To begin this project of course we have to start where it all began. The first full length animated film- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Debuting in 1937, Snow White was not only a creative success but a commercial hit as well. Earning $8 million dollars in its initial release, making it the highest grossing film at the time. Walt Disney was given an honorary Oscar in 1939 for his achievement and the 7 Dwarfs became marketing icons on all kinds of merchandise, creating a commercial profitability which film had not seen to that point.
Work on the film began in 1934 with an initial budget of 250k. For a time it was called ‘Disney’s folly’ because Walt had to mortgage his house and ran up a cost of nearly 1.5 million to produce.
Disney was fond of the 7 Dwarfs and many different personalities were tested including Tubby, Jumpy Puffy, Dizzy and Shorty before they settled on Doc, Grumpy, Bashful, Sleepy and Happy, Dopey, and Sneezy
Originally there were more comedic elements with a dungeon skeleton dance and a more laughable Evil Queen and Prince. But Disney will show in nearly every film he produced a concern of realism and taking his subjects seriously.
We will see in Fantasia, Pinocchio, Dumbo and Bambi that darker elements are not glossed over and comedy is relatively muted.
Initially frustrated with the project, Disney went to Europe in 1935 and was inspired by the architecture, landscapes and the creativity of his team. They say he had renewed confidence and was ready to push forward.
Disney was also famous for having his animators take classes on many European art movements and styles and you can see this influence in many of his films. He even set up a school in the Disney Studios for the animators to improve. These classes were referred to as a ‘brutal battle’ by some of the animators, but it did inspire them to try new ideas and create the beautiful lush atmosphere we see in Snow White.
The music was composed by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey. Snow White was the first American film to have a soundtrack album released with the film.
So how does it hold up? I think very well. I do not have children but the story is familiar enough with a balance of laughs and spooks to still entertain a child today of many ages. Perhaps pre-teens and teens will be less interested in the plot but if they appreciate art maybe they can enjoy it on that level.
The strengths of the film are still the Dwarfs. Their ‘Heigh-Ho’ work song is catchy and their movements sparkle and feel smooth and easy whereas Snow White sometimes seems plastered into the shot, less natural.
The dwarfs taking a bath to ‘The Washing Song’ will still bring a smile to any viewers face.
The villain is also first rate. Perhaps only eclipsed by Cruella Devile, no other Disney villain has been so obsessed with beauty and vanity. She doesn’t need power or money. She already lives in a castle as queen. No, she needs to be beautiful and most importantly more beautiful than anyone else. Even Cruella didn’t seem to care what others thought of her in the way the Queen did.
This is interesting when you think of the despots and villains of the late 30s. Someone like an Adolf Hitler already had power but it was not enough. He had to have everyone look a certain way, act a certain way, total control.
This transformation scene is stunning.
Where the film is weaker and outdated is with Snow White and The Prince . The voice by Adriana Caselotti is squeaky to a modern ear and The Prince is given no name or personality at all. We have instant love which makes both their characters and motivation kind of boring.
The songs are actually not half bad with the melody for Someday My Prince Will Come being one of Disney’s best (the lyrics could use work but the melody is beautiful). The Work Song is also charming but the high pitched squeal is a definite distraction.
It is the Dwarfs we become emotionally attached to through the film. I love how classic Disney was open with children about all kinds of emotions including grief. Surely the funeral scene would be tempered and muted today
A landmark achievement of both art and film. Beautiful music, loveable Dwarfs, dynamic villain and at only 83 minutes the squeaky singing doesn’t go on for long. A definite must for any film lovers library.