Journeys in the Disney Vault kicks off with the film that started it all: the 1937 classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White, as it will be referred to from here on out, was a seminal film not just in the animation world but in film in general. It was the first, full-length, narrative animated film that proved that animation wasn’t simply “cartoons” to be played before the main event. The movie is a beautiful piece of animation with a sweet story (although I will bitch about Snow White for sure). As Peter Pan once said “Here we goooo!”
Snow White (voiced by Adriana Caselotti) is a princess hated by her evil stepmother The Queen (voiced by Lucille La Verne). When the Queen sends Snow White out to be killed she escapes and seeks shelter with seven dwarfs that live in a cottage. Unfortunately, the Queen is still intent on being “the fairest in the land” and decides to find Snow White and kill her herself.
Let me preface this whole feature by saying I LOVE Disney. I visit Disneyland any time we go on vacation (to the chagrin of my family), I see all the movies, and my room is filled with any type of Disney merchandise one can find. That is not to say that I can’t be irked over the faults with the movies themselves so if I make mention of the views on women, minorities, etc, it is meant to give a well-rounded view of the film. It does not mean I love the movies any less (unless I don’t like them as films). With that….
The film opens with the storybook intro that I feel doesn’t get enough love anymore. Sure Enchanted paid tribute to it but it’s such an iconic image for these fairy tale stories. I haven’t seen Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty in a while so I’m not sure if they too open with books, I believe so. I’m going to keep track of these opening credits because they’ve all but vanished with more recent Disney films. They’re so beautiful and set the tone for the entire feature. I know that moving the credits to the end allows audiences to just leave but these credits really made you appreciate the detail in just putting names on the screen, and if you’re like me you’ve seen a lot of these names in various Disney related material.
In terms of the animation its breathtaking. Obviously this movie was meticulously hand-drawn and painted and you can see that in the level of detail. Disney created the multiplane camera to create the notion of depth in this movie and you can really see the layering of the different settings. The background, the foreground, and the characters all seem to inhabit their own distinct space. I always recommend that the best way to watch these movies is in Blu-Ray or on an HD television because the colors and the detail are more obvious. The animation is so detailed that when Snow White sees the dwarfs’ cottage for the first time she presses her nose up against a window and you can see that! It’s such a small detail, a little white space around her nose, but it makes all the difference in showing that the humans are real in some way (I’ve recently discovered the “snapshot” feature on my media player so I might be going overboard with the photos).
Another thing that seems to have disappeared that I distinctly noticed with Snow White is the use of background music. The music that played as the characters did stuff. There’s a scene where the dwarfs come home and know someone (Snow White) is there. As they creep around there’s an appropriate musical accompaniment that plays with every one of their steps. It heightens the emotions you’re supposed to feel and it sounds almost like live theater in a way. Now, you have big show-stopping numbers sung by actors. The songs in this film are interesting as it seems like the majority of the memorable ones come from the movie’s second act. “I’m Wishing” and “One Song” are the first two songs of the movie and I had no recollection of them. They sound the same and aren’t particularly memorable. It’s after she meets the dwarfs that the songs “Heigh-Ho,” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” arrive which are the bigger Disney songs (they have a HUGE presence in the parks). My favorite song is “Someday My Prince Will Come.” It’s cliché I know but it is a sweet melody and I praise Caselotti for having a great set of pipes. The one song that she sings with the birds…obviously parodied in Shrek. It’s hilarious to see in its original form here.
I can’t avoid it anymore. We have to talk about Snow White. Personally, she is the blandest princess in the Disney canon. I mean she’s just such a caricature of Betty Boop only not as sexual. The big eyes, the round face, the constant giggling, it’s just annoying. I can’t fault her for not saving herself or doing other pro-active things because this was 1937 but she just has nothing. I find myself drawn to the Queen. Her animation coupled with the voice work of La Verne draws you in. When she’s not on-screen you have the dwarfs, the movie never has Snow White do much of anything…except cook….and sleep. Honestly, this girl must sleep like a log because the dwarfs make a racket coming home and she doesn’t make a peep! Not to mention Snow White spends way too much time treating these grown men (they have beards!) like children. She’s obviously “civilizing” them but come on. She’s a freeloader living in their house and forces them to wash their hands and gives them kisses on the forehead before the leave! Talk about being condescending (yes I know..1937).
The dwarfs themselves are all one-trick ponies as evidenced by their names that tell you everything you need to know about them. They all have various one-note jokes, my personal favorite is Sneezy. After they leave the diamond mine (at least they weren’t blood diamonds) they notice the light is on in their place and they say “Jiminy crickets.” Gotta laugh at that, that’s the movie for next time! Grumpy obviously hates women by the way. When he first meets Snow he says “all females is crazy.” Oh Grumpy!
As much as the movie is named after Snow White and the seven dwarfs you gotta love the Queen. Her transformation sequence is one of the scariest scenes in the Disney canon (I don’t say the scariest as I’ll be mentioning a few others when we get to those films). She’s a character whose obviously sold her soul and the whole transformation sequence is such a beautifully shot moment. Here’s a great video of all the Queen’s best moments, she’s good enough to take us out:
Snow White is such a remarkable work of animation. I won’t say it’s my favorite Disney animated film but you have to love how this movie demonstrates the craft of animation. Without this movie who knows how animation would be used. It’s a time-tested story to be sure, but the animation is the reason to watch.
NEXT TIME IN JOURNEYS IN THE DISNEY VAULT: The 1940 morality tale Pinocchio!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.