Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and the birth of American Animation

In this column, Amos Lamb will take you through the wonderful world of animation. Exploring what makes it such an appealing genre/medium for all ages, with the focus spanning from the mainstream animation studios like Disney & Studio Ghibli, to more obscure animation such as Japanese OVA’s, British claymation, Czechoslovakian stop-motion and everything in-between. 

Despite often being called the first feature-length Animated film, this honor seemingly belongs to the now-lost film El Apóstol, what is a certified fact is that Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the first full-length cel-animated feature film. Now typically known as traditional animation, this technique involves hand-drawing each frame by hand, there are many well-known techniques used to minimise the amount of work that is needed, but I don’t want to, or am trying to, minimise the amount of hard work all the animators put into the film despite these techniques. When Walt Disney and his team announced that they were working on a feature length animated film, the press and industry decried the work, labelling it as “Disney’s Folly” during production. But not only did the film end up becoming an incredibly financial success, briefly becoming the highest-grossing film of all time (before being bested for that title by Gone With the Wind in 1940), but it was a tremendous critical success; with acclaimed filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin & Sergei Eisenstein praising the film, the latter of the two calling it the greatest film ever made. While we now consider this as primarily a kids film, at the time it was marketed to both adults and children, and labelled as a genuine work of art. These are all details I felt I should include because of the perception of it, because nowadays the film has been relegated to the realm of solely a kids film, and very few people would argue it’s a “work of art” in the same way that Chaplin & Eisentein saw it.

For a film that’s 83 years old, the animation looks beautiful and holds up extremely well. Obviously the version I watched was the blu-ray re-release, so the animation has been restored and enhanced, but the linework, movements and rotoscoping all retain their original proficiency and hold up because of it. While rewatching this film again I was surprised about how gorgeous looking some of the animation is, there are the more obvious scenes that stick in people’s mind when thinking of this film; the Dwarfs returning home from work, and Snow White cleaning up the house with the help of the animals are perfect examples of this. To take these scenes in turn, firstly, when the dwarfs return home from work; they march and sing in unison and the animation manages to keep this sense of unity, by keeping them in sync, while also retaining the individual nature of each dwarf. The whole scene is brimming with energy, and this level of detail in the animation is so charming to watch. The second scene I mentioned, which is arguably the most famous sequence in the film, is animated so gorgeously, especially in conjunction with the music. Not only is Adriana Caselotti’s voice beautiful, but it really helps guide the rhythm of the scene, which really helps the animation flow smoothly. As Snow White and the animals clean, there’s so much visual flourish in the colours and frenetic energy in their movements alongside the soundtrack. This sequence is filled with lots of little details and touches that makes it so charming; one of the biggest examples of this is the way each animal feels unique in its personality through the animation adds so much to the scene. 

While these two scenes utilise their animation to convey the joy and happiness of the scenes, the film also utilises its animation proficiency in the more horrific scenes. The two examples that spring to mind are when Snow White is lost in the woods; in this we see the titular princess experience a hallucinogenic nightmare in the forest as the branches of the trees turn into clawed hands reaching out to her, and the jagged bark on the trunks turned into evil faces that scare Snow White. The scene plays out with the same classic Disney madness that you can see in the ‘Island of Lost Boys’ in Pinocchio and the Pink Elephant dream sequence in Dumbo, with a surreal quality to the animation reflecting the darkness of the situation. The animation of the trees is superb, with the frames changing leaves and branches into hands and back again so smoothly that it perfectly encapsulates the feeling of distress and confusion that Snow White is experiencing. As with all of the scenes, the music really helps this scene as it’s creepy and bombastic and creates a frantic energy that only adds to the anxiety of the scene. Not too dissimilar is the scene later on, where the Queen transforms into her hag form. Utilising a multiplane camera to achieve the impressive rotating technique, the animation is impressive, creating a dark tone and mood; it’s incredibly well done and acts as a stark contrast to the rest of the film, but thanks to the skill of the animators it works so well.Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is an important cinematic and cultural landmark in many regards, it can be seen as the birth of American animation and an important first step for the now multi-billion dollar company that is Disney. While their modern day business practises and monopolisation of the industry aren’t something I agree with, there’s no denying that these early days of Disney and the stories they created were filled with charm and warmth, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the perfect example of this. The soundtrack is fantastic and paces the film wonderfully, the animation is pulled off so well and creates the perfect tone as all the scenes require. While I prefer some of Disney’s later efforts more than this film, there’s no denying that this film utilises all its elements in an interesting and unique way, combining all the various parts in combination to create such a charming film, it really is no wonder why/how this film inspired so many children, adults, and filmmakers alike.

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