complete art-form in its own right.

Never before had cel animation been used to tell a story in feature-length. Could animated characters display real emotional depth in a performance—enough to sustain an 80+ minute running time? Would audiences buy into the drama?

Three key scenes display the success of Disney’s gamble. The first involves the huntsman preparing to slay Snow White in the woods: the suspense builds as the spectator anticipates the blow, and yet as Snow White cowers, the huntsman finally relents and confesses. The second is where the witch offers Snow White the poisoned apple: again, the suspense builds, this time with the witch playing on Snow White’s innocence and naivety in order to trick her into taking a bite. Finally, the scene where the dwarves gather around Snow White’s bed to mourn her loss is heartfelt and genuine: the dwarves are real characters beyond their cartoonish, comedic function.

In all three scenes, characters other than Snow White carry the drama. Despite being the title character, Snow White is a foil, with her innocence and purity giving the surrounding characters something to react to. The Queen reacts to Snow White with contempt, the dwarves react to her with warmth and the woodland creatures react to her with curiosity and good cheer, but all find her archetypal nature captivating and powerful.

In truth, Snow White is nondescript. But how else can such otherworldly, abstract, ethereal innocence be portrayed? She is a blank canvas upon which the spectator can project. But around her, within the frame and beyond, the scenes bubble with life. Set against wonderful European backdrops with delicate lighting and careful use of colour, the screen comes alive: birds enter and leave, fauns watch from afar and even the trees themselves seem to express intent.

Indeed, one of the most powerful sequences occurs when Snow White flees from the huntsman. Tree branches claw and scratch, logs floating in water snap and menace and unseen foes (possibly the trees themselves) peer in the dark—this is the stuff of nightmares, and Disney is often unfairly judged as making his films too light and palatable when, in fact, he was not afraid to push the limits. Similarly, the scene where the Queen transforms into the witch is suitably impressionistic, drawing on horror traditions more than on simple animated shorts.

Of course, the film is not without its flaws. In particular, the middle section drags as the threat of the Queen is largely forgotten, though Disney was aware of this and cut two scenes related to the dwarves rather late in production. But the memorable images—of the dwarves returning home from the mine, the witch in the rainstorm atop the cliff ledge, Snow White in her glass coffin awaiting her Prince—are so enduring, so memorable that the film transcends its faults and reaches a state of near-Platonic perfection.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs remains the highest grossing animated feature in the U.S. (adjusted for inflation) and will continue to be a perennial favourite for years to come. Disney and his collaborators honed their skills further over the years, but it all started here, where all the rules were written. Every animated film since is in its debt.



2 responses

26 05 2010
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari « Dion at the Flicks

[…] But pre-dating both yet just as influential is Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920): everything from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to Edward Scissorhands (1990) can be in some way traced back to this important work, but so […]

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