Walt Disney Animation had come a long way since the early black-and-white days of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse in the 1920’s.
Disney‘s success with Mickey led to the Silly Symphonies, a series of animated shorts usually inspired by fairy tales, fables, and a few original stories. The series served as a testing ground for the technology and techniques that would eventually lead to the first noteworthy full-length animated picture in history – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
No other animated endeavor had yet matched the artistry presented in Snow White. Its historical impact and influence is beyond significant and most film enthusiasts hold it in the highest regards. Therefore, as much as a film and animation buff as I proclaim myself to be, I find it difficult to admit that I do not share this high esteem.
Before I get impaled by those pitchforks, let me say that I’m not claiming that it’s bad or even mediocre. Far from it. In fact, I have much admiration for the film and consider certain parts of it among the shining jewels of Disney. The animation is charming, the dwarfs are memorable, and most of the songs are enduring. Then what is my problem with Snow White? In two words: Snow White!
Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the story of Grumpy, a cold-hearted cynic who, after meeting the most saccharine creature in the world, grudgingly takes her under his protection and emerges as the fiercest little warrior in dwarfdom.
Okay, so that may not be the most accurate description, but it represents the only true character arc in the film. Alternatively, the film is about Snow White, a beautiful young princess who incites the wrath of the Wicked Queen for being the fairest one of all. In her vanity, the Queen attempts to have Snow White killed but she flees to the forest where she is taken in by seven benevolent dwarfs. The Queen, outraged, disguises herself as a hag and poisons Snow White with an apple prompting her to fall into a deep, cadaverous sleep. All ends well when a handsome Prince awakens her with love’s first kiss. The Queen, meanwhile, meets her demise when she is struck by lightning, falls off a cliff, gets crushed by a giant rock, and gets devoured by vultures – true family entertainment!
I’ll just say it – Snow White, as a character, is as bland and cloying as they come. Now I realize that in context of its release, Snow White’s voice (Adriana Caselotti) was perfectly acceptable but I cannot overlook how jarring I find it to be. She sounds like a squeaky toy come to life. I’ve always had a pet theory that the Wicked Queen didn’t truly want to have Snow White killed because of her looks. She simply wanted to destroy one of the most irksome voices in animated history.
Regardless, the biggest issue that I find is that Snow White has no character arc whatsoever (unless you count eating fruit and falling asleep as pivotal, character-defining moments). She is just the same at the beginning of the movie as at the end – she doesn’t even get whiter! Yet we are invested in her, not so much due to her character but in her relationships with the other characters. When the dwarfs are crying over her sleeping body at the end, you’re not moved by Snow White’s fate. You’re moved by the open sobbing of the dwarfs.
And why is this? Because we ending up connecting much more with the dwarfs. We see Snow White through their eyes and they have placed her on the ultimate pedestal.
Now I said before that Grumpy has the only true character arc in the film. He is the only one that grows due to the circumstances of the story. Seeing the positive change Snow White brings in him creates the true heart of the picture. He is the most relatable character in the film, partly because of his cynicism which adds a different voice to the picture and partly because of his world-weariness. Almost every observation and warning he makes rings true in one form or another later on.
Plus anyone who can mount a deer whilst brandishing a club in a thunderstorm pursuit gets props in my book.
The other dwarfs also have their quirky character traits, mostly described by their names; nonetheless, with the exception of Grumpy (and to a degree, Doc), there is not much more depth to be found in them. As a unit, however, they work exceptionally well and are the highlight of the film. Perhaps more than any other Disney animated film (bar Sleeping Beauty to a point), Snow White is a movie that endures primarily due to its supporting characters. It is by implicit design that the seven dwarfs were added to the film’s title – an act which was not very common in most iterations of the story up to this time. It is directly because of the dwarfs that the film ended up being the success that it was. The public clamored for a sequel, proclaiming “More dwarfs! More dwarfs!” Walt Disney, wisely, decided not to repeat himself and ventured on to newer territory (a principle the Disney Studios turned a blind eye to in the mid-1990’s, but I digress).
There’s not much to say about the Prince, however. He literally shows up for one song…
…and then returns at the end to sing another song. The same song. “One Song!” Heck, he doesn’t even get a name. He’s just known as The Prince. I cite this as a continuing thread in the movie of entire characters simply characterized by their name and no more.
The Wicked Queen, on the other hand, is as terrifying as they come. Although her objective is, on the surface, incredibly plain, the execution is appropriately compelling. Her unrelenting menace makes her a daunting force to be reckoned with. When she orders the first hit on Snow White, she even requests her heart carved out to be presented as proof of the deed. With this nasty Valentine, the film makes the bold statement that many later Disney films would lack – this world has very dire consequences. Thus, when we eventually follow Snow White on her journey, we are much more inclined to root for her despite her character’s shortcomings.
Original Story Comparison
The Disney version genuinely follows the original tale quite faithfully (especially in comparison with some of their later animated adaptations). It can be argued to be a an improvement over the Brothers Grimm story on which it is based. In their version, the Wicked Queen actually attempts to kill Snow White in disguise three times – with a suffocating corset, a poisoned comb, and the infamous apple. This either makes Snow White the most gullible person in existence or the Queen the most comically incompetent murderess in all of history. In fact, the prince doesn’t even awaken Snow White with a kiss. Instead, he falls in love with her corpse and persuades the dwarfs into taking the comatose Snow White back to his kingdom – coffin and all! I’d rather not think about what he actually planned to do with her once he had her there. She is only awakened when a bumpy road dislodges the poisoned apple from her throat. True romance indeed.
Additionally, the Wicked Queen, once her inept murder attempts are discovered, is forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she dies. One can only imagine this scenario taking place at the end of Disney’s tale in grand musical fashion. “Dance Until You’re Dead,” a dark reprise of “Whistle While You Work.”
The Music of Snow White
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs features some of the most recognized songs in the Disney canon. What more can be said about “Heigh-Ho,” one of the most referenced songs in film history? It serves as the perfect introduction for the seven dwarfs. This introduction is further explored later in the movie with “The Dwarfs’ Yodel Song (The Silly Song),” a roughly five-minute gem which not only expands on each of the dwarfs’ personalities but also accents their relationship with Snow White. The attention to detail is superb and small moments such as Sleepy’s battle with a housefly help create a vivid, rich atmosphere. I especially love how each of their musical instruments are complementary to their characters. Plus Dopey’s dance with Snow White is quite possibly the most memorable scene in the film.
The same can’t be said for the song “Bluddle-Uddle-Um-Dum” (my spell checker is having a field day with this one) where Snow White scolds the dwarfs into washing before dinner. This entire sequence is unnecessary and while it does provide a couple of funny moments, it stops the whole film dead cold. Do we really need to see Dopey struggling with a bar of soap for two minutes? Just how tyrannical is Snow White that she needs to force seven kindly, vertically-challenged old men outside to wash because she deems them too filthy to be in her presence?
“With a Smile and a Song,” likewise, also suffers by killing the film’s pace. After Snow White’s harrowing escape through the forest, she chides herself for panicking and sings the song to all the curious forest animals around her.
There are three issues with this song. First, it’s not terribly good. Second, it halts the narrative so that Snow White can sing with cutesy animals who literally just sit and stare at her. Third, it is immediately followed by yet another song (“Whistle While you Work”) where Snow White again sings with the animals. At least “Whistle While You Work,” while all at once being more effective, memorable, and eschewing similar themes, moves the plot forward. It is also much more visually entertaining and the gags involving the animals are admittedly funny making it one of the high points of the film.
Then there is “Someday My Prince Will Come,” which, other than “Heigh-Ho,” is perhaps the film’s most acclaimed song. I have to confess that I am not a big fan of the song probably because I find myself yearning to hit the mute button in a vain effort to preserve my masculinity lest anyone walk in to see me tearing up to Snow White. My social life would never recover from so deep a wound.
Regardless, in acknowledgement of its importance to the film, I’ll avoid making any cheap, distasteful, or inappropriate jokes…
…to point out how it totally encapsulates Snow White’s personality thus making it the most critical song in the movie – even when it’s sung with that grating Betty Boop voice. Personally, I prefer the instrumental version which relates the perfect union of music and the purity of Snow as a character.
Overall, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a charming film. Perhaps no other movie in the Disney canon has captured the look and feel of a Grimm’s fairy tale come to life better. While it just falls short of perfection (especially concerning the lead characters and a few too many plot diversions), it makes it up with an abundance of heart which is contagious.
I said that I did not hold the film in the highest esteem but that doesn’t stop me from respecting its accomplishment. If Snow White had failed, that would have been the end of the Disney Studios (in fact, its immense production expense had it publicly decried as “Disney’s Folly”). Instead, it went on to become the most successful film of all time (until it was beat by Gone with the Wind a year later). But most importantly, if Snow White had failed, I wouldn’t be writing any of these reviews and that indeed would have been a far greater tragedy!
I certainly understand that an adult male might find it difficult to relate his admiration for Snow White. Some scenes in particular, such as the aforementioned “Someday My Prince Will Come,” can initiate a particular amount of jest. I would say that its historical significance alone should absolve any and all wisecracks; however, if anyone should dare to argue, I’d like to present Exhibit A in my defense:
Man-Card Verdict: Status Quo
One of the harshest criticisms the film has gotten in recent years is that the character of Snow White is anti-feminist. The argument is that she just cooks, cleans, and just waits around for her prince to find her. While this is true to a degree, I will counter that not much more can be said about the Prince. He just sings his one song and rides his horse around until his princess falls asleep from homicidal fruit poisoning. His only true contribution to the plot is the kiss after all. At least Snow White shows initiative when she trades house duties for a roof over her head in a moment of peril. Plus her pies looked amazing!
I’ve always found it quite odd that in the scene when the dwarfs discover Snow White asleep in their cottage that they cannot determine what manner of creature she is. It takes several moments before they even realize that she’s a human girl! You’d think that with all the bling they mine, they would have run across another woman by now. Just how cut off from society are they?
Is it just me or do Grumpy and Gaston from Beauty and the Beast wear incredibly similar outfits? Do they shop at the same store? Dwarf and Barge Outfitters?
Just how many songs have the word “song” in the title? “With a Smile and a Song?” “The Silly Song?” “One Song?” Is the word “song” a euphemism for something else entirely?
If you have any comments, thoughts, or suggestions, please feel free to leave them below. Join us next time as we take a look at Mickey Mouse’s latest animated short – the Academy Award-nominated “Get a Horse!” For more Default Disney, click here.