More so than any genre of film, animation has the distinct ability to transport its viewer to another time and place entirely, to where houses fly and animals talk, and evil witches can have crows and vultures as cronies. In this new millennium we have something called computer-generated imagery, which enables filmmakers to create the kinds of spaces that at one time were only allowed to exist in the realm of animation. But for decades prior, animated movies were painstakingly drawn by hand, and they freed themselves from the realistic, gravitational limitations of our world.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first full-colour feature-length animation; it slammed open the doorway to fantastical kingdoms and whimsical imagination in a way that has only been affectionately imitated since. Animals creep and whistle. Trees transform into menacing spectres that haunt poor Snow White in the deep dark woods. A mirror speaks. An evil queen plots a dreadful murder by disguising herself as a wrinkly apple peddler. Dwarfs mine for diamonds, sharing a kind of symbiotic relationship with their wondrous fairy tale land. In a period of cinema that was still clinging to black-and-white photography, Snow White appeared as a multicolour visual extravaganza.
Much of the movie’s success must of course be credited to the teams of animators and conceptual artists who transplanted ideas from mind to paper (their names are appropriately listed before the picture begins), but Snow White was a labour of love for Walt Disney, who, having thrilled and entertained young audiences for years with mice and ducks, aspired to push the boundaries of his vision by creating idealised versions of existing characters, tweaking their social tics, placing them in technicolour dreamscapes that housed all the joys and terrors of their animators’ wildest imaginations. The result is a terrific family entertainment, maybe a bit too scary for children under seven (the dark forest and the peddler are particularly horror-inducing), but sparkling in design and concept.
Every inch of the screen is drawn with detail, so that backgrounds move in tandem with the action in the fore. When Snow White (Adriana Caselotti) runs into the dark forest, her arms flail and her dress billows, but the trees also move with an imperious force, and the backdrop, painted flat, follows the “camera” to create the illusion of visual depth. Considering every frame was pencilled in by the hands of devoted artists, Snow White’s achievement cannot be undermined. The film looks beautiful from every direction, inside and out.
Disney was determined to see it through. Facing an unimpressed Hollywood collective – they referred to his endeavour as “Disney’s folly” – and discouragement from both his wife Lillian and his brother Roy, Disney mortgaged his house and eventually blew open his budget to a sum of almost one-and-a-half million. Quite a pretty penny for 1937.
The film now is certainly remembered for being the first Disney classic, and the first feature-length animation (it has a lean eighty-three-minute runtime), but what truly makes it immortal is the way it juxtaposes its clashing personalities. The plot is ostensibly about Snow White and the Evil Queen (Lucille La Verne), but regard the seven dwarfs, each named according to his dominant trait (Bashful goes red, Sneezy sneezes, Grumpy grumbles, etc). What life they bring to the story! Regard also the numerous animals that inhabit the woods and accompany Snow White as a kind of loyal posse of helpers. They are individual characters, designed to carry the hopes and fears of the audience into the film, to Snow White’s feet.
The movie plays out to accommodate these auxiliary players in a way that promotes them cannily into major ones. Scenes play out almost in slow motion as a way to showcase the detail of their designs and the eccentricities of their personalities. Consider the scene in which Snow White dances with the dwarfs while they sing and play instruments. What is the purpose of this moment other than to display its beauty and skill? Disney knew at the time that he had devised something revolutionary and was not about to recoil in modesty. If his film stretches in areas it’s because he willed it.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a remarkable achievement. It is scary, funny, quite thrilling, and its musical numbers have entered Disney lore. Watching it again, I’ve noticed that it hasn’t aged. Why not? Perhaps because we all have fond memories of Dopey and the poisoned apple, of the sinister mirror, and the absolutely fantastical world envisioned by a bold visionary. So we will the movie to live on, embracing all its imperfections.