Friday, 25 April 2014

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Country: USA
Based on: Snow White by the Brothers Grimm
Director: David Hand (supervising)
Producer: Walt Disney / Made by Walt Disney Productions / Distributed by RKO Pictures
Screenplay: Ted Sears and seven screenwriting dwarfs (no really, there were 8 screenwriters)
Voices: Andriana Caselotti, Lucille Le Verne, Harry Stockwell
Length: 83 minutes

A beautiful young princess flees the narcissistic, homicidal rage of her Queen mother and takes refuge with an eccentric group of forest-dwelling little people en route to meeting her Prince Charming. 

On the heels of Disney’s hugely popularly Silly Symphonies shorts, Snow White was not only Walt’s first animated feature, but the first animated feature, period. Filmed on a budget of $1.5 million, it initially raked in $8 million and another $408 million since, making it one of the top ten highest grossing films in North America (when rated for inflation). Before its release, naysayers considered it little more than an outrageously priced flop-to-be. But Disney had faith, and he mortgaged his house to prove it.

Production started in the summer of 1934 with mostly untrained animators whose only professional experience was as newspaper cartoonists. To make sure his crew was up for the task, head animator Art Babbit held classes in his home using a female model. While the dwarfs were the film’s primary selling feature, the heart of the story was Snow White’s rocky relationship with her stepmother, the Queen. Eager to strike a balance between comedy and drama, Walt ensured the movie would make audiences laugh, scream and cry in equal measure.  The film was re-released every seven to ten years between 1944 and 1993, when it became the first film ever to be digitally restored.

Winner of an honorary Oscar in 1939 and nominated for Best Musical Score, largely due to classic songs like Some Day My Prince Will Come, Whistle While We Work, and Heigh Ho, Snow White’s profits were used by Disney to finance the now-legendary Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. Over the next 16 years, Disney would forever cement himself in the popular imagination with classics like Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. 

Trying to pin down Disney’s influence on cinema and society, never mind on me personally, is roughly the same as trying to summarize the value of air. I can’t remember a time when Disney wasn’t a major part of my life and a fundamental artistic influence. Nor for that matter do I particularly want to. When I’m feeling blue and need me a good pick-me-up, Disney films are still my number one go-to. Walt’s much-chronicled journey from school newspaper cartoonist to roadblock-jumping businessman to shaper of dreams is legendary, a roadmap of perseverance and self-belief if ever there was one. (P.S. I cannot recommend Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination highly enough.) His inexhaustible desire to transform the American cultural landscape, on display in his films, theme parks, television programs, and more, was both unprecedented and unparalleled, except by history’s other notable (if not so noble) emperors.  

And yet despite his insatiable commercial appetite and grand ambition, he never lost sight of what mattered most: touching, well-crafted, highly entertaining stories rooted in ancient archetypes and popular fairy tales that somehow managed to appeal to everybody. And of course, I do mean everybody. So deep was his influence that nearly half a century after his death in 1966, The Walt Disney Company is still spinning cinematic gold out of Walt’s original vision. Sure, the journey hasn’t been without a few dry spells, and one can’t ignore the revival that was Pixar, but on the whole, Disney has remained an institution and inspiration for millions of aspiring storytellers, animators, and filmmakers, not to mention that little kid in all of us.    

But I digress. Snow White, Disney’s bold first kick at the can must have hit audiences like a comet. Funny, moving, visually mesmerizing, and narratively rich, it tells the simple story of a young woman handed one shit sandwich after another who absolutely refuses to let it bring her down. Ignore for a moment that she spends a good share of her time cleaning up after men, for to do otherwise would miss the deeper message. Independent, resourceful, generous and genuinely happy all at the same time, she’s about as close to a perfect female role model - or role model, period - as I can imagine. Sure, she wouldn’t mind a Prince Charming in her life (is that a bad thing?), but she's clearly able to manage just fine on her own in the meantime. The dwarfs are cute and hilarious, the Queen is suitably wicked, and Prince Charming is, well, charming. But it’s Snow White herself that steals the show, and I love her for it.

Too often, we roll our eyes at Disney’s myriad pretty princesses, superficially viewing them as some kind of affront to feminism. But I would argue the opposite: that there is no other filmmaker or studio in history that has so consistently placed strong, heroic female leads at the center of their stories, and who who almost always save the day. Think Alice, Pollyanna, Mary Poppins, Miss Bianca, Ariel, Belle, Pocahontas, Mulan, Nani and Lilo, Mia, Giselle, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, and most recently, Elsa – never mind their many sinister and colourful female antagonists. In this way among many others, Walt Disney was a kick-ass, cutting edge innovator.

At the same time, I love Snow White’s unbridled zest for life, her Buddha-like ability to revel in the moment, and the story's emphasis on the elevating power of friendship and community in the face of overwhelming evil. It’s a massively entertaining and elegant film with a beautiful message, uplifting tunes, and wholesome laughs. And these days, who couldn’t use a bit more of that?

When I was growing up, Snow White was the Disney princess I could identify with most. She always focused on the positive even when things were truly bleak. She loved animals and they loved her back. (Bonus: they sang with her and helped clean the house!). She had a thing for apples. And she was always so darned polite!

But what surprised me most about seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs again after all these years was how truly independent and full of joy she comes off in the film - not just as a woman, but as a human being. She's not bothered by what others think she should be, one way or the other; she just is. She doesn't clean and cook and sweep because it's expected of her as a woman; she does it because she genuinely enjoys it. Intentionally or not, she stands for all women who may, in the end, find their truest joy in a role society now sadly deems "stereotypical" and "sexist": that of homemaker, mother, and hostess.

There's also a great little message about how karma works. Snow White sends love out into the world and it comes back to her in multiples of seven - plus Prince Charming! She radiates joy and the people around her can't help but reflect it back. I love that. I know life doesn't always work that way, but Snow White is a good reminder that it can if we're willing to risk throwing a little positive energy out there every once in a while. Whether we get a Prince Charming in the end or not, that just seems like a better, and certainly a happier, way to live.

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