WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: Snow White is tolerated as a maid by her stepmother, the wicked Queen, until the day the young woman’s beauty exceeds her own. Lucky to be alive but cast out into the woods, Snow White falls upon a house owned by seven dwarfs who succumb to her charms and take her in. Hearing of her survival, the Queen disguises herself as an old crone and sets off for the woods with a poisoned apple in her basket.
A long time ago in a land far away, cartoon maker Walt Disney had a dream: to make a feature-length animated movie, in colour, with sound. ‘It can’t be done!’ those around him said, but Walt pressed on with his ‘folly’ and after three years’ work Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and a new type of cinema, were born.
‘Lovely little princess’ Snow White lives as a scullery maid in the employ of her stepmother, charming the birds from the trees and attracting the attention of a handsome prince, much to the displeasure of the Queen. Wildly jealous that (in the opinion of her magic mirror) Snow White has become the fairest in the land, the Queen commands a huntsman to kill the princess and bring back evidence. The huntsman cannot bring himself to do the deed, however, and tells the princess to run to the woods, where she is beset by perils but brought back to her senses by the woodland creatures who take her to an empty, cosy cottage.
Believing it to be inhabited by children, Snow White and the animals clean the house and everything in it before she is overtaken by fatigue; the actual owners, seven diamond-mining dwarfs, return and are originally spooked by the invader before she reveals herself to be benevolent and also a cook and dancing partner.
The dwarfs – even irascible Grumpy – fall in love with the princess, but their warnings for her to be careful cannot save her from a trick played by the Queen, who magically disguises herself as an old crone and persuades Snow White to bite a poisoned apple. The dwarfs race back to deal with the Queen, but are they too late to save their new friend from the ‘sleeping death’?
It would be a miracle for any seventy year-old film not to have a few issues, let alone one that was the first of its kind; and there are issues, though by and large these come down to personal taste. Firstly, the backgrounds, whilst charming, are largely static (except for the waterfall and the imaginative use of a reflective surface for a river).
Secondly, some of the facial characteristics are odd, by which I mean that Snow White and the prince are too realistic (their lips, noses and eyes don’t look quite right), and the contrasting long, oval eyes of the dwarfs are also strange, as they are always looking straight up or straight down. Of course, large eyes give the dwarfs a certain expressiveness whenever they’re looking coy or ashamed, but they also make them look twee – for my taste, anyway.
In terms of the story, a great deal of time is spent showing the dwarfs at work, being afraid of whatever’s invaded (and tidied) their house, then being introduced to Snow White, washed for supper and so on; and though this offers much in the way of comedy, it does slow down the pacing of the film and the telling of the tale. I would happily have sacrificed five minutes of the dwarfs’ antics to give more depth to the prince and a fuller explanation of his efforts to locate the sleeping princess in her glass coffin. As it is, a caption does this job, so the time that elapses between Snow White’s ‘death’ and her revival is very brief: you hardly have time to mourn with the dwarfs before they have cause to celebrate again, and the film ends very suddenly.
But these are nitpicks compared with what Walt Disney’s team have done brilliantly. Snow White is appealingly positive, and even if her facial movements don’t always convince (especially when she speaks) she is otherwise animated beautifully, the fluidity of her movement still impressing today (she was closely modelled on dancer Marge Champion).
The delineation of the seven similar-looking dwarfs is also impressive, with Grumpy bagging the best lines. I don’t like Dopey very much, his mute nature, sagging clothes and big ears occasionally making him look more the dwarfs’ pet than one of their number, but he has the lion’s share of the physical comedy.
Best of all, though, is the characterisation of the Queen, a malevolent, frightening presence in both her forms whose threat is real and dark, reflecting more of Grimm’s fairy tales than modern sensibilities might be comfortable with: not only does the Queen order Snow White’s death, she demands her heart in a box as proof.
Perhaps the best compliment to Snow White is that it feels like a normal animation even to modern audiences. However basic some of its attributes may be, the heroes and villains are established, as are the comic/action sequences and musical interludes. The style of the singing may be dated but the songs themselves – I’m Wishing, Whistle While You Work, One Day My Prince Will Come and of course, Heigh-Ho – have stood the test of time extremely well.
I am not enamoured of everything Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has to offer, and because it’s a little sugary and old-fashioned for my senses I would prefer to watch Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, given a free hand. But when I say Snow White is a significant achievement, it’s in no respect meant to patronise Disney’s work; for not only is it a pioneering film which established the formula for feature-length animations for decades to come, it is also very good on its own terms.