I was severely tempted to start this blog out with: “Now to start it all, the one that started it all.” I was also tempted to have the introductory paragraph be about how big a role the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs played to the success of the studios, which is so tremendous that it could be said that the Disney Company is the house that Snow White built. Tempting also was to talk about the dozens of tributes to the film found throughout Disney, especially on the West Coast, where the Disney Studios are literally supported by massive statue replicas of the seven dwarfs, and at Disneyland, where Snow White’s Wishing Well is the most popular place in the theme park for marriage proposals. Especially tempting was discussing the importance of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the history of cinema, as the first full color, full length animated feature film. So why did I not start out the paragraph that way? Because all of these pale in comparison to the veritable impact Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has had on me.
Now for those of you thinking that I have an unfair bias when it comes to Snow White, you’d be absolutely right. I feel a need to defend her and her film when I hear people bash her and her film (and there are those that bash it). That said I am able to recognize that Snow White is not a perfect film. Despite the great lengths Walt Disney himself took to editing this film to perfection, there are two scenes in particular that I feel drag on too long: first is the scene before the Dwarfs come across Snow White in their house and the second one is the scene where the Dwarfs wash their hands before mealtime. After hearing Ward Kimball talk about the “five dollars a gag” incentive that Disney had in place during the production of this film (which you can find if you check out the Nine Old Men documentary on the Platinum Edition DVD of Cinderella), I think the reason those scenes remained untouched is because there were a lot of great visual gags in those scenes (I would love to know the animator who came up with the gag of Grumpy hiding in the sack of potatoes and his nose looking like a potato initially). There are also critics who would criticize the animation, but this is something I strongly contest against.
When viewing this film, you have to keep in mind that this film was literally the first of its kind. There had been feature length animated films before (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0029583/trivia if you want to read more about that) but none had been attempted on this scale before. With that in mind, the animation becomes a marvel. No characters are taken for granted. When Snow White sings “With A Smile and A Song,” no animals are standing still. Each is doing an independent movement, granting each rabbit, fawn, chipmunk, bird, raccoon, and squirrel its own personality. When Snow White moves, she never just walks she practically dances from one place to the next. When the animals are attempting to get the Dwarfs to return to the cottage, notice Sleepy in the background half-heartedly swatting at the birds pecking at him but never bothering to leave the mine cart where he naps. Even though it is fevered, intense scene, Sleepy never breaks character.
Even though the film moves at a quick pace for the most part, the audience very much becomes emotionally invested in this story. Even though I know I’ve seen this movie at least twenty times, I still find myself in tears this time around when the Dwarfs are crying at Snow White’s wake. I think about how sweet and totally innocent Snow White was and even though she had done nothing intentionally to spite the Queen, there were still forces that wanted her dead. If Ward Kimball’s account of the Snow White premiere is correct, some of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time can relate to what I’m talking about.
It is here on my tear-streaked face that we find what makes this film the pinnacle of the Disney experience. This film was released to the public back in 1937. A little math reveals that as of 2010 this film is seventy-three years old. Over seventy years later, this film still moves audiences to tears. Over seventy years later, we still laugh at the Dwarfs’ antics. Over seventy years later, we still misquote the lyrics to “Heigh Ho.” Now you might be saying right about now that Snow White is not the only Disney movie that inspires its to laugh and cry (and I am positive that the days to come will be full of both Disney inspired laughter and tears). What makes Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the most unique, quintessential Disney experience? Well, how many Disney films do you remember scaring the pants off of you as a kid?
Now I know, the Disney animated films of your childhood are looked back upon as the stuff of dreams, not nightmares. But if you think about it, Disney animated films are childhood’s first horror films (something that will be further explored as we go on). One of the aspects I find the most striking about Snow White is how dark it’s willing to go for a film made during this time period. Just take a look at the Queen in both of her incarnations. Both are chilling in different ways. The Queen herself is beautiful but stoic and most of the time emotionless. The only times she expresses any sort of emotion is when she gets this murderous glint in her green eyes. They go from being hooded and alluring to wide and psychotic. The scene where she delivers the order to her Huntsman is a good illustration: she’s very casual and composed at first, telling the Huntsman to take Snow White to pick wild flowers. Her whole demeanor changes when she suddenly drops a bomb that she expects him to kill this innocent young girl: her whole body becomes alert and she rises to her feet emphatically when faced with disobedience. If your skin doesn’t crawl when the Queen orders the Huntsman to bring back Snow White’s heart in that ornate box (which has a whole back-story explained in the Disney Press book Fairest of All by Serena Valentino), it’s on too tight.
But the Queen has another persona in this film that is possibly more terrifying. The Hag she becomes is the stuff of fairytale nightmares, the old crone that took delight in luring children to their deaths. Her most horrifying moment comes from her discovery of the antidote to the poisoned apple. Convinced that the Dwarfs will mistake Snow White for dead, she cackles and gleefully delights in the idea that Snow White will be buried alive. Those are her exact words by the way. A lot of properties geared towards children try to avoid words that are threatening like dead or kill. Here is a villain openly expressing a desire to watch an innocent child suffer and die. Intense stuff, huh? Even Walt Disney himself recognized that the Queen went a little too far: “Both the wicked Queen and the Peddler Woman turned out to be more frightening than Walt Disney anticipated: He never made another villain that scary, that real, that menacing” (Disney Dossiers, Jeff Kurtti, page 130).
This film also features one of the most gruesome fates to ever befall a Disney villain: Queen falls off cliff, boulder falls on Queen, and vultures swoop down to eat what is left of Queen. Gruesome, isn’t it folks? What makes the scene even more chilling is that the audience does not see any of it. It’s all implied through the visuals of the boulder falling right after the Queen’s tumble off the cliff (who can forget the gut wrenching scream the Queen emits?), the dwarfs peeking over the ledge, and then finally those vicious vultures smiling gleefully before flying in a circular formation over where the Queen fell. This whole scene was Hitchcock before there even was a Hitchcock.
To go even further, Dario Argento, esteemed Italian horror film director, has said that his film, Suspiria, was his attempt to make a horror film in the style of Walt Disney (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0076786/trivia). He told his cinematographer to study Snow White to get a sense of the color palette that he wanted. If you watch Suspiria, or at the very least look at stills from it, you will notice strong similarities in imagery between the two films. Both films feature young female protagonists with dark hair, fair skin, and huge expressive brown eyes. Both of these characters find themselves being threatened by older women who practice witchcraft.
But the moment that I realized the full emotional scope Snow White possessed did not come from watching the film, but came from a recent visit to Snow White’s Scary Adventures in Fantasyland in Disney World. It should come as no surprise that it’s one of my favorite dark rides (The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh being the other) now, but that was not the case when I was five years old. When I rode it for the first time all those years ago, I was enchanted to see Snow White singing to a pretty white dove but scared for her when I saw the Queen watching her from a window. But within the next scene came a moment that scared me to the brink of insanity… okay, maybe not to the brink of insanity, but it scared me into ducking my head into my mom’s lap. If you’ve been on the ride, then you know exactly what moment I’m talking about.
Now that I’m a twenty five year old, I don’t feel the need (as much) to duck my head into my mom’s lap when I ride this classic dark ride. But during a recent excursion to Disney World, my sister and I sat in the second row of the mine cart (Sleepy, I think) behind a mother and her three or four year old daughter. Out of curiosity, I watched the little girl’s reactions to certain scenes. She was enchanted when we passed by Snow White singing to the doves, but when we turned the corner into a much darker, familiar scene, she immediately clung to her mother’s arm and pushed as far away from the Queen as possible.
It was in this moment that I realized not only the power of Snow White, but the power of Disney as well. Here was a little girl terrified of the exact same scene that I was terrified of twenty years ago. And if you spend some time on the Snow White IMDB page, you will discover that when Snow White was first released, Radio City Music Hall had to replace all of their velvet seat upholstery. Why? Because young children were so frightened by the Queen and the forest scene, they wet their pants. This was back in 1937. Here is what’s amazing about Snow White and Disney himself. Seventy years ago, this film made its audience laugh, cry, and wet their pants. In 2010, the film is still causing that exact same emotional response in its audience: we still laugh, we still cry, and the Queen still makes us wet our pants.