Monday, December 20, 2010

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

After a brief hiatus from the Disney love fest (because as we all know, that’s what this blog does best), we return with the very first Disney movie ever made. Released in 1937, it’s a rather uneven affair, showing Walt Disney’s eagerness to push technological boundaries, how much room for improvement there still was in that regard for his future films, and how wildly disparate his attempts at stretching out a story to feature length could be.

Unlike a lot of Disney’s later efforts (including Pinocchio, his very next one), the film of Snow White managed to remain pretty close to the original fairy tale, with most of the story changes either toning down the violence of the original tale (no making the evil queen dance in red hot shoes in this one) or to add a whole lot of “comic” relief in the case of the dwarfs. We still get the standard tale of an evil queen, a magic mirror, the huntsman with a conscience (though strangely, while we still get a huntsman that lets her escape because he can’t bear to kill her, we don’t get the following scene where he kills a deer and cuts out its heart to present to the queen as Snow White’s), the seven dwarfs, the poisoned apple, and the kiss from Prince Charming. It’s almost like a prototype for what would later become the traditional Disney story rather than a finished effort, kept about as basic as Disney possibly could while maintaining an 80 minute running time. Part of that padding came in the form of the musical numbers sprinkled around the film, which were a carry-over from the animated shorts the company had been making up to this point, and which apparently warranted the creation of the first ever soundtrack available in stores. While yay for being such a pioneer, I’m not really certain the songs from this film were really good enough to justify that, with Heigh-Ho and Whistle While You Work being the only ones that are really memorable in any positive way (Bluddle-uddle-um-dum is also rather memorable, though mainly because it’s such a ghastly affair that I’d almost rather rewatch that South Park episode where they showed live footage of sex change surgery).

Technically, the film is both a wonder and an occasional annoyance. It was the first major feature film to be released in modern Technicolor, as well as being the first feature length animated movie in U.S. history, facts that helped make it the highest grossing film ever made to date (outdone a year later by Gone With the Wind), despite having cost so much money that most insiders had expected it to finish the company entirely. On the other hand, it also tried to save time and money by using a process called Rotoscoping, in which they would film live actors and paint the drawings over them, which is why Snow White and Prince Charming look so much more bland and lifeless than the purely animated dwarfs. Disney continued to use the process in limited form in some of his later films (most notably Cinderella), but it’s a process that I’ve found always makes the animation less imaginative than it should be, and is normally only utilized in really cheap efforts like Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. Not to harp on it, but it’s really about the quickest and easiest way to drain the fun out of an animated movie, and it does not help here in any way. And the animators of the film agreed with me, so nyah.

There’s also a pretty massive tonal disconnect between the pure comedy relief of the dwarfs and everything else in the film, which tends to alternate between pure joy at how beautiful and wonderful Snow White is to pure terror at how evil the Queen is. It’s not really a matter of the film blending together a number of different feels, because there is no blending to be had. It just shifts entirely from one to the other, roughly enough to give one whiplash. While each more-or-less works (though the dwarfs somewhat less so for me, as six of the seven seem to have been designed entirely for very young children and possibly mothers, with Grumpy being the only one that gets any kind of real personality), the jarring shifts do detract pretty substantially from the film.

While this was a landmark effort for both Disney and the film industry as a whole, it really doesn’t hold up particularly well today. The sheer basicness of it means that it remains a very generic effort, with as many flaws as benefits. If you have a young daughter, she may enjoy watching it with you (though given the choice she’d probably prefer watching the latest Pixar film), but I think this is mainly for the real Disney diehards and film buffs.

Rating: **

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