For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
Sergei Eisenstein, one of the Russian Formalist filmmakers and the director of “The Battleship Potemkin,” may have called it the greatest film ever made, but to a modern viewer “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” will always be the beginning of animated features as we know them.
Up until “Snow White” animated motion pictures were shorts that played before a feature along with the newsreel, but Walt Disney wanted to do something more. Disney envisioned an animated feature that was filled with color and had movement throughout the frame. He saw this endeavor not as a lesser or light motion picture, but as a way to free ones’ creative vision from the limitations of live action filmmaking at the time.
Because of Disney’s fantastic and obsessive drive and imagination, several new technologies were created to make “Snow White.” One of them was a large animation cel, the smaller cels could not hold the amount information that Disney wanted, and the other and more inspired was the multiplane camera. This process shot the background, midground, and foreground on separate planes, which creates a sense of depth and space. This process was used until recently, when the image could be constructed in a computer.
One of the things that impressed me, while watching “Snow White” this time, was the quality of movement within the frame. There is nothing simple, or amateurish about it. This work is ambitious and fully developed, and it just happens to be the first animated feature ever made. Just watch this scene with the mirror and pay particular attention to the way the mask ripples and moves within the smoke, as if reflected in still water.
The movement is breathtaking. This scene also introduces us to our first main character, the Queen. It may be called “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” but this film is all about the Queen. Her vanity and desire to be the fairest drives the story, and without her, we the viewer, would be desperately bored. The Queen makes the film great, and establishes the tension and anxiety.
With such focus placed on the Queen, “Snow White” is a very dark and almost scary story. Considering the watered down nature of most animated films today, it is amazing to think of a film that wasn’t afraid to scare children a little. “Snow White” stays true to the gruesome nature of its source material, and when the Brothers Grimm call for the Huntsman to kill Snow White in the forest, well Disney’s not about to shy away from that.
Try and pitch a scene in an animated film nowadays, in which the main character is approached from behind by a knife-wielding assassin, whose orders are to cut out her heart. You can see that Disney didn’t intend his audience to be limited to children.
That doesn’t mean that there weren’t dazzling and magical moments.
Up until now the clips have been of animals and humans. The movements of the human characters employ an embellished, but life-like movement. The movement of the animals mimics animal movement, but again uses subtle augmentation to further interaction with other characters and push the emotion of a scene.
Here we have the first truly magical creatures, the Dwarfs, and they don’t have to obey the normal rules of movement. Often they seem to be boneless and can bend and move in a way that is wholly unnatural, but this odd jelly-like motion furthers their characters and makes them distinct from all other creatures on the screen.
Disney is said to have shown his animators various films for references. Some of his influences were the films of the German Expressionists. Films like F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” and Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” were used as visual reference for an early scene, which shows Snow White running from the Huntsman. Another scene where the techniques of German Expressionism shine through is during the Queen’s transformation into an old hag.
From the overt ghostly cackle that rises from the beakers, to the swirling colors, and the aging hands over the cloud background, this scene employs highly visual, emotionally loaded shots that reveal influence of the German Expressionists.
I realize that our main character is largely absent from the scenes I’ve shown you. Snow White herself is a relatively flat and uninteresting character. She lacks any real agency or power. She can flee, but not fight. Things happen to her, but rarely is she able to act upon her surroundings or other characters. I would argue that this story is not about her, but about the Queen’s struggle with the dwarfs over her. Perhaps a less ambiguous title would be “The Wicked Queen and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Not all of the scenes are dark and threatening. There are a few moments of jovial fun, and those moments are easily as layered and well executed as the scary scenes. Here is a scene, which has the Dwarfs and Snow White entertaining each other with a song and a little dancing.
Even in the lighthearted moments the attention to detail is overwhelming. There are not only eight main characters on screen, but various musical instruments, including an extravagant pipe organ. Each choice points to Disney’s ambition, and willingness to push the bar to an almost unattainable height. But Disney would soon suffer for his innovation and his artistic forethought that bordered on prescience.
Crowds were so dazzled by the stunning visuals in “Snow White” that they soon were crying for more. Disney followed with “Pinocchio,” but his next leap forward was his collection of tone and narrative pieces built around musical scores, “Fantasia.” Though we have come to see “Fantasia” as a marvel that was years ahead of its time, the reception at the time was chilly. This in part was the ridiculous expectation set by “Snow White” for all Disney films that followed it.
Though Snow White has found a momentary refuge with the Dwarfs, the queen pursues her into the forest, disguised as the old hag. While the Dwarfs are working in the mine, the Queen finds the house and offers Snow White a poisoned apple, which she tells Snow White is a “wishing” apple.
I can’t think of another scene this dark or intense, in any other mainstream animated film that is marketed for children and families. The play on the viewer’s imagination is remarkable. We don’t see the bite, nor do we see Snow White clutch her neck and writhe in pain. All we get is a glimpse of the apple rolling out of her lifeless hand, and the reaction of the Queen.
In the same way, the death of the Queen comes when she falls from the cliff, but we don’t see her fall or get a shot of her motionless form on the rocks below. Instead we see the reaction of the Dwarfs and the vultures.
This use of the macabre off-screen elements allows Disney to manipulate the viewer’s imagination. He knows that the violence that we don’t see is always more devastating.
Once the Queen is gone, don’t expect much excitement or tension. Snow White has a few more minutes for the Prince to find her and give her true love’s kiss, the antidote for the poisoned apple, but this is just the requisite resolution to such a fairy tale.
Even though it has been 70 some years since its release, it is easy to see “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” as the forerunner to all modern animated features. There are even a number of aspects of this film that continue to dazzle and amaze. In spite of advances in technology that ease the demands on animators, “Snow White” has little to fear in regards to its spot on AFI’s list. When your only limitation is the power of an artist’s imagination, you’re sure to be in capable hands with Walt Disney, especially at this time in his career.
Next on the list #33 “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975)
For links to #40-49, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #40 The Sound of Music (1965)
For links to #50-59, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #50 The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)
For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)
For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)
For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)