The historical facts found in this piece were pulled from personal knowledge, as well as the various bonus features that can be found in the Walt Disney Signature Collection release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The Walt Disney Animation company is the house that was built by a mouse. The foundation for everything that the company represents today was established by the Mickey Mouse shorts from the Golden Age of animation, starting with 1928’s Steamboat Willie.
But in order for any structure to remain stable and prosperous for decade after decade, a few renovations need to be made here and there. Mickey Mouse may be the foundation, but 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs forever altered the course of not only Disney, but the entirety of the animation industry.
Walt Disney was inspired to make Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs after witnessing a silent film based on the fairy tale during his childhood. After returning home from a trip to Europe in 1935, Walt began assembling the team that would ultimately create the world’s first piece of feature length animation.
But why did Walt even want to make feature length animation? When word spread about the project, the film was infamously derided as “Disney’s Folly”, and certain critics even believed that the bright colors that accompany long form animation would cause eye strain for the viewers.
Making matters worse was the film’s ever increasing budget. Walt initially projected the film to cost $250,000 to make, and this number quickly became $400,000. From here, the budget continue to grow until Roy Disney, Walt’s brother, told him that he would have to present the film (in an unfinished state, mind you) to the banks in order to garner further investment.
But against all odds, Walt and his team pushed through. One reason for Walt’s fervor was his belief that feature length animation was the future of the medium, and instrumental to its longevity. Before Snow White, animation came largely in the form of theatrical shorts that were focused on comedy and gags, and while there are plenty of laughs to be had in Snow White, Disney specifically aimed for a higher level of storytelling with this project.
“With every laugh, there must be a tear”. This famous quote by Walt perfectly encapsulates the tone and theming of Snow White. The film is funny, charming and whimsical, but also has its moments of profound sadness. The ending is especially poignant, as the viewer is forced to see the normally cheerful Dwarfs in tears over the loss of their friend.
Just as memorable as the tears that followed the end of the film’s story, was the music. When discussing the film’s soundtrack, Walt stated that music would be the thing that stayed with the audience long after their initial viewing. In addition, it was crucial that each song tied into the narrative in some way, even if it’s something as simple as Snow White and her animal companions singing Whistle While You Work as they clean the Dwarf’s cottage.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs featured a number of key animators whose efforts were a large part in crafting the film’s distinct visual style. Albert Hurter and Gustaf Tenggren inspired the team with their European artist sensibilities, while famous Disney artist Fred Moore debuted what we recognize as Disney’s aesthetic. But my favorite tidbit about the film’s animation is the fact that Arthur “Art” Babbitt, the creator of Goofy, was charged with animating the Evil Queen, a stark contrast to say the least.
Snow White is one of the best examples I’ve seen of a team that took advantage of every scene in the film. Not a single frame of animation is wasted. Snow White’s hand motions as she scrubs the cobblestones have meaning, Dopey’s hitch step that was given to him by animator Frank Thomas has meaning, even the Queen’s exaggerated arm motions have meaning. Every shot in Snow White looked like it received an equal amount of attention, and the film has aged incredibly well as a result.
I’ve said quite a bit about this film without talking about the titular characters, but they are what actually sell the film. Snow White is the first Disney Princess, and as such, she is the standard to which all subsequent Princesses must be held to. Famous Art Director Michael Giaimo stated that it is difficult for a film to not be evocative of the time in which it was made. This means Snow White, as a female, can be a bit more reactive as opposed to proactive at times.
But having said that, I never felt that it made her any less endearing as a character. She is a great representation of some of the most basic, but important human qualities. She is kind, loving and generous, but she’s also not afraid to give Grumpy a playful ribbing every now and again. You can genuinely see bits and pieces of Snow White in every other Disney Princess.
The Dwarfs themselves are all amazing and unique characters, and they are the source of most of the film’s gags. One would think that having seven different characters of similar physical stature (short with beards) would make each Dwarf less distinct as an individual. But somehow, the team was able to really flesh out each of their personalities.
Each Dwarf has a name that gives somewhat of a surface level idea of who they should be. These names manifest mostly in the form of adjectives, giving us Dwarfs named Sleepy, Bashful and Happy. Some people may find the Dwarfs to be rather one note as a result, but I found myself recalling specific moments focusing on each of them after the film ended.
The legacy of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs cannot be understated. Symbols like the poisoned apple, the Magic Mirror and Snow White’s fair visage have become permanently ingrained in our culture, and the film gave us the Walt Disney company whose creations take residence in the memories of every child..
The film’s production is the most important story in all of animation history. It is impossible to predict what the future of the medium would have been had it not evolved past the animated short, and the fruits of Disney’s labor were so sweet that the film was immediately regarded as a classic. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs paved the way for all of the stories that are etched into my heart, and for animation to be as prosperous as it is to this day.