In an another attempt to get this blog of mine moving again, I thought it could be fun do get some reviews going, since if nothing else I know I can talk about my own opinions until the cows come home (and really – what else is the internet for?). I was going to review local theatre, but then I figured I want to be involved in local theatre and annoying somebody with a bad review may not make me appealing to future directors. So I figured I’d switch to something less likely to cause offence – Disney.
Like most grown up children, I’ve seen most of the Disney canon over the years, but there’s gaps, key movies I’ve missed. For example, I think that to this day I’ve never seen Cinderella or The Jungle Book, at least in their entirety. So, deciding to rectify that, I thought I’d start watching them all, in order, jot down a few of my thoughts and see how the Disney Company develops and changes into the great monolith of cinema it is today.
So, back to the very beginning, with Snow White. It’s not possible to understate the significance of this film. The first animated feature ever – not just for Disney, but at all. In 1937, there was nothing at all like this for audiences to compare it to. Sure, there were animated shorts, but nothing over ten minutes or with anything approaching a feature-length plot or detailed characterisations. The story of its creation is worthy of a film in itself – at the time everyone told Disney his “folly” was doomed to failure only for it to exceed expectations and become an all-time classic. For me, this holds significance in that my first on-stage performance was in a production of Snow White. I was five years old in my prep grade classroom production, and I played the Evil Queen (and then took over as the wicked witch at very short noticed when the assigned actress didn’t show up for school on the day, but that’s another story).
Snow White isn’t a movie I’ve seen all that often, and seeing it again today suggests to me why – despite its classic status, it’s definitely a movie of its time. You can see the creators’ previous training in short-form animation in its construction – rather than a cohesive plot, you have a lot of individual set pieces each with its own tone and atmosphere. And a lot of them were slapstick comedy routines, which no doubt get the kiddies giggling. Nothing wrong with that, I should add, it is a children’s movie and I’m not the target audience, but the overall effect was a bit of a contrast compared to the modern-era Disney film. But the net result is a film full of sequences that don’t quite seem to progress the plot, they’re there mostly to allow the animators to showcase their craft. I’m thinking mostly of the washing-up sequence, which feels like it’s gone on for twenty minutes and doesn’t tell us anything about these characters we haven’t already got from the long comedy sequence in the mines, or the long "Silly Song" sequence we’re about to get soon after.
But what I think what I felt the movie lacked most was depth of character. Everybody is painted is such broad strokes (no pun intended), with one or two character traits and that’s all. Fair enough, I hear you say, it’s a fairy tale and that’s how they work, but that made it difficult to care about them. The Dwarfs, sure, they’re our comedy relief, I can understand them being archetypes, but I found it difficult to care about Snow White and her predicament when she’s portrayed as such a dim and slightly crazy character. This is where the twee and saccharine image of the stereotypical Disney Princess comes from, back in the days before they had spines and a bent for witty banter. Sure, when you come across a cottage in the middle of a forest and you’re on the run, of course the first thing you do is clean the place up. You’re on the run from your evil stepmother, you need asylum – by all means giggle at the seven short people you desperately need help from. They may have tried to make Snow White a sweet and adorable girl, but she just comes across as a nutcase who doesn’t seem to quite understand the danger she’s in and is quite content to stroll around in a mild daze and shack up with any strange man who wanders along, be them dwarfs, princes or otherwise. The Queen’s motivations seemed a bit odd as well – fair enough, she wants to ensure she’s the most beautiful of them all, but to choose to destroy her own beauty in the process seemed a bit odd (as a kid I always assumed it was a temporary disguise, but something about her transformation sequence as show makes it look rather permanent). And as for Prince Charming … it seems the only reason Snow White falls for him is because he’s available for handy duets as he’s got no other traits one way or another (besides that he likes to kiss corpses. I mean really…). But then, as we’ve established, Snow White is out of her tiny little brain, so maybe that’s all she really needs from a guy…
And speaking of funny behaviour, gotta love the suspicious (to a point) Dwarfs, who don’t quite understand what this random princess is doing in their rooms and only seem to welcome her into the house when she promises to continue cooking and clean for them. Well, I guess it was the 30s.
I’m being very critical, I know, and possibly a tad unfair. There is a lot in this film I did enjoy. There’s some surprisingly effective darker moments throughout – the Queen’s slow transformation into the Witch is especially effective. There’s also the scene where Snow White eats the apple, and the camera stays on the Witch’s reaction while Snow White dies off-screen. I’m describing it badly, but the result is a very disturbing moment. And one thing I always forget about this film is the attention given to Grumpy as he comes around to liking Snow White. Granted, it’s nothing special or amazing as far as character development goes, even in 1937, but it’s still sweet to see. I’d have liked to have seen more wit rather than slapstick in the story (which you’ll come to notice will be an ongoing issue with me – prefer funny lines to funny walks any day), but there were one or two gems hiding in the script. Grumpy saying there’s “dirty work afoot” in regards to Snow White’s cleaning-and-entering. Couldn’t help but cringe at the images of animals cleaning dishes however, no matter how catchy the song in the background.
Yes, the songs, no discussion of a Disney movie is complete without mention of the score. It’s a shame so much of it isn’t particularly memorable – sure, it has long-time standards like “Heigh-Ho”, ‘Someday My Prince Will Come” and “Whistle While You Work”, but the rest is fairly forgettable. I did find it interesting that the overture uses “One Song” as its base rather than any of the catchier melodies – a misunderstanding of which songs of the movie had legs and which didn’t, or an attempt to give one of the less interesting songs more weight? Still, those good songs have a lot going for them and bode well for the musical exploits of Disney in the future.
I know I sound like I hated Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but that’s not quite true. But I did find it less than stellar and inspiring. It definitely has a key place in history, and none of the later great animation classics would exist if it were not for Snow White, but as someone watching back on it seventy-five years later, it’s suffers in comparison to what came after it. It’s definitely a strong start, but there’s so much room for improvement.