“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is a miracle of color, sound and charm. As one of the most influential and popular films of all time, Walt Disney’s pioneering animated feature set insurmountable standards that had never been seen before and have arguably still not been matched by any cartoon ever made.
It’s story is well known and well parodied. In fact, three Snow White films are now officially in production for 2012. Millions of parents now use it as an introductory film for their children, it being one of the few populist old Hollywood masterpieces suitable for children this side of “The Wizard of Oz.” So parents have grown accustomed to it, and children have learned to love it, but maybe to never fully appreciate it.
But audiences in 1937 surely did. “Snow White” won an honorary Oscar that year for being “recognized as a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field.”
When the Academy says “a significant screen innovation,” they’re referring to a film that is alive with luscious color and detail, only to be emulated by “The Wizard of Oz” two years later. So much of Disney’s film moves with the grace and beauty of the main figures. Even from the opening frames as we slowly zoom in on The Queen’s ominous castle, watch the clouds moving in the distance and appreciate how much effort went into creating just those few seconds of film. Animals prance independent of one another as Snow White scampers through the forest and through the dwarfs’ house, each of them a unique and distinguishable hue. Or why is the scene with the hunter ready to kill Snow White so haunting? It’s because his eyes burn green and we notice without even thinking. And how effective are the shadows as the dwarfs inspect their house or chase the queen up the mountain? These shadows become entities of their own.
Perhaps the first great scene of the movie is the “Whistle While You Work” montage. Very rarely will we see just one critter on screen at a time, and if we do, like the helpless turtle, it will serve as a delightful comic foil. Instead throughout this segment, turtles are soaking sweaters as racoons scurry and birds wring the clothes dry. Disney leaves no stone unturned.
The Academy is also referring to “Snow White’s” wonderful use of sound. Disney was a pioneer in “talkies” and sound pictures as far back as “Steamboat Willie.” That film didn’t just introduce the most iconic pop culture figure of all time; it told a story and visual gags through music in a way no film had before. Sound was a novelty until Disney very quickly showed what could be done with it. When “Snow White” was made, sound had been around for nearly a decade. One would think all the stops had been pulled, but then no one expected the night of music between Snow White and the dwarfs. Watch the miniscule details as Doc plucks away on a guitar, as Happy plays the accordion and as Grumpy plays an elaborate organ. Every single object makes a distinct noise. The objects contort and come to life in perfect harmony with the delicate score. This scene is allowed to continue for so long not just because it is so whimsical but because it is millions of tiny puzzle pieces put to good work.
The Academy also claims the film “pioneered a great new entertainment field.” Well what do they mean by that? Of course animation existed before “Snow White” did, as did color animation or sound animation. No, “Snow White” was the first feature length animated movie, and people gave the project so little credit that if it was anything less than a masterpiece we may not have as many 90 minute long animated kids movies as we have today.
“Snow White” was tagged “Disney’s Folly” by the film world. Windsor McKay had drawn over 10,000 frames to make “Gertie the Dinosaur,” and that lasted no more than five minutes. Disney wanted 80. The time, patience and money to accomplish such a task seemed impossible to everyone, and if the movie tanked it likely would’ve corrupted the studio.
But “Snow White” was one of the first to introduce what is today referred to as cel-animation. Rather than redraw every bit of an entire frame and end up with imperfections from one frame to the next, Disney invented a procedure in which the cel of a character or moving object is placed in front of a static background. Suddenly the work to animate a scene is cut in half now that cels could be moved freely without the necessity to redraw everything.
Yet one would think a new technology that would later be put to common practice by Warner Bros. and even today would be rudimentary in its first use. “Snow White” seems leaps and bounds ahead of the game. In a way, Disney predated 3-D technology by decades. Watch the scene where the dwarfs are coming back from work and singing “Hi-Ho,” what will now be my mantra on my very long commute. The scene actually has a sense of spatial depth, with the dwarfs briefly disappearing behind rocks and trees in the foreground as the camera slowly pans across the landscape. The last moment sees Dopey behind a shimmering waterfall that is likewise meticulously hand drawn. Or as it rains before the film’s final battle with the Queen, rocks that are part of the physical background acquire a cel texture as they drip with water and soot. I’m also amazed by the fluid motion at which the witch’s brew is drawn to the apple and drips realistically from its skin.
Realism was the last factor “Snow White” pioneered. Yes, the dwarfs and animals and other characters are cartoonish, but they have life like qualities and can’t extend themselves beyond what is capable of the film universe’s rules. Going back to “Steamboat Willie,” Mickey Mouse was a gangly, stringy, skinny creature with appendages that stretched, bent and sprung into place like elastic. This “rubber hose” animation style was common in all studio shorts, and here we’re given the full bodied Snow White or the accurately proportioned deer. Disney wasn’t just making an animated movie with “Snow White.” He was reconstructing a slice of life.
As for “charming millions,” yes that’s accurate as well. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was the highest grossing film in history, only to be surpassed by “Gone With the Wind” two years later. The legendary Russian director Sergei Eisenstein called it the best film ever made. Disney’s gift was a radicalized art form that had the depth, complexity and beauty of a major studio picture, if not more. And although Walt Disney Studios did not then achieve “major studio” status, it paved the way for them to make “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia” and inspire many more studios to do the same.
On the film’s last shot, David Bordwell wrote a post called “Molly Wanted More,” about how a three year old girl cried out she wanted more of the story as the characters walk off into the distance and the camera pulls away to reveal the horizon. This is not some new convention that Disney conceived. The fact that a child could understand the cinematic language without ever having seen the movie is a testament to how “Snow White” is not just any old cartoon. This is filmmaking at its finest.