When you see SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS today, you are not just looking at the first full-length animated feature, you are looking at the beginnings of an empire. Walt Disney had been working toward a full-length cartoon for some time, despite the fact that virtually nobody else had done it and many people in the industry and out of it called the project "Disney's Folly", guaranteed to be a failure. They soon had to eat their words, as SNOW WHITE was not only tops at the box office in 1937 but was the highest grossing film ever until.
You might think that being the first animated feature, SNOW WHITE may be a little creaky and unsure of itself. Instead, SNOW WHITE is among the most confident of movies. Just imagine you were Disney embarking on such an unheard-of project back in 1937. Would you have conceived of a movie where you had to animate seven dwarfs, each with their own personality, not to mention dozens of animals, each with their own way of moving? It boggles the mind to think of having to draw each one of those characters, again and again, frame by frame, over the entire length of a feature film. Yet Disney knew his animators could do it, and they did it beautifully, in a way that dazzled audiences of the day and can still dazzle the less-jaded of us today.
The one thing I love about the early Disney movies is they were not afraid to make you cry. SNOW WHITE, DUMBO, BAMBI... all have their moments when even the most stout-hearted of people may wish to reach for a box of tissues. I don't want to spoil things for those of you who have never seen SNOW WHITE, so all I will say is that the people at Walt Disney were brilliant. They introduce the seven dwarfs, give them enough amusing business to ensure that you will love at least one or two if not all of them, and then pull the rug out from under you and make you believe that these are not just cartoon characters but real people, even if they aren't. So when they cry over a tragedy, you will tear up along with them.
As with so many Disney features based on fairy tales that were originally only a few hundred words long, the story is uncomplicated, leaving plenty of room for character business, gags and songs. Each dwarf has his own character traits, based on his names: Doc, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, Grumpy and Dopey, with the most developed - no pun intended - being the last two. Grumpy is the one dwarf who is adamantly against Snow White staying at their cottage (see the quote below this review), and won't even wash up for supper when she asks him to. Yet, over the course of the film, Snow White wins him over. Although he is disgusted by his fellow dwarfs and their incessant fawning over Snow White, he does make sure he gets his kiss on the head goodbye before he goes to work, and then beams with happiness when he thinks he is out of her sight. And it is Grumpy who is most vocal about saving Snow White when they discover that the Evil Queen is at their cottage, and the first to commandeer a deer to rush to her rescue.
Dopey is one of the great Disney characters, in personality and design, a silent clown with more than a little bit of Harpo Marx in him. Stan Laurel too, as is evident with his hitch step he uses to catch up to his fellow dwarfs, and his walking into the wall behind the door instead of walking through it, two trademark Laurel gags. Dopey ranks with Dumbo and Bambi as the character children can most identify with in the early Disney films.
The film contains at least three songs which are still firmly stuck in the collective mind of the public today. There are the jaunty whistling tunes "Whistle While You Work" and "Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho", as well as the first great Disney ballad "Someday My Prince Will Come". The other songs are catchy but not quite as memorable, but they help serve as the basis for some extended gag sequences, such as when the seven dwarfs wash their hands and faces for the first time in ages.
When I first saw SNOW WHITE in a little movie theater in Wildwood, New Jersey, I loved everything about it except Snow White's voice. It struck me as too Betty Boopish, really aging the film. When I saw it again years later (a day before writing this review, to be accurate), I still wasn't crazy about the voice of Adrianna Caselotti, but it in no way hindered my enjoyment of the film. SNOW WHITE has so much going on, all of it good, my reservations about the lead character's voice dissolved in about five minutes. She may not be my favorite Disney heroine, but the dwarfs love her, and that's good enough for me.
The art of animation may have evolved over the decades, but revisit SNOW WHITE and you will find that charm, hard work and artistry never get old, and SNOW WHITE can still hold its own with any full length cartoon from any era. Kids - and adults - who grew up with animated films heavily dependent on dialogue and star voices may find it a bit simplistic, but I suggest you just sit back, relax and let SNOW WHITE happen. It was the film that established Disney's reputation as a filmmaker, opened Hollywood's eyes to the endless possibilities animation held for full length movies (The Fleischer Brothers quickly put GULLIVER'S TRAVELS into production), and was the first step in changing Walt Disney from a guy who made beautiful little cartoons to a legend who was king of a media empire of fantasy and fun. And it was all done by hand, frame by frame. ½ - JB
IN SPACE, NO ONE CAN HEAR GREAT MOVIE QUOTES
"She's a female, and all
females is poison! They're full of wicked wiles!"
"What are wicked wiles?"
"I don't know --- but I'm agin 'em!"
THANK YOU, DWARFS, WE'VE GOT OUR SEVEN, THE REST OF YOU CAN GO HOME NOW
Some actual rejected dwarf names: Weepy, Hungry, Thrifty, Awful, Gabby, Sappy, Flabby, Snappy, Puffy, Chesty. Coincidentally, Gabby was used by the Fleischer Brothers for one of the main characters in GULLIVER'S TRAVELS.
NOT SO FAST THERE, WALT!
The first actual animated feature film was 1917's El Apóstol by Argentina's Quirino Cristiani. There were others, too, from around the world, but SNOW WHITE was the first color and sound feature from Hollywood and, due to its overwhelming success, is usually considered to be "the first" as we know animated features today. Akin to being the first sound film even though it wasn't.
THE (SNOW) WHITE ALBUM
In his final interview, for Playboy in 1980, John Lennon explained that the early Beatles' hit "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" was inspired by the song "I'm Wishing" from Snow White, which begins "Want to know a secret? Promise not to tell?", lyrics which were borrowed by Lennon for the Beatles tune.
HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING
Comedian and character actor Billy Gilbert, most famous for his work at the Hal Roach Studios, heard that one of the dwarfs was going to be named Sneezy. He called Walt Disney up and did his famous "sneezing routine" and won the job immediately. He reprised this routine a decade later for Disney as Willie the Giant in FUN AND FANCY FREE.