Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Guest Post: Disney's Snow White with Matthew

Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

or “How Disney Popularized a Really, REALLY Mediocre Faerie Tale With Vastly Entertaining Filler Material”

Seriously, folks, let’s face it. What does the story of Snow White really have to offer? Not that much. It’s basically Sleeping Beauty with little people. If not for Walt Disney’s odd fixation with this story, it would fall into the same category of “Faerie Tales That Only Scholars and Enthusiasts Know About” that also contains stories like “The Juniper Tree” and “The Six Swans” and other stories I’m sure you haven’t heard of [I am ridiculously sad that "The Six Swans is one of these stories. Enough to want to tack another month onto this project to cover it. So save my sanity and go read it for yourself! - CG]
So what is it, exactly, about this story that so entranced Walt? Well, for all its flaws, the story actually lends itself very well to the type of movie Disney needed at this time. Disney had been putting out a number of animated shorts and he wanted to take the next step and make a full-length, fully animated feature film, something no one had ever done before.

So Walt needed to tread carefully here. At this point, animation was for those funny shorts people saw at the beginnings of their movies, between the news reel and feature film. (Or wherever they put it, I’m just naming a couple things you would see at the movies in those days.) There would need to be a fair amount of entertainment in this film. Now, if you haven’t watched this movie for a while, watch it again, and really pay attention to actual plot-driven aspects of the film versus the filler material.

We start with our opening narration, giving us the backstory in the form of a storybook, just like the two faerie tale animated features that would come in the fifties. We learn that Snow White is a princess and an orphan, and her wicked stepmother, the vain Evil Queen, forces her to work as a scullery maid, which as we see in a scene a few minutes later, she does without complaint. I mean, you’d think that, as a teenage girl with raging hormones, she’d be pitching a fit, saying things like, “You’re not my real mother!” and “You can’t make me!” and whatnot, but no, Snow White seems perfectly content to clean and clean, doing so with a song in her heart and smile on her face.

Okay. So Snow White is established as our pristine, pure young woman with no personality flaws whatsoever. How fascinating. Let’s look at our Evil Queen, who is actually the first character we see in this film, and represents a pretty scary element, especially for kids. I mean, for all that we chide Disney for cleaning things up and sanitizing them for kids, some of the films are scary as shit, and the Evil Queen pretty well set the tone for the villains that came after. Walt kind of had the same dichotic view of women that Perrault did at this point: you were either good and pure, or you were wicked and vain. (Note that these are, in fact, the only two women in the entire movie.) He would later add “comical and bumbling” to the list of female traits, but for now, it’s just these two.

So after establishing that the Evil Queen’s magic mirror has proclaimed that Snow White, not the Queen, is the “fairest in the land,” we have our first musical number with Snow White singing about her fondest wish is finding a man to marry. Again, how fascinating. The Prince in question happens to be riding by at the time, hears her song, climbs over the palace wall, and joins her in singing in a not-at-all creepy way, no really. Regardless, Snow White swoons at his manly, manly voice, and we have our love-at-first-sight moment.

So, now, the plot gets moving again, as the Evil Queen sends out the huntsman to kill Snow White and bring her heart back in a box. Charming. The huntsman, seeing how sweet Snow White is (and, let’s be honest, as bland as her personality is, she’s incredibly likable), can’t kill her, and tells her to run away and never return. Snow White does so, and is so frightened by the shadows of the unfamiliar woods that she falls into a heap and cries. (Incidentally, the scene in the woods contains some seriously excellent bits of animation.) She awakens to find that, lo and behold, the shadows weren’t unfriendly at all! They were cute little bunnies and deer and birds who want to be her friends! Oh, happy day!

So the animal friends make sure the plot moves forward a bit by taking Snow White to abandoned and very messy house where she can clean. And thus, we have our second musical number, “Whistle While You Work,” and a little feature of Snow White and her animal friends cleaning the house. Notice that throughout this sequence, we see very little of Snow White herself. We hear her voice, of course, but the focus is mostly on what the animals are doing because, let’s face it, animals scrubbing, sweeping, and dusting are vastly more entertaining than a human being scrubbing, sweeping, and dusting.

It’s worth pointing out here that Snow White does have a pretty consistent personality trait. She’s very motherly, both in her desire to take care of others and her desire to make sure everything is clean. Say what you will about the implications regarding purity and domestication and all that, but it gives her something to care about, something to drive her character forward, unlike a certain princess who would come a couple decades later. *coughAuroracough*

Cut now to the real stars of the picture, the dwarves. Yes, the dwarves. I mean, really without the dwarves, people wouldn’t remember this picture. Snow White’s nice and all, but she’s just not a dynamic enough character to truly be memorable. So right about at the time when kids would have started getting bored with Snow White’s warbling and the cute antics of her animal friends, we’re introduced to the characters who make us laugh. Not only that, but we see with their opening song that these are the laborers, the ones who work hard in a mine, all day, every day. Consider that this movie, then, was made during the Great Depression, and we’re given a bunch of characters that the average moviegoer can relate to. It lifts up the common worker in a really great way, because the dwarves are the ultimate heroes of the story, not the handsome prince. Yes, the prince kisses Snow White awake, but it’s the dwarves who rush to the rescue and drive the Evil Queen off a cliff.

So the dwarves, like Snow White, sing as they work, and eventually march home to the familiar “Hi-Ho.” They arrive home to find that someone has broken in to their home, and after some comic antics, they find that it’s Snow White, the princess, who they of course have an immediate protective devotion to. (Except Grumpy, of course.) Snow White, because of her desire to take care of her new friends, offers to cook them a hot meal for once, but informs them--quite sternly, actually--that they’ll not get a “bite to eat” until they wash up . . . which they do in a particularly amusing musical scene, where they approach the water and soap as though they are things they’ve never seen before. Doc teaches them how to wash up, and then as a group, they force Grumpy, the only one who flat out refused to wash up, into the tub where they wash him as well.

This scene, it should be pointed out, is terribly amusing and does nothing to forward the plot. More on that in a moment.

So, we return to the Queen and the Hunter. The Queen now has the heart in a box, but discovers that it is not, in fact, Snow White’s heart, but the heart of a pig when the mirror tattles. So, she decides it’s time to take matters into her own hands and ventures down into her secret dungeon laboratory (yes, she has a secret dungeon laboratory) and mixes a potion that will effectively disguise her as an ugly old hag. (And lest the irony is lost on you, yes, she turns herself ugly so she can be considered pretty.) The scene of her mixing the potion with all sorts of evil magical brouhaha is probably one of my favorite bits of Disney animation. Anyone who thinks that Disney is all about feel good stories and light entertainment should take a look at this early scene. You see a person essentially using very dark magic, and the animation is put to good use here, as the scene is creepy as hell. I don’t think people really associated animation with this sort of darkness.

But back to the dwarves, who are spending the evening with a delightful musical romp in “The Dwarves’ Yodel Song,” or “The Silly Song.” The song has few words, no story, and really no point. It’s just the dwarves singing and dancing and generally goofing off as Snow White watches. It does nothing to move the plot forward and, in fact, brings the plot to a screeching halt. And yet, this is my absolute favorite song and scene in the movie. This song is just such fun, as we watch the dwarves doing what really makes them happy. Again, there’s that reliability with common workers, because the dwarves are basically just unwinding at the end of a long day of work. And there’s a great contrast between the life Snow White has with the dwarves and the life she had at the palace.

So, you might be noticing a pattern at this point in the story. Watch the “Whistle While You Work” scene. And now watch the washing up scene. And now the “Silly Song.” They don’t contribute much to the forwarding of the plot, they’re mostly entertainment based, and they could stand on their own, apart from the movie, and still be entertaining and complete. In other words, they’re a lot like the sort of animated shorts Walt Disney was known for up until this time. This is how Walt was able to tread that line between what animation was known for and what Disney was trying to do. In general, the good guys want the simplicities of life. Good work, food, a family, some music and dance, a loved one. Just a very simple life. The Evil Queen, on the other hand, is not content. she wants more than what she already has, and what she has is considerable seeing as how she’s, you know . . . the Queen. So she moves the plot forward so as to forward her own ambitions.

Once the dwarves have had their fun, they encourage Snow White to entertain them with a song, which she does, singing the iconic “Someday My Prince Will Come.” And yeah, I’m not wild about this as a general message for the movie, but again, it was a very different time. What Snow White gives us more than anything is hope. Her life, at the moment, is not in the best circumstances, and yet here she is, with continued hope that one day, she’ll be happy, with a smile on her face and a song in her heart. During the Great Depression when this movie was released, this was especially important to the people watching, who needed a bit of hope in their lives. The Prince isn’t just a romantic inclination, it’s a way out of a bad situation. The Prince in Cinderella is similar, which is why neither of them has much in the way of personalities. They’re ideals, rather than characters.

Next morning, the dwarves are off to work, leaving Snow White to take care of the house and make dinner for their return. And who should arrive, but the Evil Witch with a poisoned apple, which she convinces the gullible Snow White to take a bite of. The animal friends ride off to get the dwarves, and the dwarves--without a moment’s hesitation, which is more than can be said for them going to check on an intruder in their home OR wash up for dinner--ride to her rescue. Snow White’s already (allegedly) dead, but the dwarves chase the Queen off a cliff and then a rock falls on her. (Notice, they don’t actually do the killing, because they’re the good guys.) But Snow White is dead, the dwarves mourn her in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in all animation, I mean SERIOUSLY! They put her in a glass coffin so people can look at her (vaguely creepy, but okay), the prince comes along, kisses her awake, they live happily ever after, etc. All this in about the span of five minutes.

Snow White was, in many ways, the movie that a lot of people needed at that time. It was a combination of an entertaining series of animated shorts and a story of good overcoming evil and hope overcoming a rotten situation. What we expect of a story today has changed. Filler material, however entertaining, is deemed unnecessary, we prefer characters to be more than absolutely good or absolutely evil, and plots need to be realistic and complex. And lest you worry, this isn’t a “movies aren’t the way they used to be and therefore they suck” post. I generally enjoy movies with the qualities listed above. But such a movie would not have played well in the thirties, and certainly not from a new animation studio trying to do a full length feature for the first time. Walt Disney knew how to balance pushing the envelope with what people wanted, and he did it very well. Add to that the entertaining music and the incredible animation, and it’s easy to see why this movie was and is so popular.

When it comes right down to it, though this is technically an adaptation of Snow White, the movie’s popularity has very little to do with the original story. Disney could have picked any other story and given it a similar treatment and it would have become just as popular. Snow White is a great example of evolution of storytelling, of how a classic (if mediocre) story can be made relevant to a brand new audience. That’s what Disney did.

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