Our review of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (Blu-ray), published October 7th, 2009, is also available.
The one that started it all.
Literally, the Mother of extended-play animation. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the real McCoy: the animated feature film that led to all the others. When Walt Disney first began talking about a feature-length Technicolor cartoon in 1934, industry experts told him he was dopey. (Ahem.) Three years and one-and-one-half-million Depression-era dollars later, Uncle Walt unleashed the prototypical masterwork on which an empire would be built, and from which would spring an entirely new art form that continues to evolve to this day. You can have your Shrek, your Toy Story, your Beauty and the Beast, but it all started right here with the petite raven-haired princess and her seven cherubic chums.
Facts of the Case
Assuming you've Rip-van-Winkled your way through the past century of Western civilization, here's the story in a nutshell. The evil Queen of a long-ago fantasy realm (voiced by Lucille La Verne) wants to know that's she's the most beautiful woman in all the land. Her Magic Mirror (voiced by Moroni Olsen) throws the brakes on her runaway narcissism with a haughty Not so fast, sister; there's one fairer even than you—your teenaged stepdaughter, Princess Snow White (voiced by Adriana Caselotti), who has already caught the eye of a handsome if charisma-free prince. Unable to fathom that she might not make Fairy Tale People Magazine's Fifty Most Beautiful People list for the umpteenth consecutive year, the Queen sends a burly huntsman to do in her doll-faced adolescent rival.
The soft-hearted huntsman can't summon the gumption to assassinate the diminutive princess, so instead he sends her fleeing into the forest, where she is befriended by a myriad of cute woodland creatures (none of whom speak, incidentally; the familiar anthropomorphic animals wouldn't premiere in a Disney feature until the follow-up to Snow White, Pinocchio). The animals lead Snow to a tiny cottage outfitted with seven tiny chairs, seven tiny beds, and a not-so-tiny but stereotypically masculine heap of dirty dishes in the sink. Thinking the house must be inhabited by a family of orphan children, Snow marshals her forest friends into cleaning up the joint before the kiddies return home. To her surprise, the house in fact belongs to a troupe of miniature diamond miners with names matching their attitudes and/or medical conditions: officious Doc, jovial Happy, allergic Sneezy, narcoleptic Sleepy, cantankerous Grumpy, socially phobic Bashful, and mute Dopey (who, despite his name, does not appear to be pharmaceutically enhanced). Snow and the dwarfs (who, apparently, had issues with the grammatically correct plural) become boon companions as she indoctrinates them into the joys of soap, soup, and goodbye kisses on the forehead.
Imagine the Queen's horror when the Magic Mirror informs her that, despite her devious murder conspiracy, Snow White remains the fairest of all, having avoided the huntsman's blade. (Given that the Queen at this point in the film is a stately and beautiful—if ill-tempered—adult woman while Snow White is a barely post-pubescent girl, methinks one ought to keep a close eye on that mirror.) Consumed with vengeance, the Queen brews up a potion that transforms her into a gnarled old crone. Disguised as a humble peddler, the Queen presents Snow with a poisoned apple that sends the princess off to semi-permanent dreamland. The only antidote that can reverse the wicked spell is the application of "love's first kiss."
Now, I'm not going to spoil the denouement for you, but if you think Snow White is going to spend eternity in that glass sarcophagus, gentle reader, you need to get yourself checked out. Seriously.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs may have been the first film I saw in a theater, during its 1967 re-release. Its soundtrack album was one of the first records I owned, and played until the grooves wore out. (Historical footnote: "records" were these big round things made of black vinyl used to preserve music in the days before CDs. You played them on a turntable with a sharp, often jewel-tipped stylus, and they actually did wear out with frequent play. We now return you to the 21st century.) When I sat down to watch Snow White on DVD after all these years, my first thought was, "Boy, I hope this doesn't stink on ice." No worries, mate. Ms. Melanin-Deficient and her septet of vertically-challenged platonic comrades may have officially qualified for Medicare, but they're looking as sweet as ever.
Disney's spin on the Brothers Grimm's dark legend is, by this point, so iconic in Americana that it's easy to forget what a magnificent film it is. Humorous, exciting, even scary at appropriate moments, the story is flawlessly paced entertainment. With the exception of the Prince, who flits onto the stage only at the beginning and end of the movie and is nothing more than a plot device, the characters make memorable impressions. Disney took a huge risk in giving the dwarfs individual personality traits—they had none in the source material, and the characters would have been far easier to animate if they all looked and behaved alike. But it's the distinctive characteristics of each dwarf that makes them stand out, especially the multiple dimensions to each one: Grumpy is not just grumpy, but is misogynistic and hates to bathe; Doc is not only the leader, but also commits non-stop spoonerisms; Dopey's persona reminds one of Harpo Marx with his wordless, impish wackiness (watch him keep coming back for another buss from Snow); and so on. Snow White—though looking at her today you can't help but be amused at how the standards of attractiveness in our culture have mutated over the years—is more than just an innocent; she's bright, resourceful, maternal, and surprisingly wise for her apparent age (somewhere around fourteen). The Queen is simply a gas: you can see the foreshadowings of later Disney villainesses from Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmatians) to Ursula (The Little Mermaid) in her delicious over-the-top malevolence. Even the numerous woodland animals sparkle with life and verve.
After decades of Disney magic, and several years now of cutting-edge digitally visualized films such as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Shrek, Snow White remains an astonishing achievement in animation art. The detail in every frame blows you away. Every scene overflows with flourishes and touches that lesser craftsmen wouldn't have thought about, much less taken pains to include. The sequences with the forest animals are filled to bursting with little critters, all acting and reacting continually. The animation itself holds up surprisingly well for the most part, especially the dwarfs and the non-human characters. The Disney party line for 60-plus years has always been that the human characters were not fully rotoscoped—that the live-action footage was used only as a rough guide for the animators and was not directly traced—but while this was true of the dwarfs, it's pretty obvious to a discerning eye that the Prince is closely rotoscoped in almost every frame in which he appears (and the animation of the character suffers for it, being jittery and out of stylistic harmony with the entire rest of the film), the Queen is rotoscoped as much as 60-75% of her on-camera time, and Snow White herself is traced in most places where she is the only character onscreen. Still, considering this was the first attempt at animating realistic human characters for extended segments of footage, it's creditable and not distracting for the most part.
One factor that's rarely mentioned in discussion of the film: it works awfully well as a musical. Every song expands the audience's appreciation for and understanding of the characters, and almost every one is catchy and memorable. "Heigh Ho," "Whistle While You Work," "I'm Wishing," and of course, "Some Day My Prince Will Come"—if you can keep them from bounding around in your skull and off your tongue for days after viewing the movie, check your pulse.
Disney has accomplished the incredible with this DVD transfer of its premier classic. If the style of the artwork betrays the film's age, the quality of the image most certainly does not. Snow White could have been made yesterday, for all I could tell from the glorious colors exploding off the screen and the total absence of print defects. More tender loving care has been applied to this new digital restoration than to all the batches of chocolate chip cookies Grandma baked in a lifetime. Wisely, the Mouse Factory chose not to repeat the debacle that attended the film's 1993 theatrical re-release, when Disney proffered a horizontally cropped faux widescreen version, and left well enough alone with the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. (We only object to full-frame presentation when it doesn't represent the filmmaker's vision, not when it's the way the film was created.) The mono soundtrack, on the other hand, has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1, which doesn't seem to have helped it much. It's a skosh more resonant than you'd expect, but still pretty thin and static. (Whaddaya want from 1937?)
As the initial offering in its two-disc Platinum Edition series, Disney has loaded on the supplements with a trowel. That's both good and bad: it's cool to have lots of extra stuff, but some of the added material is self-serving puffery, and some (like the period radio shows) is for the hardcore Disney buff only. You can't fault Mickey and Co. for trying, though—what other studio has the extensive archives at its disposal that make possible this depth of coverage on a 65-year-old movie?
By far the most interesting supplement here is the audio commentary by Walt Disney himself. No, they didn't hire John Edward to channel Uncle Walt; they cobbled together substantive clips from thirty years' worth of Mr. Disney's recorded interviews, then interspersed them with fresh observations by Disney historian John Canemaker. Canemaker's material, though informative and more often scene-specific than the archival Disney tracks, tends to be a trifle dry—he's all too obviously reading word-for-word from a manuscript when a more extemporaneous approach might have been livelier and more consistent in tone with the Walt Disney segments. Still and all, this is an informative and insightful piece of audio that takes the listener inside the mind of the late, great visionary genius.
Also on Disc One, you'll find a 40-minute documentary entitled Still the Fairest of Them All: The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Narrated by Mrs. Potts herself, Angela Lansbury, it's a fairly standard interviews-and-clips piece featuring several of the animators who worked on the film, some of the newer guard in the Disney animation studios, and film historians including Canemaker. Pretty fluffy, really. All of the Disc One content can be synopsized, if you're so inclined, via a "Tour" feature hosted by Ms. Lansbury; you can see in about 20 minutes what would take hours to view in its entirety. (Believe me, I know.)
More interesting to the aficionado is the Silly Symphonies animated short, The Goddess of Spring. Made in 1934, this nine-minute cartoon (an operatic retelling of the Persephone myth) is a precursor to the kind of realistic approach to human characters Disney would later aim for in Snow White. While rather crude in that regard—the Goddess moves as though her skeleton was made of pudding—it's worth seeing as an indicator of the state of animation art at the time Walt Disney first conceived the full-length feature that would become Snow White.
Michael Eisner, from the comfort of his easy chair, introduces a video featuring Barbra Streisand's rendition of "Some Day My Prince Will Come." The Funny Girl is backed, according to the promotional materials, by "a glorious 110-piece orchestra." (I quit counting at 98.) Your enjoyment of this segment directly correlates to your evaluation of La Barbra: if you think her voice is "like butta," you'll dig hearing her sink her schnozz into this chestnut; if you think she's the female Michael Bolton, you'll let your fingers do the clicking. Streisand lovers be forewarned—your heroine doesn't appear on screen. The segment is entirely visualized with clips from the movie. If you prefer to assay the singing chores yourself, there's a karaoke-style video of "Heigh Ho" as well (wouldn't it have been a kick if Streisand had sung this?).
For the rugrats, there's a set-top game called "Dopey's Wild Mine Ride" which is pretty much what it sounds like. There's also a fistful of DVD-ROM games online geared toward the same little folks.
Disc Two is where one can really bite into the apple that makes this the Platinum Edition. The content is divided into five arbitrary sections (sort of like Disneyland or Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom), which can be accessed either through interactive menus featuring a computer-animated Magic Mirror, or from a static list.
"Snow White's Wishing Well" incorporates three text-based features. A "Walt Disney Biographical Timeline" contains important dates in the life of Uncle Walt. Oddly, the "biography" ends in abrupt fashion with Disney winning a special Academy Award for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1939, which might lead the uninitiated to suppose that Walt keeled over on the way home from the Oscars. Next up is a Snow White production timeline marking out the development of the film, and pinpointing the dates of its subsequent re-releases. If you're not asleep by this point, you can page through the original Brothers Grimm story of Snow and the dwarfs. All is not lost in this section, however. John Canemaker introduces four storyboard-to-film sequences ("The Forest Chase," "Cleaning House," "The Dwarfs Chase the Witch," and "The Queen's Order), in which the viewer can choose to see the original storyboards for each sequence, the resulting scene as it appears in the film, or a split-screen comparison of the two together. This is what you came for if you're truly interested in the creation of the film, and the sequences are excellently presented.
"The Queen's Castle" opens with "Art and Design," a three-minute featurette with Canemaker (note to John: either button the collar or invest in V-neck undershirts) discussing the European illustrators Disney hired to conceive the groundwork art for the film. Next is a "Visual Development Gallery" of preliminary concept art, presented with nifty animated menus and an audio tour guide to comment along the way. "Layouts and Backgrounds" is another featurette, about four minutes in length, about the creation of the film's backgrounds and settings; this short is hosted by Disney's director of library restoration, Scott MacQueen. Another stylish gallery of original art, again presented as part of a docent tour, follows the featurette.
"Camera and Tests" includes two excerpts from 1957 episodes of the Disneyland TV series: "The Story of 'Silly Symphonies'" is a two-minute quickie showing how animation techniques first used in Disney's popular cartoon shorts eventually led to feature animation; "Tricks of Our Trade" is a much more substantive (seven-and-a-half minutes) and fascinating look at the multiplane camera, which added depth and dimension to previously flat animated scenes. This latter featurette, though it isn't about Snow White particularly, provides the kind of worthwhile insight into animated filmmaking you'd hope to find in greater abundance in this set. Scott MacQueen reappears to narrate a twelve-minute feature on "Camera Tests," an informative overview of the early stage animation of Snow White, with concentration on the use of color—entire scenes were drawn painted and filmed with Snow White in a yellow dress, scenes that were excised and completely redone in a new color scheme mere weeks before the film's premiere.
The last segment of "The Queen's Castle" is "Animation," beginning with a seven-minute featurette on the voice talent used in the film. If you've always wondered what Adriana Caselotti, the young singer who provided the voice of Snow White, looked like, here's your chance. (Frankly, Adriana looked like she'd wandered in from a Goth club…but that was the style in the mid-'30s. And yes, she still sounded vaguely chipmunkish even as a senior citizen, as you'll see.) A seven-minute short on "Live Action Reference" highlights clips from the live footage shot as reference for the animators; featured are young Marge Belcher—who would later go on to fame as half of the dancing duo Marge and Gower Champion—and baggy-pants comic Eddie Collins. Another cut from the Disneyland "Tricks of Our Trade" episode retraces some of this same ground. A series of art galleries illustrates the progression of the characters from concept to final design—the evolution of Snow White, who was at various points somewhat older in appearance and even had flirtations with Betty Boopishness and with long blonde tresses, is especially fun to peruse.
Moving on to "The Queen's Dungeon," we're treated to storyboards and rough pencil tests for three sequences not fully developed for the film. There's an extended version of Snow White's first meeting with the Prince, a dream sequence involving both characters, and a truly creepy bit with the Prince imprisoned in a dungeon that might have been too dark for the movie as it turned out. Also in this section is "The Restoration," a five-minute featurette about the work that went into the refreshed print of the film that resulted in this DVD. This short by itself would have made the disc special. One hopes Disney will show the same love to all its classic films in the coming years, so our posterity can appreciate them in all their pristine glory.
"The Dwarfs' Mine" holds another batch of deleted scenes, although these are more fully realized, both in length and in the completeness of the animation, than those seen earlier. A scrubbed musical number, "Music in Your Soup," appears here, along with two consecutive scenes in which the dwarfs discuss, and then build, a bed for their new roommate. There's also a long and pointless fight among the dwarfs that would have immediately followed their introduction to Snow White, and an extended scene with the Queen puttering about in her secret lab.
The other main feature in this section, and one of the most ballyhooed when this DVD was announced, is "Disney Through the Decades," a documentary overview of Disney history guest-starring a smorgasbord of Mouse House familiars: Roy Disney (Walt's nephew…though he was really everyone's uncle, wasn't he?), Angela Lansbury (Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Beauty and the Beast), Fess Parker (Davy Crockett), Robby Benson (Beauty's Beast), Dean Jones (The Love Bug), Jodi Benson (Ariel's voice in The Little Mermaid), Ming-Na (Mulan), and D.B. Sweeney (the lead reptile in Dinosaur). The decade segments can be viewed individually or sequentially, and each includes the trailer from that decade's Snow White theatrical release. It's kind of neat to see how many different ways the same picture can be marketed, and the subtle shifts in tone necessitated by the changing generations. Aside from the trailers, though, this is fretfully lightweight and self-laudatory stuff, about as deep and weighty as a paper plate…still fun nonetheless.
"The Dwarfs' Cottage," the final content section, is a repository of archival publicity material. Here you'll uncover a 30-minute radio broadcast from the 1937 Hollywood premiere, supplemented with footage of many of the (now-obscure) stars in attendance. Two featurettes created at the time of the premiere take the viewer backstage at Disney Studios; more than likely you've seen this sort of thing elsewhere—especially if you've visited a Disney theme park—but to an audience in 1937, this was a whole new universe they were entering.
A selection of "vintage audio" includes two four-minute radio interviews from Lux Radio Theater pairing Walt Disney with Cecil B. DeMille. Neither amounts to much more than promotional schmoozing, but where else will you hear these two giants of the industry shooting the breeze for your enjoyment? We also have a half-hour "Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air" broadcast in which Uncle Walt, Snow and the dwarfs, and other Disney favorites including Mickey and Donald themselves turn up to flak the movie. The audio features round out with a selection of radio ads for Snow White, some brief cuts from the recording session of "Silly Song," and another excised musical number entitled "You're Never Too Old to Be Young." Two things you can say about Mr. Disney: he never hesitated to pull the plug on a bit that wasn't working, but he never really threw anything away.
All in all, this set amounts to a remarkable achievement in packaging—a 65-year-old cartoon surrounded with enough added value to prove to you not only why the film itself was a monumental accomplishment, but also why you should shell out three sawbucks retail to see it again and again.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Here's a weird but typically Disney oddity: Walt Disney produced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and micromanaged the production as he was wont to do, but did not direct it (or any of his studio's feature-length pictures, for that matter). The supervising director was a veteran animator named David Hand, who later would direct Bambi, one of Disney's "comeback" films (Dumbo was the other) after the relative disappointments (commercially speaking) of Pinocchio and Fantasia. Hand left Disney in the late 1940s to help found an animation studio in England, and toiled more or less in obscurity for the rest of his life. Amid all the information about the making of Snow White crammed into this Platinum Edition DVD, almost no mention is made of the man Walt entrusted to shepherd this make-or-break project. You'd think a guy who supervised the film that launched the feature animation industry and changed the entertainment world forever would merit just a few props, wouldn't you?
Disney: show David Hand some love. Walt's shoulders are broad enough that he can share a smidgen of credit.
The answer to the magic question is, of course, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is still the fairest of them all. All the technical wizardry invented in the past threescore years plus five can't alter the fact that when it comes down to brass tacks, what matters are characters you can love, a story you can follow, a villain you can hiss, songs with tunes and lyrics you can sing, and just a dash of magic tossed in for good measure. All these elements are in near-perfect place in this first, and still in some ways greatest, animated feature. Disney's gone to the well to showcase this treasure in a stunningly restored transfer and a DVD set stuffed like a cottage full of dwarfs. If you love animation—no, if you love movies, period—you can't not own this.
Sergei Eisenstein, director of The Battleship Potemkin and Ten Days That Shook the World, considered Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the greatest film ever made. Terry Gilliam, the visionary director of Brazil, said it was the first movie he remembered, and that its Queen is one of film's greatest villains. This Judge won't argue with either of these distinguished gentlemen.
The Princess and her seven pals are free to go; Disney is commended by the court for preserving this cinematic masterpiece, and for a sterling DVD presentation. Court is adjourned!
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Producer Walt Disney and Film Historian John Canemaker
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