This is the next entry in my ongoing 100 Essential Films series. If you missed the first one, you can find the explanation for what I’m doing here. Film number six is the first feature-length animated film ever produced: Walt Disney’s (with the help of dozens of artists) Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I had the experience that probably most people would have upon sitting down to watch it: I know the basic story, the songs, and the characters (including all of the dwarfs), but I don’t know that I had ever actually watched the whole thing from beginning to end, aside from maybe when I was three years old. The movie is just so ingrained in our cultural memory, it’s easy to assume you’ve actually seen it, even if you haven’t. Just like the other films in the series, I borrowed a Blu-ray through intralibrary loan. It was the 2016 Disney Blu-ray release, and the film looks fantastic.
Much like King Kong, an earlier entry in my 100 essential films series, the first ever feature-length animated motion picture, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, stands out because it is a towering technical achievement. In the early 1930s, visionary Walt Disney knew that animation was both popular and sophisticated enough to sustain more than the five to 10-minute short films it had been relegated to up until that point. He sunk every last penny he had, and more, into the bet that people could be dazzled and emotionally invested in a cartoon. As we all know 80+ years later, it was a bet that he won.
Not everyone believed in Disney. The most outlandish predictions about people watching a feature-length – typically thought of as anything over about an hour and 20 minutes – animated movie was that audiences would go mad from staring at a cartoon for so long. Naysayers speculated that people would run from the theater when they couldn’t take it anymore. Both critics and audiences alike had the exact opposite reaction to Snow White. They couldn’t get enough, and a phenomenon was born.
The thing that instantly stands out upon viewing the film today is just how well this “cartoon” holds up. In the world of revolutionary computer animation – exemplified by something like Toy Story 4, another Disney property – you might expect the almost century old hand-drawn cel animation to look quaint. Nothing could be further from the truth. The artistry in Snow White is vibrant, vital, and breath-takingly gorgeous. Walt Disney insisted that his animation team create a never-before-seen realism when it came to motion and the design of characters like Snow White, the Huntsman, and the evil Queen Grimhilde.
His team, led by supervising director David Hand, surpassed his expectations. They used innovative techniques like filming actors performing motions similar to the characters in the movie, so they would have real-world reference for their drawings. The effect is dazzling. The movement of the characters looks so realistic, it’s almost like they used the method of rotoscoping. That’s where animators actually trace over film cels of live-action to replicate motion exactly.
There is also enough whimsy in the form of the seven dwarf characters to make the picture a delight. You can probably name every one of them off the top of your head: Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey. The animators, in collaboration with the voice actors, give each one a distinct personality and memorable character traits. Each of their idiosyncrasies brought a smile to my face whenever the dwarfs appeared on the screen.
Disney wanted something elemental for his first feature-length film. That’s why he chose the classic Grimm’s fairy tale. He wanted the story to be simple and timeless. Unfortunately, Snow White is a little too much of the former, and too little of the latter.
While the film is still engaging and a delight to watch, the story is a little thin. Most of the picture’s runtime is padded out with numerous songs. It helps that quite a few of them are memorable tunes that have become absolute classics: Whistle While You Work, Heigh-Ho, and Some Day My Prince Will Come remain fixed in the pop culture’s imagination.
As far as how our culture has changed since Snow White’s release, the Disney company has struggled to keep classic Disney princesses like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty relevant. It’s true, the character Snow White has little agency. She basically waits around, cleaning the dwarfs’ house and taking care of them while the story resolves around her. The film can still be a meaningful part of any child’s introduction to film history, though, as long as parents take the time to talk about its shortcomings. In fact, the movie can act as a perfect catalyst for conversations about how girls and women are valued (or how they should be) in our society.
Snow White has stood the test of time so far, and there are plenty of reasons to think it will continue to do so. The catchy, timeless songs are one. Something as ordinary as water is another. In one scene, when Snow White is singing her hopes into a wishing well, we see her face reflected in the well water below. The photorealism of the shimmering and sparkling water is pure magic.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs remains a towering achievement in animation history. It’s an important work of art that should continue to be celebrated. The brilliant colors of the artists’ work is captured splendidly with the Technicolor process. In fact, an expert on this period in film history speculates during a documentary that the success of Snow White is what convinced the studio heads at MGM to make the next movie in the 100 essential films series as a color picture…