“Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”
I can still remember Roy Disney welcoming me to the VHS release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and wondering who is this old dude and why is he telling me that if I like this, I’ll be sure to love Disney’s Pocahontas? Yet, the line that stuck out was him saying “it was the greatest triumph of his uncle’s career” as it is the first full-length animated feature. I’m only a kid at the time, but even that got me going “Okay, so this must be good?”
This was around the time I was obsessed with The Lion King and Hercules (aka Disney’s “Boy” material). I really loved Sleeping Beauty at the time, but was annoyed by my sister’s endless watching of Beauty and the Beast. I wondered where this one would fall into place.
The story itself is well-known. The princess Snow White (Adriana Caselotti) is the fairest in the land according to the Magic Mirror much to the chagrin of the Queen (Lucille LaVerne). With this knowledge, the Queen calls upon the Huntsman (Stuart Buchanan) to kill Snow White and bring her back her heart. Fortunately, the Huntsman can’t bring himself to do the deed and tells Snow to run away to be free.
Snow comes across a cottage that turns out to be housed by the seven dwarfs: Happy, Bashful, Sleepy, Sneezy, Grumpy, Dopey, and Doc. The Queen gets word of her still being alive and decides to take matters into her own hands with a disguise and a poison apple. If Snow eats the apple, she will fall prey to the Sleeping Death, a curse that can only be lifted by true love’s kiss.
Can Snow avoid this devastating fate? Can her Prince come and save her? Will the Dwarfs reign absolute hell on the Queen to protect their friend?
Snow White is a masterclass of animation that feels like a fitting grand finale to Disney’s Silly Symphonies series. There is an extreme amount of love and care put into this project with an “all hands on deck” approach. It’s a love letter to not only to the fairy tale, but the animation medium as a whole.
Of course, as a kid, this isn’t immediately your first reaction. It’s a cartoon your parents threw on, you absorbed whatever is being shown and go “it’s good.” That was my reaction for the longest time.
Throughout the years though, I revisit this movie every so often and, honestly, it’s more than just good. Snow White is phenomenal. I still am discovering new things in it and wondering how they did certain effects in the film.
I noticed when the Queen’s hands are turning, there is a brief moment the lightning cracks and her skeleton is visible. The water ripples in the wishing well make me wonder how they did it and a part of me doesn’t want to ruin the effect. The fluidity of the movements from walking to dancing feel natural and human that it is no wonder many still debate whether it was rotoscoped or the animators were just that good at studying reference footage.
In this revisit, I watched it on Disney+ which has the latest release of the film. Unlike other bad HD upscales of their other animated classics (The Sword in the Stone looking the worst), this film looks remarkable. Every frame looks like a painting come to life and fresh off the page.
The ending of the film and the forest sequence early on greatly benefit such as showing the beauty of Snow White laying in the forest to the beautiful happily ever after. Also, helping improve the terrifying sights Snow faces running through the forest will make you scream “Why in the fuck do those trees have eyes?!?!” Disney did not screw around when it came to preserving this film.
The only downsides of the film comes are the structure and the songs. The structure feels like a series of segments that could work on their own if taken out and shown in a serial format. “The Silly Song” segment of the film especially could be taken out entirely as its own short segment. Of course, this is expected considering the leap from shorts to full-length.
The songs are dated now because it’s no longer the ’30s. They are forgettable with the exception of “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “Heigh Ho.” Those two songs benefit from their scenes being great highlights. “Heigh Ho” shows the Dwarfs working and heading home with funny gags galore and “Someday” has Snow White reveal her dreams in a lovely quiet moment of the film without relying on the big bombast of later Disney films with similar songs.
However, the greatest triumph of the film is how it is a perfect encapsulation of a bedtime story. This and The Princess Bride capture exactly what it is like to be told a story and what images we, the listener, might have. Snow White even opens with a storybook to begin to tell us the story. Sadly, Columbo is not on hand to guide us through.
This adds another layer of emotional investment from those watching it. It’s hard not to get caught up in the experience of it all. The scary moments have the right amount of fright, the gags make me chuckle every time, and when the film gets to the eventual happy ending after the sorrow of Snow White’s death, it gets me choked up.
I’d be lying if I said I haven’t teared up at the end of the film at the happy ending. The ending works by not giving tears of sadness, but tears of happiness. We have been on this journey alongside her yearning for her dream to come true, so when it does, it’s a well-deserved and earned moment. Of course, this would be improved on in future Disney animated outings with more character development and longer runtimes, but Snow White hit it out of the park on the first try.
Snow White remains a timeless classic and one of my favorite films of all-time. I’d rank Sleeping Beauty above it by being a major improvement in storytelling, but this still remains one of Disney’s best outing. I guess Roy was right. This is Walt Disney’s greatest triumph.