In 1938, Walt Disney did something no one thought would work. He wanted to make a feature length cartoon. By then, Disney and the other studios had plenty of success with their shorts and Mickey Mouse was already a beloved character. The only other attempt at a feature length animated movie was in Germany, from filmmaker Lotte Reiniger. It was “The Adventures of Prince Achmed”, and it was done entirely using stop motion cutouts. Groundbreaking, yes, but it was not exactly a runaway financial hit and didn’t inspire any copycats.
Needless to say, when “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was released, it was a huge success, earning a whopping $66.5 million domestically. It was done as a simply fairy tale, adapting one of the classics by the Brothers Grimm. It even opens with a live action book, promising the imagination of the story brought to life. The story is that Snow White is more beautiful than her wicked step mother, who is also an evil queen (what happened to her real parents is anyone’s guess). The queen is as vain as she is evil and once she learns that her step daughter is becoming pretty, she puts out a hit on her. Everyone knows this story by now, and Snow White finds herself in hiding with a group of seven unfortunately named dwarfs out in the forest.
One of the first things to notice is the animation style, as well as the strong contrasts therein. Snow White, the Queen, the Huntsman, and even the Prince are all done via rotoscope animation. This is when real actors are filmed and the frames traced over to capture movement. It was something that had been experimented with before, notably by the Fleisher Brothers and some of their “Betty Boop” cartoons. Never before had it been expected to carry a movie by serving as how the protagonist is always animated.
It creates a strong contrast between the first and later part of the movie. While the first is dominated by the rotoscoped characters, once Snow White gets off on her own she interacts with woodland creatures and later the dwarfs, who are traditionally animated cartoon characters (complete with the missing fifth finger). Her interactions with the dwarfs are where the difference in style becomes most apparent. She doesn’t blend in as seamlessly as they do with the cartoon world, but it’s hardly distracting.
As with all of Disney’s cartoons from the time, such as the “Silly Symphonies” series, music played an important role in the story. The music here, as merely the score, is practically a character unto itself. It provides the mood and even a musical cue for each and every character. The simplest of movements, like from a squirrel being scared by a mouse, is all set in time to the music. Then there are the songs, which are catchy, memorable, and significant highlights of the movie. The best of these come from the dwarfs, in particular “Heigh-Ho”.
These are timeless characters, and with good reason. Snow White herself is presented as a Venus figure, in touch with nature and communing with the animals (though these animals are cute enough to induce diabetic comas). She’s also of her time, shown to be delicate, fragile, innocent, and with a deep-seated desire to clean a home. She imagines the occupants of the cottage are children, and never lets this idea go. She continues to patronize and condescendingly talk to the dwarfs like they’re children; despite all of them looking old enough to be her grandfather (the exception being Dopey).
The witch is wonderfully evil and oddly more frightening as the rotoscoped queen than as her hag cartoon transformation, even monologuing to herself and practically breaking the fourth wall in revealing her plans. The prince is the prince, a non-entity, but it’s the dwarfs who steal the show. From the moment they appear onscreen, new life is breathed into the movie accompanied by a show stopping new song. They’re all classic character types taken to an extreme, but that only makes their interactions that much funnier.
Another major innovation comes from the sense of depth in the painted backgrounds. They built a large multilayered moving background reel, allowing for the cel animated characters to move behind what would otherwise be static background images. It gave the world a sense of depth for them to move around in, something that had never been done before. They could have simultaneous background and foreground imagery during a moving shot, both vertically and horizontally. At the time it was groundbreaking and there are some iconic shots that are still famous to this day.
There aren’t enough good things to say about “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, and it’s maintained its classic status for so long for a reason. Animation innovations aside, historic creation aside, it’s a great movie that tells a simple story beautifully. It’s charming, has great music, lovable characters, and wonderful animation.