[22 October 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For Walt Disney, it was the realization of a dream, nearly a decade of wondering if his already successful short film style could actually be expanded to feature film length. While history would argue over its claims of being “first” (Russia and Germany might have something to say about it), it remains the beginning of a movemaking mythology that continues to this very day. Without Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, there would be no House of Mouse, no Happiest Place on Earth, no Hannah Montana or Jonas Brothers. Had it failed, had it really been “Disney’s Folly”, it would have sealed the fate of the fledgling studio forever. Instead, it opened up an entire artform to a new and appreciative audience - and now modern viewers can experience something similar with the brand new Blu-ray release of this undeniable cartooning classic.
But the final product was not the end result of some manner of presto-chango magic - no matter what Tinkerbell and the rest of the company’s mascots argue. For several years prior, Disney was himself overseeing a massive preproduction that utilized thousands of ideas, sketches, character interpretations, and other sources of inspiration which were then tapped into, twisted around, and frequently discarded. Much of this material was lost over the course of time, but what remains has been carefully cataloged and preserved in Disney’s own massive archives/library (over 60 million pieces, and counting). For the Diamond Edition release of Snow White on home video, Lella Smith, curator of the Walt Disney Animation Studios - Animation Research facility, opened the vaults to explain how things went from a famed Brothers Grimm fairytale to a make or break product for the upstart inventor of Mickey Mouse.
“There were lots of European artists involved initially”, Smith said in a recent roundtable interview celebrating the Blu-ray release, “Walt meet several of them during his travels abroad, and he brought them on to consult.” It was a painstaking process, one that involved a lot of design and redesign. “Snow White was original blond, almost a Betty Boop type,” she explains, “in keeping with the style of the times. Actors were also brought in so that movement and human qualities could be studied.” But don’t think for a moment that Disney used rotoscoping to create its characters (a process which sees animated cells culled from actual filmed footage of people). “The animators would be livid,” she laughed. “This was all hand drawn - meticulous and painstaking.”
Perhaps the most difficult element to realize, however, was the dwarfs. As far back as 1934, the studio was worried about how they would come across onscreen. “Walt sat down in a meeting,” Smith explains, “and in one afternoon, more or less defined and described what he wanted.” Hoping to inject some humor into the film, he hoped the little men would be easily identifiable and easily relatable to the audience. “Early names like ‘Wheezy’, ‘Jumpy’, and ‘Baldy’ give you an idea of what they were thinking,” she says, though early drawing showed gnome-like beings barely distinguishable from each other. Disney wanted the names to inspire the artists, and it wasn’t long before the now memorable characters of Grumpy, Sleepy, Happy, Doc, Bashful, Sneezy and Dopey were born.
Still the process took time. “From 1934 to 1936 - two full years - the animators fretted over the dwarfs”, Smith reveals, “with perhaps the biggest changes coming to Dopey and Grumpy.” Everyone loved the mostly mute, child-like creature with oversized ears and a heart to match - but he wasn’t always so loveable. “He was initially seen as an old man, bearded and insular,” she points out. Disney wanted him more fun loving and innocent. Over time, it was decided that Dopey would be younger than the rest, at least in appearance. There was a similar strategy with Grumpy as well. “He was initially seen as some bitter, angry guy,” she laughs. Over time, the animators chosen to ‘lighten’ him, to give him what Smith considers the biggest onscreen personality shift of any single facet in the film.
Humor was also important to Disney, and he had dozens of writers, most with experience from his Silly Symphony line of shorts, writing gags for the film. “The jokes were plotted like they were in silent comedies,” Smith outlines, “Walt would pay an unheard of $5 for each one that made it into the film - and this was the Depression, remember”. Of course, many didn’t make it into the final cut. “There were jokes with Sleepy more or less napping anywhere he could - a clothesline, a wash basin - and an entire sequence where the dwarfs combed their beards with a rake.” Entire subplots were also deleted to shorten the fretted over running time. One of Smith’s favorites, a sloppy soup eating scene, was actually animated but ultimately removed to quicken the film’s pace.
Such a painstaking approach definitely shows in the final product. For anyone unfamiliar with the 72 year old masterpiece, the story is simple. Snow White is the stepdaughter of a wicked, vane queen. When a magic mirror explains that the child is the fairest female in the land, Her Majesty gets mad and sentences her to death. Escaping her fate, Snow White ends up in the woodland cottage of seven dwarfs. After some initial trepidation, the little men take to their newfound charge. When the queen discovers that Snow White is still alive, she plots her demise. She poisons an apple, dresses up like an old beggar woman, and confronts the young girl. Sadly, she bites the forbidden fruit, fallen into a death-like sleep and is buried in a glass coffin. Only the love’s first kiss can cure her.
Considering its age, it’s reliance on then popular creative contrivances like slapstick and sight gags, and an almost operetta like use of the songs (“Music was VERY important to Walt”, Smith points out), some might consider Snow White dated. Past transfers have failed to fully exploit the gorgeous color schemes used and the new Blu-ray reveals details that even someone as familiar with the material as Smith was/is astonished by. “The process was so clear,” she states, “that you could see the fingerprints of the animators on the individual cells.” A massive clean-up, involving the placement of the entire film into a computer and the remastering of thousands of individual images, results in an experience so startling, so unbelievable in its artistic vision and home theater clarity that it inspired gasps - as well as a new found love for Walt’s efforts.
The film itself is indeed astonishing, the “every trick in the book” approach revealing scenes of stunning power (Snow White’s escape through the woods, the dwarfs’ final confrontation with the Queen/Witch) and undeniable humor (the superb “Silly Song” sing-along). You can see the attention to every facet of the filmmaking here - from the control of character to the desire to mimic old masters in the background plates and production design. What Walt wanted more than anything else was his animated feature to “feel” like a real film, to have the same emotional heft and dramatic reach of the quality live action titles of his time. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs exceeded his wildest expectations. Instead of being an artistic albatross around his neck, it became the benchmark for a near perfect run of additional cartoon classis (Pinocchio, Bambi, Dumbo, Fantasia, etc.).
In addition, the Blu-ray overloads the viewer with vital behind the scenes information. Sure, there are games and other goofy diversions for the kids, but the best bits here include a commentary track by John Canemaker (very informative and enlightening), a chance to visit Walt’s first studio, Hyperion, a look at some newly discovered storyboards that suggest Disney was planning a Snow White sequel (!), and an in-depth overview at how the first commercially successful full length animated feature went on to change the entire face of the artform, forever. Indeed, Smith points out that many of the lessons learned on this film continue to be carried over to this day. “Snow White proved that realism and heart had a place in the genre,” she argues. “It would become the blueprint for every animated feature to come.”
And indeed, it did. In revisiting the film in the new format, it’s clear why Snow White was a success. It’s fresh and funny, similar in style to the shorts that were popular at the time while expanding and reinventing the notions of what makes animation work. It’s clever, and slightly calculated, made to highlight the talent it took to realize Walt’s dream. It even harkens back to the immigrant experience, giving recently arrived Americans a chance to see some of the visual beauty they were familiar with and grew up with abroad. As with any first, it has its awkward elements, and moments that stretch the boundaries a bit too far (the Queen’s transformation sequence feels like a run-through for Fantasia), but there’s no denying its place and providence as a true motion picture classic. “Walt wanted Snow White to his cement his legitimacy” Smith says. “Instead, it cemented his legacy.” And on Blu-ray, it’s easy to see why.