06 January 2012

Disney Daze: Week 1: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released, feature-length animated films, one per week.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is Walt Disney's greatest cinematic achievement. I don't mean to imply that it is the greatest film I will be watching over the course of this year, although there are several arguments to make in favor of such a theory, some of which I will delve into below. No, I simply mean, Snow White is the greatest work of animated art by Mr. Walter Elias Disney, the man, not the studio that bears his name. Snow White was the last animated project that Walt turned every ounce of his creative attention to. Certainly he had a strong hand in the subsequent features released during his lifetime, but all of these were vying for an increasingly splintered attention with other works the studio was simultaneously working on, and later the relentless pull of an amusement park several miles southeast of the studios. Snow White is Walt Disney's purest statement as an auteur, and a damn good one at that.

It's hard to view Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from outside the telescope of history. How it was the first non-shadow puppet animated feature of all time. How the film was the first of many experiments the press deemed "Disney's Folly", certain that the attempt at achieving the unprecedented would bankrupt and close the studio. How its success literally built the Disney studio that still stands today. How it created the mold that every single Disney princess film from here on out will be cast in. I don't think anyone can honestly separate the legacy from the film, but I went into my most recent viewing determined to try.

On a visual level, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is perfect. The backgrounds are masterpieces in their own right; the mannerisms of every character are fluid and distinctive; the special effects, particularly the few shots of rippling water, are stunning. The use of the multi-plane camera is incredibly effective without ever being distracting. Early on in Pinocchio, there is an establishing shot of the village that goes through several planes and pans to the right. It might be the single greatest shot in any animated film ever, but it is also just a tad too flashy. It is so incredible that it can't help but signal its virtuosity. Snow White's shots always serve the story first and foremost. Originally I had intended on singling out a shot from each feature I end up watching as the perfect moment, the one to frame and hang on the wall, but from the first Snow White slayed me. Every shot is gorgeous.  

Structurally, Snow White is really weird. It all makes sense in the end, but during the film the narrative flow feels slightly wrong. It starts out gorgeously gentle, then settles into a lengthy languid period, followed by a blazingly fast denouement and resolution. Half of the entire film is spent tidying a cottage, washing up for supper, and going to bed. It's like Jeanne Dielman up in this piece. I like it. Of course, the lengthy domestic section is built to allow the Dwarfs time to introduce themselves and develop a strong bond with this strange girl who will be found in a coma on their kitchen floor in less than twelve hours. We need to settle down with these people as they find their common bond through snappy songs and delightful gags.

Speaking briefly of the gags, I was surprised by how often the jokes in the film had me laughing. When I watch old Mickey Mouse cartoons now, I am continually entertained but rarely do the jokes make me chortle. Not so, Snow White. There is such care in every aspect of the filmmaking that the gags were no doubt scrutinized intently to make sure they're effective the hundredth time they're viewed. Most of my favorite comedic moments come from two characters throughout the film and no, they're not Dopey and Grumpy. Doc was actually the dwarf that had my attention the most. His constant stuttering and mangling of phrases leads to several gems, my favorite being the utterance "crooked fanny" because I am immature. I also loved how during the lengthy washing up sequence, he leads the dwarfs to the trough, teaches them the fundamentals of cleaning themselves through song and pantomime, but never actually cleans himself. The closest he gets is shining his spectacles. Even Grumpy, who refuses to participate, eventually gets bathed; but Doc manages to pull a fast one on the other dwarfs and subsequently Snow White.

My other favorite comedian in the film is the lowly turtle who spends all of his time onscreen trying to catch up to everyone. He struggles up the stairs to bed just in time for all of the other forest creatures to come clamoring down in a panic. When they all head off towards the mines to warn the dwarfs of the Queen's evil plot, he makes it about halfway through the woods before the cavalry comes storming back, knocking him down. This guy is like a silly Sisyphus, turning the endless struggle into one big cosmic joke. (How's that for high-falutin' writin'?)

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the tension and terror this film is capable of. The Queen's hysterical machinations drive her first to order Snow White slain, her heart cut out, and placed in a box; then it's on to magic spells to poison her and bury her alive! Can you imagine any film ostensibly aimed at children nowadays that has a hideous witch cackling with devilish delight, "buried alive!" as she exits her dungeon? She's so scary she frightened her own pet crow!

(A brief aside, if the Queen was doing this all out of jealousy over Snow White's ravishing good looks--and might I add, you were right Magic Mirror, she is the fairest of them all; take that Ariel--why doesn't she just task the huntsmen with using that knife to disfigure her, or cast a spell that will turn her permanently into the hag the Queen becomes? Because she's mega evil that's why.)

Detractors complain that Disney's versions of classic fairy tales usurp all other attempts at these works. In certain people's minds the Disney films become the definitive versions solely based upon the ubiquity of Disney's corporate reach and how it is there to coddle children from birth. That may be true to some extent but some of these adaptations, at the very least Snow White, are first and foremost works of peerless art. Snow White was not created with the greedy, cynical ideas of theme park spinoffs, plush dolls, or coloring books in mind; although admittedly all of those ancillary products did come to fruition somewhere down the line. The film was a challenge, a means of proving to the world, not least the orbit of Hollywood, that Disney's creations were achievements as important as those churned out by the other studios. Two new cinematic versions of the Snow White story will be released in 2012 but I can guarantee that neither will be able to hold a candle, nor an apple, to Walt Disney's singular masterpiece.

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