Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The True Fairest of Them All

When I think of the films that best represent my relationship with Disney animation, the two that stand out are The Little Mermaid because it was the first time I become aware of what an animated film was and jump-started a life-long devotion. And the other is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs because I quickly became aware of its significance in history. Without the success of this film there would not have been The Little Mermaid or Disney as we know it. It was the one that started it all.

I had this book when I was younger, The Art of Animation by Bob Thomas, that was in many ways my bible. There was a huge section of the book dedicated to the making of Snow White. I knew everything about the film before I had even seen it. I remember pestering my parents to see it when they re-released it in the theatre back in 1993. I was so obsessed that in 7th grade we were assigned to give a speech on the subject, People Who Have Overcome. While my classmates spoke about Helen Keller or relatives that were paralyzed (certainly those people overcame), my speech, however, was about Walt Disney overcoming the hurdles he faced in making the first full-length animated film (complete with Snow White soundtrack faintly playing in the background). My speech was so good, in fact, that I got to recite it before the entire school...where my voice cracked in the middle of it (damn puberity...). I think it's so funny that of all the people in the world, Walt Disney was whom I thought had to struggle enough to share his story. But, the making of the film wasn't easy (not Helen Keller difficult, but definitely rough).

It all started one night in 1934 when Walt invited his colleagues into his office where he proceeded to act out the story of a princess (who was the fairest of them all), her jealous stepmother, and the seven height-challenged men that helped her. After two hours, Walt announced that Snow White was to be the first venture into a feature-length film. The critics were immediately skeptical nicknaming it Disney's Folly. Sure, a ten minute cartoon was good for a laugh. But who was gonna sit through an hour and half of it? Walt nearly went bankrupt trying to finance the film, which he initially thought would cost $250 thousand and ended up costing $1.5 million. In the middle of production, they had run out of money and had to show a half-finished version to the banks to get funds. 

When the finished film was finally released on December 21, 1937 to an audience made-up of Hollywood royalty, any doubts about the so-called Folly were put to rest. They laughed at the dwarfs' antics and tried to stifle tears during the "death" of Snow White, giving the film a standing ovation when it was complete. The film went on to gross $8 million worldwide in its initial run, at a time when movie tickets were 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children (I wonder what movie-goers of the 30s would make of the $18 price for IMAX 3-D). At the Oscar ceremony the following year, Shirley Temple presented Walt with a special achievement Oscar consisting of one regular size Oscar and 7 miniatures.

"Take a good look, Shirley, because you'll never see one of these again..."
Snow White really was an amazing artistic achievement, not just as cinema but as a piece of art. Especially when you compare it to the artwork in the Silly Symphony Series happening at the same time as the production. In fact, a couple of those shorts were test runs to see how they would work within the film. The Old Mill utilized a new piece of equipment that had been developed called the Multiplane Camera that stacked planes of glass cells and allowed the camera to shoot it in a way that allowed for dimension and depth. Walt was also nervous about animating real-life figures (after all, Snow White and the queen were supposed to be beautiful), so he made the animators take anatomy lessons and study the human form. They produced The Goddess of Spring to see how far they had to achieve believability. Which leads me to my choice for this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot at The Film Experience.

The two sequences that always stand out to me in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are the two that I think elevate the art of animation. The first is the surreal flight of Snow White through the forest as she escapes the Huntsman, imagining that the trees and branches are demonic creatures trying to harm her. The other is, what I consider the best segment of the film, The Evil Queen's transformation into the Witch.

There's just so much creativity and elegance to this sequence, starting with the way the Queen whips her cloak behind as she storms down the spiral staircase. This is really my favorite part because of the effortless way the cloak dramatically trails around her as she descends. I love when the real movement of clothes is able to be captured in animation with such a skilled smoothness (I also love the way Aurora's train gently falls down the stairs behind her at the end of Sleeping Beauty for this same reason). But the effect doesn't achieve the same result when captured as a still.

Once in her lair, after her grand entrance, she then begins a spell to transform her beauty into ugliness:

Mummy's Dust, to make me old
To shroud my clothes, the Black of Night
To age my voice, an Old Hag's Cackle
To whiten my hair, a Scream of Fright
A Blast of Wind to fan my Hate
A Thunderbolt to mix it well
Now...begin thy Magic Spell...

Each ingredient brings with it its on set of imagery. (The spell is also said with great skill by Lucille La Verne who voiced both the Queen and the Witch. She achieved the latter by removing her dentures.) But, the shot that I ultimately chose is that of the Queen right before she takes the potion:

 I love the realistic attention to detail with her hand and nails–a far cry from the less-than-human movements achieved in The Goddess of Spring. They really had come a long way in their portrayal of human characters. But, in addition to its beauty, there's more happening in the composition. All of this has come about because she couldn't live with the fact that Snow White was more beautiful than she was. And here she is, purposely making herself ugly to achieve her goal (I hope she looked-up a spell to return to normal before she went through all this...). This is her last look at herself. The reflection in the glass also reminds the viewer that it all began with a mirror. The first image we have of the Queen at the beginning of the film is her reflection in the Magic Mirror and now one of our last images of her is reflected here. But now her image is bubbling green bile, revealing the ugliness that was always just below the surface. 


  1. thank you! i had fun writing it and, as you can see, i got a little carried away...