No. 23: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

When last I encountered a re-release of an older film on this countdown, I tried reviewing the movie (as I’ve done with all the other films in the project) from the perspective of a 2010 viewer. That film was The Rescuers, one of three Disney Animated Classics re-released in 1983 during a particularly dry period at Disney’s animation studios. The reaction I received for that piece was easily stronger than any other installment of this series, in large part because I felt The Rescuers didn’t stack up well against the rest of the Disney catalog. I feel it’s only fair to judge Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs against the same standard.

The 1983 re-release was Disney’s seventh full-scale national release of the 1937 feature film that essentially invented animation as a feature-film genre and was single-handedly responsible for transforming Walt Disney Productions from a novelty animation studio into one of the most powerful entertainment companies on the planet. It was an astonishing commercial force the instant it was released, becoming the highest grossing film of all time (until it was beaten one year later by Gone With the Wind) and succeeding at bringing in audiences again and again, as was proven by its surprising $30.1 million haul during the 1983 re-release.

Often a film with such lasting commercial appeal tends to be more than just a crowd-pleaser. If it wows audiences at screenings held nearly fifty years apart, there’s probably something to it. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs sticks out to me as quite a different viewing experience than most of the other Disney Animated Classics, perhaps because it’s so much less concerned with following the precedent set by other animated features. Since there were no animated features to take inspiration from, Disney and his team looked to other examples of filmmaking in which the filmmakers took advantage of film’s ability to bend reality, specifically European expressionist cinema. After all, in Disney’s eyes animation was simply another way to tell a story with moving images and as a filmmaker, it was his job to tell a story that was both believable and remarkable at the same time.

That European influence is quite evident in some of the film’s darker scenes, which are far more numerous than I’d remembered. Many people reference the sequence in which Snow White runs away through a scary forest (a scene that apparently caused a mass outbreak of children peeing in their theater seats back in 1937) but there are little touches here and there that are less immediately scary and more disturbing upon reflection. As the Queen flees her castle through the dungeon, she nearly trips on a skeleton frozen in a desperate reach for a jug of water. The Queen screeches a sadistic taunt of “Thirsty?” at her victim and then cackles as she kicks his bones into a pile on the floor.

Another remarkably dark detail that sticks out would be the pair of buzzards that first appear when they overhear the Queen talking about her plan to kill Snow White and then smile as they take off to follow behind her. Later the buzzards appear again after the Queen falls off a cliff and is presumably crushed by a giant rock. They give the camera a big long grin before taking off and circling down off the cliff…to eat the Queen’s dead body! Both of these incidents are probably things that simply wouldn’t be understood by children, which is why they work in the context of the film, but as I said they are far more dark than what we typically see in any other Disney feature that came after Snow White.

It’s definitely not all dark though and the lighter side of the film is clearly drawn from two of the more popular film genres of the day, the musical and the slapstick comedy. Snow White’s songs (written by Frank Churchill) all feel very much like the kind of fare you’d typically hear in mainstream movies of the late ’30s, particularly “I’m Wishing”, which is cleverly built around the visual gag of the echoing wishing well, and the classic ballad “Some Day My Prince Will Come”.

Probably the biggest musical highlight for me on this re-watch was also one of the best examples of the film’s clear slapstick comedy influence. “The Silly Song” is a spectacularly creative, Marx Brothers-inspired bit of anarchic comedy filmmaking.

Watching Snow White today, you can feel the combination of uncertainty and brazen confidence that must have been driving the Disney team as they attempted to enter the uncharted territory of making a “real movie” using their “gimmicky” animation techniques and it’s almost thrilling to watch. There must have been times when people around the team, and maybe even people within the team, expressed doubts about whether the general public would be willing to sit through a full-length film that was entirely animated (Walt’s own wife once told him “no one’s ever going to pay a dime to see a dwarf picture.”). It wasn’t a guaranteed success and even if it was, Disney’s team probably had no notion that they were going to make cinematic history. They were doing what they were doing because they loved their craft and they loved doing things with it that no one else had ever dreamed of doing before. That the film’s financial success literally built Walt Disney Studios was a worthy result of their hugely risky creative endeavor.

While most film fans today could look at any frame or shot from this film and tell you what it was, I wonder how many have actually watched it all the way through in the last five years. As the art of hand-drawn animation breathes its last, I’d highly recommend to all lovers of great film to give this a re-watch and see the birth of this great and unfortunately fading art form and remember that in the beginning, it was just a great film that happened to be animated.

Next Up: Gene Hackman, Robert Stack and Patrick Swayze star in the Vietnam P.O.W. drama Uncommon Valor.