Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is an animated musical fantasy film released in 1937. It was the first feature-length traditionally animated film in history, conceived and produced by Walt Disney. Based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, the film depicts an orphaned princess fleeing from a cruel and vengeful queen encountering a kindly bunch of dwarven miners who take her in. In spite of an ever increasing budget and mounting industry scepticism about the viability of such a project, the film was an instant success with critics and audiences alike. Thanks to frequent re-releases, the film remains one of the most successful animated films of all time (adjusted for inflation). The film has become one of Disney's hallmark pictures with its iconic songs, characters and string of merchandise maintaining the film's popularity. Winning two Academy Awards and being one of the very first films inducted into the National Film Registry at the US Library of Congress in 1989, the film's place in cinema history is assured and it is arguably responsible for the animated movie industry in general.
What's It About?
In a distant kingdom long ago, the young princess Snow White has grown up without her parents and under the watchful eye of the vain and cruel Queen. Obsessed with being the fairest in the land, the Queen consults a magic mirror who tells her that this is the case. Weary of Snow White's beauty, the Queen has her working in her castle as a lowly scullery maid and dressed in dirty, torn rags. But one day, things suddenly change - as she witnesses Snow White being serenaded by a handsome prince, the Queen is told by her magic mirror that Snow White is now the fairest of them all. This sends the Queen into a murderous rage, ordering her Huntsman to lure Snow White into the forest and kill her.
Fortunately, the Huntsman is unable to follow through with the plan and he tells Snow White of the Queen's jealousy, telling her to run and never return. After getting lost in the forest, Snow White stumbles across a picturesque but untidy cottage which she tidies up with the help of numerous forest animals. But unbeknown to her, it is the home of seven dwarfs who spend their days digging up jewels at a nearby mine. And they are somewhat disturbed to find their home suddenly occupied by a strange and unfamiliar young woman...
What's to Like?
It's perhaps a little too easy to forget how pioneering a picture this was back in 1937. Before this, Disney's animation output was little more than comic or musical interludes no longer than about five minutes and usually starring Mickey Mouse or their other early mascot Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. They didn't even start producing films in colour until 1932. No wonder that so-called industry experts at the time felt as though Disney's vision for a feature-length, full colour animation (complete with synchronised soundtrack as well, let's not forget) was a misguided adventure. And how enjoyable it must have been for Walt when the film proved such a massive success, proving every one of his doubters wrong. Think of how many feature-length animation films are released each year these days - every one owes Walt a huge debt of gratitude.
Even today, the film is just stunning to look at with everything from character design and movement to technical effects that stun the viewer still looking as fabulous as they did back then. And this isn't some straight-forward 'cartoon' - take the moment when Snow White is singing to herself at the palace and the camera suddenly switches to a view at the bottom of a well, looking up at her through the water as she sings with her own echo. It's an absolute masterclass, one of many such moments that will ensure Disney's place in the pantheon of great filmmakers. His name may be synonymous with theme parks, toys, casual racism, psychotic business practise and lacklustre sequels these days but the man himself knew how to make a film break down barriers and set the standard for generations. Watching this is similar to watching a Studio Ghibli picture like Howl's Moving Castle or Spirited Away - not only is it different from almost anything else seen at the time but it also wins you over with its technical brilliance.
So what makes the film so charming? The cast certainly helps - Caselotti wonderfully blends her innocence and genteel singing voice to make Snow White an iconic presence, even if the genuinely terrifying Evil Queen makes more on an impression. Personally, I loved the look and character each of the dwarfs brings to the screen as well as the humour they generate. From Dopey's cheery playfulness to Grumpy's permanent scowl, they all provide plenty of laughs for viewers of any age will enjoy. And of course, the songs in the film are as timeless as ever so when they start singing 'Heigh-Ho' as they head home from the mine, it feels as natural as breathing. But the best family entertainment offers a mix of light and dark - something Steven Spielberg understands - and Snow White is no different. The film contains some scenes like the fleeing through the forest which feel quite different and frightening compared to the cute birds and rabbits on screen. It's actually hard to think of anything about this film that deserves criticism, something I find rare - and for the purposes of this article, kinda annoying!
- Not wanting her voice to become ubiquitous and to preserve the magic of Snow White's voice, Walt Disney signed Adriana Caselotti to an extremely strict contract. Despite being a classically trained singer, she was forbidden from singing in any other media appearance - in fact, she only appeared in two other films and these were brief cameos. She appeared in The Wizard Of Oz during the Tin Man's song 'If I Had A Heart' and she later turned up as a singer in the background of a bar in It's A Wonderful Life. All her film appearances were entirely uncredited.
- At the time, the plural of dwarf was written as 'dwarfs' although the success of JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit published the year before popularised the more uncommon 'dwarves'. In fact, this film's title was often re-written as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
- Among the other firsts this film achieved was being the first film in history to have its soundtrack recording released. At the time, Disney didn't publish its own music, so the rights went to the Bourne Company. Disney later bought the rights back to all its films except this one.
- The film's initial budget was estimated at $250'000, which was ten times the budget for one of Disney's Silly Symphonies short film. In the end, the film ended up costing more than $1.4 million, which gave Disney's critics further fuel for their scorn. However, Walt had the last laugh - the film was so successful at the box office that he founded the Disney animation studios at Burbank, California, which still serves at the company headquarters today.
What's Not to Like?
Other than the aforementioned scary scenes that will frighten younger viewers, it's very hard to think of anything. My suspicions are that contemporary viewers unused to the early Disney output and think that animation didn't happen before Toy Story may be a bit disappointed. But viewers of my generation will fully appreciate Snow White which actually feels different from other early Disney movies like Pinocchio and Dumbo. The human characters in this film look and feel much more realistic than they would become in later films - in fact, they almost look rotoscoped where animators literally draw over motion picture footage frame-by-frame. By contrast, the anthropomorphic animals feel like traditional Disney - probably because the studio used such characters for many films over many years. But viewers expecting the warmth of those other early films may wonder where it is, although the warmth here is different. Even Grumpy wouldn't call this a cold film!
Its success may have been overshadowed by later films in Disney's vast catalogue but nobody should overlook the magic and importance of Snow White. With unforgettable songs, entertaining characters, genuine thrills and a standard of animation that remains as high as ever, this first foray for Disney is a success on every level. For anyone thinking that this film's exulted status is only due to its importance to Disney and the industry overall, you are wrong - this is still an absolutely perfect family film that has hardly aged a day since its release a long time ago. For anyone with a love of cinema or animation in general, this film is an essential viewing.
Should I Watch It?
If the character Mary Poppins was a movie then it would be this film because Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is practically perfect in every way. Gorgeous to look at and easily sweeping you up with its charm, the film is a sublime blend of fun, fear and frivolity that will win over younger viewers and will astonish older audience members with its technical brilliance. It feels more adventurous and ambitious than many other Disney films that are much more modern and frankly, I'd rather watch this than any number of uninspired, mass-produced efforts the company and others have been responsible for.
Great For: families, animation lovers, the Disney company, other animation studios
Not So Great For: evil queens, the youngest of young viewers, Adriana Caselotti's film career
What Else Should I Watch?
In the very early days of the Disney company, they had a string of hits that have become almost as revered as this film. The first film that followed was Pinocchio in 1940 which also won over the critics but suffered the misfortune of having foreign markets cut off due to the Second World War. The conflict would also impact the success of subsequent films like Dumbo and Bambi. But Disney weren't afraid of experimentation either and 1940's Fantasia saw a series of pieces of classical music interpreted via Disney's animation. In the end, the company stopped producing feature length stories and began making musical anthology films such as Saludos Amigos and Melody Time. It wasn't until 1950's Cinderella that Disney cemented the 'fairy-tale' template for their animated films that continues to this day.
Today, Disney is one of many competitors producing feature length animated films, usually as a result of computer generated imagery. It wasn't until Tangled that Disney managed to produce a legitimate hit but by that point, audiences had already seen the likes of Ice Age, Shrek, The Polar Express and a multitude of Pixar smashes, albeit produced in cooperation with Disney. Traditional animation, it would appear, is a dying art-form but it is still maintained in Japan where Studio Ghibli remain the foremost animation studio in business. With geniuses like Hayao Miyazaki producing some truly beautiful work, the studio only recently released their first CG film Earwig And The Witch in 2020 which, sadly, was not as well received as many of their previous films.
Main Cast (all uncredited)
|Actor||Role (vocal performance)|
Lucille La Verne
The Evil Queen
Grumpy / Sleepy
Eddie Collins & Jimmy MacDonald
Dopey (vocal effects)
|Director||David Hand (supervising director)*|
Ted Sears, Richard Creedon, Otto Englander, Dick Rickard, Earl Hurd, Merrill De Maris, Dorothy Ann Blank & Webb Smith
Release Date (UK)
24th February, 1938
U (1964 re-rating)
Animation, Family, Fantasy, Musical
Best Musical Score, Honorary Award
© 2021 Benjamin Cox