A hard look at the Disney Animated Classics.
As the first cel-animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was nothing short of a technical marvel of its time. Its legacy is no less prolific, with it entering both the legendary Disney lineup and becoming a staple of pop culture. Many kids grow up knowing the dwarfs’ iconic song, “Heigh Ho”, while “Someday My Prince Will Come” has since become a jazz standard, being covered by big names like Miles Davis. To many people, this is the definitive Disney animated film, so my expectations going into it were high, but does it live up to the hype?
Walt Disney’s achievements in the animation of Snow White cannot be denied. Movement is crisp and fluid, the landscapes are colorful and detailed.
Each character is visually distinct from one another, which is particularly important when it comes to the dwarfs. Each one has aspects of their personalities woven into their visual design: Sneezy has a red, swollen nose; Bashful has long eyelashes and bright amber eyes; Doc wears professional looking bifocals; Dopey has big, flabby ears and his clothes look like he could fit a whole other Dopey in there; Happy is, well, happy with a big Santa-Clause-style stomach; and Grumpy has a sleek and edgy figure. Another interesting design choice on the dwarfs is how each one that represents a “down” emotion, such as Grumpy, keeps their hat drooping downward, where as the ones with “up” emotions keep theirs propped up. These are small and simple details to be sure, but they go a long way towards helping to physically distinguish the admittedly otherwise very similar looking dwarfs.
Snow White and the Prince, however, come straight to us from the uncanny valley. They are both smoothly animated like the rest of the film, but they look like real human beings in drawn form, and compared to the cartoony look of the rest of the movie they look out of place.
The Queen manages to strike a perfect balance between the two, and her old form in particular is to this day among the best examples of animation, period.
The art in the movie even manages to enhance the storytelling in many scenes. Upon avoiding being assassinated by the Queen’s huntsman, Snow White runs through the forest and faces what seems to be a forest hell bent on her demise. However, as it comes to a head, it is revealed that the horrible beasts that she thought had been chasing her, were simply adorable woodland creatures trying to help her. It is a unique way of showing Snow White’s state of mind after the attempt on her life. Her entire world had been uprooted, and as far as she knew, everything was out to get her, and her paranoia physically manifested itself in the ghoulish hallucination of the forest.
Another great example is the vultures that follow the Queen throughout the last act of the film. Since the Queen is heading towards Snow White to seal her doom, the vultures appear to foreshadow her death, and it’s even more so implied after Snow White takes a bite of the poison apple, as the vultures immediately fly off screen towards the direction of Snow White’s corpse. However, this is revealed to have been a red herring, as the Queen makes her final stand against the dwarfs, the vultures land on a nearby branch just as the Queen meets her end.
The music in the movie is more of an “eh” quality. While there are catchy melodies like “Heigh Ho” and “Whistle While You Work” none of them are songs I’d voluntarily listen to on my own time. Even the iconic “Someday My Prince Will Come” doesn’t stand out here; it took other musicians covering it later to really bring out the life in the tune. It also doesn’t help that Snow White’s singing voice, done by Adriana Caselotti, sounds like she just got her toe run over by a car. The dwarfs do a better job of singing their parts, but their songs tend to be regulated to the repetitive and simplistic numbers.
So this review is about to follow a convenient descending line pattern, because now I’m going to talk about how the story is impressively bad. It hits this interesting median of bad writing, where not only very little occurs in the film, it’s also full of plot holes. The plot of the film revolves around The Queen deciding to kill her step-daughter, Snow White, because her magic mirror reveals to her that Snow White is the fairest in the land, and not her.
The Huntsman disobeys The Evil Queen’s orders and allows Snow White to escape into the forest where she meets the dwarfs. The Evil Queen finds out and disguises as an old woman to trick Snow White into taking a bite of a poison apple, which Snow White falls for and falls into a sleeping death. The Evil Queen then falls to her death after being chased off by the dwarfs, and The Prince awakens Snow White with “True Love’s Kiss.” I’m sorry for those that haven’t seen the movie, because I just spoiled the film in its entirety.
Now it is an interesting question as to how this film runs for 80 minutes despite having a plot that can be described in full within a few sentences, and the answer to that is because more than half the movie is watching mine work, house cleaning or parties.
Now, I’m sure there’s some neat freak outs there that are completely enthralled by Snow White’s intricate, “Sit on Your Ass and Let Animals Do the Work” method of cleaning, and I’m sure the extremely prominent miner audience appreciated their profession getting the Hollywood glorification treatment for once, but it simply doesn’t make for a good plot. The film begins to drag fairly early on once Snow White meets the dwarfs, with the only real respite being the few cutaways to The Queen making her dastardly plans. It’s unfortunate that so little of the film gives focus to The Queen, since the film comes alive whenever she’s on screen. Unlike everyone else in the cast, she has an actual goal that she works towards, even if it’s a simple one, that gives the movie a much better sense of direction. Lucille La Verne puts on a great vocal performance as both the young Evil Queen and her old hag alter ego. She captures a unique personality for each role, despite the two technically being the same character. While in her young form, Lucille speaks in a dignified and calm manner, like someone obsessed with maintaining appearances to those around her. Once the Evil Queen transforms however, every line is delivered with a sheer, unfiltered joyful boom as the old Evil Queen revels in the evil she commits.
It’s interesting that such a simple movie ends up being so poorly written. There are obvious issues, such as the insistence that Snow White and The Prince are in love when The Prince says maybe three sentences throughout the film. He never actually holds a conversation with Snow White, but I was willing to forgive something like that. “True Love at First Sight” can be a tough pill to swallow for someone who loves smartly written character relationships and arcs as much as I do. If it is worked into the narrative properly, or if there’s enough other good traits to distract me from it, I can dig it like a goldmine. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs does neither of these things.
Other than two scenes, The Prince and Snow White are never on screen together, and even in those scenes, they don’t speak to each other, so we never “see” them in love, we just hear Snow White insist how great he is. This becomes a big glaring problem during the “Someday My Prince Will Come” sequence, because Snow White claims that no one else is like The Prince, in front of seven individuals whom she knows much more about. Snow White ends up looking almost as superficial as the Evil Queen, since ultimately, she chose the outward beauty of The Prince over any of the dwarfs whom she had actually grown to know as people.
Snow White is meant to be a woman so kind, gentle and beautiful that people and animals alike instantly develop an attraction to her. However, her actions really make her out to be clueless, inconsiderate and condescending. I suspect Snow White may have some sort of mental deficiency that prevents her from retaining information for more than a few minutes. She recovers disturbingly fast from the attempt on her life, and she doesn’t reference it in any way ever again, she doesn’t even mention The Evil Queen. She decides to enter the dwarfs’ house without invitation or them even being there, as if she’s never heard of the concept of privacy or trespassing. She initially assumes that the dwarfs are children upon seeing the miniature stature of their house, but even upon learning that they are full grown men, she never stops treating them as kids. She cooks for them, forces them to clean themselves, kisses them on their way to work and tells them bedtime stories.
Snow White also runs from The Prince in the beginning of the movie, implying that she is timid, then everything she does for the rest of the movie says the exact opposite. She breaks into a stranger’s house, begins running the lives of its inhabitants, accepts a strange woman’s outlandish claims of a magic apple and finally rides off into the sunset with a man she knows nothing about. The reason Snow White ran from The Prince was for plot convenience. Considering the Evil Queen couldn’t survive her encounter with the dwarfs, The Prince probably could have cut her head off and ended the movie in the first ten minutes, if Snow White’s fleeing hadn’t convinced him to leave.
The Evil Queen’s actions tend to make very little sense in regards to her intentions. She keeps Snow White as a maid in an attempt to hide her beauty. Since we see how easily she sentences Snow White to death, that brings up the issue as to why she didn’t kill Snow White a long time ago, and why she assumed that just being a maid would make Snow White less pretty. Her plan with the poison apple hinged on the assumption that Snow White would be buried alive rather than just killing Snow White herself. The Evil Queen also did not need to assume a disguise that so clearly physically handicapped her, thus creating the situation that got her killed. However, I don’t fault that particular point too much, since it ends up being fairly clever having The Evil Queen die as the old and ugly hag that she, ironically, only turned herself into in order to become the most beautiful woman in the land.
The Prince could be replaced with a feathered hat on a stick and the only thing that would change would be the absence of a few sentences. He does nothing, says almost nothing and probably feels nothing even as he rides away with his princess.
The dwarfs are exactly what they say they are, except Grumpy to a small extent. Happy’s happy, Sneezy sneezes, Sleepy sleeps, Bashful is bashful, Doc is, uh, a doc and Dopey has a dope problem. Grumpy is pretty much in the same boat, but he has a small character arc as he slowly warms up to Snow White and begins to look at her as a friend. His small change makes him the most endearing character in the movie, even if it’s like saying a head of lettuce out of seven was my favorite because it had a small piece of bacon trapped in it.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is like finding an over-stuffed burrito in the fridge. It looks nice and appetizing as you warm it up in the toaster oven, but once you take a bite, all the contents burst out of the other end and leave you with nothing but a cheap shell of that delicious lunch you wanted to eat. Then you look up, and remember that you are actually at your tedious job and you are bored with your life.