SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS: Of Dirty Dwarfs, Animal Housekeepers, and a Domestic Goddess

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) – The First Walt Disney Animated Feature – Directed by David Hand – Starring Adriana Caselotti, Lucille LaVerne, Roy Atwell, Pinto Colvig, Otis Harlan, Scotty Mattraw, Billy Gilbert, Moroni Olsen, Stuart Buchanan, and Harry Stockwell.

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, Walt Disney’s first animated feature (and now almost three-quarters of a century old), is ambitious in execution and not conception. The story of the Stepmother Queen’s attempt to kill Snow White is exceedingly simple and contained. The Queen orders a soldier to kill Snow, the soldier tells Snow to flee, Snow ends up living with the Seven dwarfs, the Queen disguises herself and feeds Snow a poison apple, and Prince Charming comes to revive her.

There is no grand, epic sweep to the story. Charming is in two scenes – both of them brief. The soldier is in two scenes – both of them brief. The dwarfs are largely individualized only through their personality, not any developed character arc or prolonged interaction with Snow. (Grumpy is the exception.) There is no sweeping, epic arc. The dwarfs do not have any kind of subplot going on. They work, they come home, they interact with Snow, they go to work, they come home to find her in a state of sleeping death, they mourn, they watch her leave.

The creative part of me watches WHITE and thinks things like:

- the soldier should be the one who awakens Snow, not Charming.

- the dwarfs should be tempted by the Queen.

- we should know why the dwarfs are mining all these valuable gems and yet still live in a rundown shack where they have to sleep in the same room.

- the Mirror on the Wall should be motivated by a darker design that sees him manipulating the Queen.

- we should see Charming’s search for Snow.

If the film was made today, it’s likely the plot would be thickened with various subplots and expanded from it’s 82 minutes to 100 minutes. It might make a richer film, but there are few films – animated or live-action – that stay this simple in terms of its scope but this ambitious in terms of doing everything to such a thrilling degree.

Everything that WHITE puts on the screen is beautifully rendered. All of the songs work, all of the interactions work, all of the backgrounds work. Almost none of the characters push beyond their stereotype (Grumpy being the exception, again) but the story is short and focused enough that they don’t need to.  WHITE is, after all, a fairy tale and as tired as the Disney Princess genre becomes, its original inception still holds up as a masterpiece of animated storytelling.

Truly, the only part of the film that irritates me is Snow’s voice – which is high and squeaky and makes me think of a spoiled child, which is the opposite of what the character’s background details. Snow is a princess, yes, but the Queen has forced her to toiling around the castle in rags, doing chores that servants would normally perform. While this has perhaps not been her whole life, it’s been her life long enough that when chased away by the solider she breaks down into tears but quickly recovers. The animals of the forest lead her to the dwarfs’ cabin, which she mistakes as a home for children. Confronted by a filthy house, however, Snow pulls up her sleeves and cleans it – albeit with a large helping hand from the creatures.

The use of the the creatures to help with the cleaning gives the film a playful bounce during a dark emotional time for Snow. After she gets her big cry out, Snow doesn’t wallow in self-pity, which is why it’s such a shame that the story puts her in a place where she needs to be saved by a kiss from Charming. Snow deserves better than the confines of the fairy tale genre.

The dwarfs are more thrown by her being a woman than anything else and if you want to call out WHITE for its trapping of Snow and the Queen into stereotypical gender roles (where a woman gets to be the domestic piemaker and dishwasher, a Princess, or an evil bitch) than call the film out for its treatment of men, as well. Men are afraid of women, sloppy, or handsome, magical kiss bestowing prince. Arguably, the only characters in the film who play against type are Grumpy and the soldier who’s ordered to kill Snow and instead scares her off, but the latter is barely in the film.

The film concentrates on the interplay between Snow and the dwarfs more than anything else. Snow being chased away and then poisoned frames the film, but the main reason why WHITE continues to work is that when Snow and the dwarfs are interacting, the interplay is fun, bouncy, lighthearted, and full of great songs. It’s almost impossible to keep all of the dwarfs straight except for those with distinct visual cues (Bashful turns red, Dopey, um, doesn’t have a beard, Doc has glasses, Grumpy is always frowning) but it really doesn’t matter because only three of the dwarfs actually matter: Grumpy, Dopey, and Doc. The rest of the dwarfs are just filler.

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS earns every bit of its status as a classic film. Featuring gorgeous animation, catchy songs, and simple but endearing characters, it’s not hard to see how this film launched an animation empire.

Upon its initial release, SNOW WHITE became the most successful domestic film of all time based on box office receipts, and according to Box Office Mojo, the Adjusted-for-Inflation Box Office Numbers still place SNOW WHITE as the 10th biggest domestic box office draw of all time.*

*As of the writing of this post: 12/17/2010

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2 thoughts on “SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS: Of Dirty Dwarfs, Animal Housekeepers, and a Domestic Goddess

  1. A confession: I have never seen SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS in it’s entirety from start to finish. Oh, I’ve seen bits and pieces here and there and of course I’ve seen the movie’s signature piece; “Hi-Ho” but actually seen the whole thing? Never. Not that I don’t want to but it’s one of those movies I’ve heard and read so much about I feel like I have seen it, y’know what I mean?

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