What happened to your apples?
I magic-ed them into apple turnovers, full of sugary goodness and cream!
By the early 1930s, Walt Disney faced a dilemma: his popular cartoon shorts about Mickey Mouse were starting to lose money. His competitors could afford to produce cartoons at a loss as lead-ins to their live action films; Disney, who did not have a movie studio, could not.
But he had another idea: he could produce a full-length film of his own. Only, instead of making a live action film, he could produce a full-length cartoon feature, running, say, for about 88 minutes. Good length. Sure, it might cost as much as $500,000. (Cue gasps.) He would need 300 artists. It had never been done before.
It’s safe to say that very few people thought this was a good idea. And that $500,000 turned out to be a very wrong estimate. It’s also very safe to say that this idea is why we have the entertainment megacorporation of Disney as it exists today.
The process of creating Snow White officially began when Walt Disney acted out the story he had in mind to his main animators. Later, some of them said Disney’s performance had brought them to tears; whether this was true, or just a later Disney legend, is a bit difficult to determine. But the preparation had started long before that. Disney had wanted artists that could be cartoonists, but not just cartoonists, and paid to have his cartoonists take art classes, first at the Chouinard Art Institute, and later at the newly formed Disney Art School. (Somewhat scandalously, some of these art classes involved — gasp — nude models, which apparently had the side effect of encouraging cartoonists to show up.) Cartoonists were also sent to the zoo to study animals.
This was all great, but it left just a few little technical problems: first, the difficulty of creating the illusion of depth from two dimensional drawings, needed to give the film a realistic feel; second, the difficulty of creating four lifelike animated humans; and third, not having enough artists available, even after the art school program. Oh, sure, Disney had artists diligently churning out Mickey Mouse cartoons, but for this, he needed more. Three hundred more.
This might have been impossible except for a fortunate (for Disney) historical fluke: Disney just happened to need those artists during the Great Depression. Which in turn meant quite a few just happened to be available at considerably lower-than-usual rates.
That still left Disney with the two other issues. The solution to the first was a technical milestone: a multiplane camera. First, the art was separated and put on different levels of glass. Then, each piece of glass was separated. This meant that when the camera moved in, the art on top would get “bigger” faster than the art on the bottom — giving the illusion of depth, and allowing the camera to move in and out, the same way it could in a live action film. As an added bonus, this meant that special effects — for instance, rain, which was not always animated, but instead a film of actual water drops — could be filmed on a separate piece of glass.
Next came the issues of trying to animate three adult humans, one girl, and seven dwarfs — and make their actions look realistic. Animated cartoons had included human figures before, of course — but always in exaggerated, unrealistic forms, and the results had looked, well, wrong. For Snow White, animators studied dancers and asked the voice actors for the dwarfs to dance, studying their movements as well, to see how humans actually move. The end result seems commonplace today, but at the time it was an innovation: animated humans with (nearly) natural movement.
It wasn’t perfect — the Huntsman’s movements, for one, are not always entirely convincing; an artistic/production error led to an accidental “shimmer” effect with the Prince, and a few of Snow White’s movements are off as well. But at the time, audiences found it jaw-dropping.
So how does it hold up today? For all its ambition to be the first full-length animated film, Snow White isn’t quite there in anything but length: rather, it’s a sometimes uneasy mix of the old cartoon shorts with a full-length film. To a very large extent, this was playing up to the audiences of the time, who had certain expectations from their animated cartoons that focused on short, funny gags and characters doing silly things. Walt Disney, almost always good at reading his potential audience, correctly guessed that this audience would be expecting silly dwarf scenes, and provided that — even as his animators complained that the dwarfs’ scenes went on for far too long.
The film starts off sharply, moves into a terrorizing forest sequence (a sequence that not all small children survive) then pauses for a long, extended housecleaning scene, pauses for another long sequence focused on the dwarfs, and then another long sequence focused on the dwarfs, and finally jumps back into the action as the queen belatedly realizes that the Huntsman gave her the wrong heart. Which means that we get a very long, often slow cartoon about singing, cleaning, working, and properly washing faces and hands, where very little actually happens (unless you are counting the story of that poor tortoise) bookended with sequences of near horror and terror.
The little tortoise is the most adorable and heart-warming character in the entire film. Possibly because each and every time he finally achieves his slow, hard-fought-for goal, he gets knocked down and has to start all over. With a smile.
If little bears were to watch the film 🙂 they would discover just how many elements of the Disney brand are already in place: the adorable helpful little animals, the first of the Disney princesses and the memorable songs (some, not all). As much as Walt Disney liked to say afterwards that it all started with a mouse, it’s equally accurate to say that it all started with a fairy tale. Eighty years ago today!
Little bears are instead watching Once Upon a Time, where Snow White has a bit more gumption, to quote Hook.
Despite the need to fill 88 minutes of screen time, Walt Disney severely cut the original story, eliminating the original beginning, with its deeply symbolic elements, two of the queen’s attempts to assassinate Snow White, and the gruesome ending in which the evil stepmother is forced to dance in hot iron shoes until she dies. Not that the evil stepmother gets away scot-free — or alive — in the Disney version, either, but the death occurs largely off screen, confirmed mostly by the hungry eyes of the lurking vultures.
Cutting those two assassination attempts was almost certainly necessary to keep Snow White from looking too credulous — especially since, to keep the last assassination attempt believable, Disney did keep Snow White almost as young as she was in the Grimm fairy tale. Almost. Snow White, in the original Grimm/Lang versions, is seven when she first becomes “as beautiful as she could be”, and runs off to the woods shortly after that. Disney’s Snow White seems to be at least twelve — she’s old enough to work as a scullery maid, and take on a motherly role to the dwarfs. But not much older than that. She’s drawn with a flat chest and the features of a young girl, and voiced with a childish, high pitched voice (by Adriana Caselotti) — in striking contrast to the rich, older tones of her stepmother.
(It’s also in striking contrast to the voices of later Disney princesses, usually voiced with richer, more mature tones. For entertainment, try comparing the voices of Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), Belle (1991) and Elsa and Anna (2014). The women who play Snow White at the Disney parks have to talk with the same childish, high pitched voice 🙂 )
Snow White is of a childish age but her most childish moment comes when she eats the apple offered to her by the old witch. Everything — the warnings from other characters, the reactions from the animals, the sudden appearances of the vultures who did not show up for the major housecleaning binge — should tell her not to do this. She was intelligent enough to make the best of things under her stepmother; intelligent enough to realize that she had been foolish for no reason at all; intelligent enough to bargain her way into a home with the dwarfs. And yet, this.
It feels wrong, and makes sense only if Snow White is enchanted (which she doesn’t seem to be), if Snow White is incredibly stupid (which again, apparently not, based on other bits of the film), if Snow White is too terrified to say no (an explanation that appears in other retellings, but not here), or if she is simply too young to know better. Disney went with the last.
Then the film lingers – a lot – on its theme of work. It’s not completely new to the story: in their version of Snow White, The Grimms had associated housework with positive images of women and girls — basically, girls that do housework, and avoid the temptations of vanity, stay alive and get the prince. The Disney version doesn’t quite follow this: it’s surprisingly, and even hilariously, not all that concerned with issues of vanity and personal appearance — hilariously, given the Disney Princess product line this film would eventually help launch. Yes, Snow White does look at herself in the well once, but the purpose of this is more to set up a song (I’m wishing!) and to show off that Disney’s animators had accomplished the hitherto impossible: creating an animated image of something reflected in water, than to say much about her looks. (Thanks, multiplane camera!) And that’s about it for Snow White’s vanity.
But the Disney version does pick up the work focus, only with a twist. It focuses on the sheer joy of having work to do, and the idea that working will bring you joy. In our first glimpse of Snow White, we see her smiling as she scrubs steps. We later see her singing and smiling as she cleans up the house, and a number of adorable woodland animals eagerly help her out—and have fun doing so. We see the dwarfs — whose accents, grammar and failure to bathe regularly stem from then-popular representations of working class people — sing about the sheer joy of working. All this while doing housework and mining, typically classified as tedious, menial jobs.
Doing tedious tasks have often been part of a hero’s journey and assigned tasks feature in many fairy tales, often with the assistance of small animals the hero had helped along the way. But this particular message seems to spring more directly from the Great Depression than from fairy tales, a message that reflected the relief of having any job at all, no matter how menial or tedious. And to a certain extent the original condition of that cottage may also have reflected certain images from the Great Depression: neglected, almost run down, small enough that the seven dwarfs all have to share a single bedroom — though at least they’ve personalized their beds. And although definitely cartoonish, the images of the dwarfs curling up in various odd places also fit familiar images of unemployed people finding jobs wherever they could.
That these scenes are cut between shots of the dwarfs picking up huge gems from the mine suggests that something is seriously wrong with this kingdom’s economy — echoed in the scenes in Snow White’s nearly empty castle. The dwarfs have gems, yes, but no one is buying them. Still. It’s a job, and so, hi ho, hi ho, off to work they go.
The songs are a bit of a mixed bag as well. Three became instant classics and Disney staples — Heigh-Ho, Whistle While You Work, and Someday My Prince Will Come, Other songs have not become popular staples, for a reason. As the animators complained, they are featured in sequences that last far too long, almost to the point of forgetting that yes, yes, there’s an evil witch out there. The moment she comes back, the dwarfs immediately recede: the Evil Queen doesn’t just have a far more powerful presence, she’s visually more interesting.