Not too long ago, as you know, I reviewed the animated cartoon movie BEBE’S KIDS. Today I want to acknowledge that there could never be a BEBE’S KIDS – or God forbid even a ROVER DANGERFIELD – if it wasn’t for Walt Disney and friends breaking ground nearly 75 years ago with the first feature length animation cartoon, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS.
I want to start occasionally Expanding My Horizons by reviewing respected or historically important movies that aren’t normally the type of thing I watch or write about. I think this way we can all learn together and I can be less repetitive and also be one of those worldly renaissance type dudes. But the real reason I rented this is that I got a new set-up. The high defintion type TV prices went down this Christmas so I finally scraped together enough cash to get one of those, and a cheap off-brand blu-ray player on the side. SNOW WHITE was recommended to me as one of the more impressive blu-ray transfers, and my sources weren’t lying. The thing looks so vivid you feel like you’re standing face to face with the original watercolor paintings. And some of them are still wet.
(By the way if you didn’t know a cartoon is a series of drawings and paintings shown in quick succession to create the illusion of dwarfs and animals dancing around, etc.)
Don’t worry, I won’t let high definition change me. I still got the VCR hooked up. I’ll try to stay sympathetic about the tyranny of the blu-ray only extras. Won’t waste your time whining about how the Michael Jackson’s Vision DVD upscales like shit, or how for the first time I understand why people give a shit about anamorphic transfers. But most of my movies will look better and I’ll learn more about movie star pores, wrinkles and scars (the novelty of staring at high-def skin got me through the DINNER WITH THE SCHMUCKS blu-ray). And I hope the Lord doesn’t strike us down or flood us for making THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE look so much clearer than He ever meant it to.
SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS is the story of a young princess named Snow White whose stepmother is so fuckin vain she doesn’t just have a regular mirror to stare at herself in, she sprung for the magic one with a slave inside to kiss her ass (not literally, as far as it shows, but technically I guess it probly could) and tell her how “fair” she is all the time. But the thing keeps it real and and tells her Snow White is “fairest” even though the bitch dresses her in rags to try to make her look bad.
God bless ‘im but in this case dishonesty would’ve been the better policy for ol’ Magic Mirror. The Queen wants to eliminate her fairness competition Tonya Harding style, so she calls on this Huntsman guy to kill the girl. I think at first he tries to psyche himself up with that whole Most Dangerous Game/HARD TARGET idea of “man is the deadliest prey,” but he wasn’t prepared for what a sissy Snow White was gonna be. When he holds the knife up she just holds her hands in front of her face and screams. This is not Mulan he’s dealing with. He probly feels like some perverted slasher going around with a boner stabbing little girls. So he calls off the murder, tells her to hide and brings the Queen a pig’s heart instead of the girl’s.
Incidentally the Queen already owned a wooden box with a knife-stabbed-into-heart theme, the right size to store a human or pig heart in. That’s the kind of crazy bitch we’re dealing with here. What do you buy for the Queen who has everything? Oh, does she have one of those hand-carved heart storage boxes? Yeah, she already has one. Okay, what about a talking mirror? Yeah. Pet crow? Yes. This bitch even has a spooky cellar that she goes into to do her black magic, like a Bat Cave, full of chemistry equipment. And I think there’s a skeleton in there. I bet she had a guy chained up in there to tell her how fair she was, but after she got the mirror she forgot to keep feeding him.
So anyway Princess White’s gotta run off into the woods. First she gets scared, then makes friends with pretty much the entire eco-system and finds this little house which is where these “dwarfs” live. She just walks in and it’s nasty, spider webs and dirty dishes, filthy clothes laying in the living room, no pizza boxes or cat shit, but might as well be. She immediately starts cleaning, and all the animals from her new woodland creature entourage pitch in.
This speaks volumes about Snow White. A wimp, but a genuinely nice person, so nice she makes fast friends with birds and squirrels. A princess, but not averse to work, in fact does unsolicited housework for strangers. The anti-Goldilocks. So even if she’s not exactly the best role model for your 21st century daughters it’s hard to hate her. She’s a dork but she’s a good kid.
This story and especially this movie are so ingrained in our culture I forgot all the context and logic behind it. I forgot why Snow White was with these dwarves in the first place. Turns out it’s a safe house. She’s in hiding. And you just kind of accept seven dwarves without thinking about it, but really it’s unclear what their deal is. Are they a race, like in Lords of the Rings, or are they just little people? If it’s the second one how did they find each other and decide to live and work together? I mean this is before the internet, how you gonna find seven little people in this area who know how to mine diamonds? They’re a non-judgmental bunch, they got one retarded guy in the house and one with severe allergies. But somehow they found each other and they get along, agree what time to go to work in the morning, etc.
Do they have a genuine passion for diamond mining, or is this just the only work a little person can find in this fucked up kingdom? They seem to be self-employed, and at the same time very disciplined. They keep regular hours in the mine and have a long commute on foot, but apparently nobody to boss them around. We don’t see what happens after that, but I figure they must go out and sell the diamonds to somebody. This was before rappers or Liberace, so they probly just sold them for crowns and sword hilts. But whoever buys them can feel good about it. not only are they not conflict diamonds, they’re dug up by self employed miners, that’s gotta be rare. Free trade, organic, free range, whatever. No sweat shops. It’s like American Apparel minus the sexual harassment.
Speaking of sexual harassment, I think a pretty funny live action Snow White comedy could be made where the dwarfs really are the dirty old men they’re very innocently implied to be in this version. These guys are obviously sweet on her. She’s a real nice girl and they got every reason to adore her, but I also think they enjoy having a tall drink of water like that around, cooking for them and kissing them goodbye before work. I don’t want to see them slapping her on the ass or nothin, just exchanging sleazy glances to acknowledge that they hit the jackpot here, and don’t know how they got so lucky.
The other really funny aspect that could be played up is Snow White’s unintentional condescension toward the dwarfs. When she sees their beds she assumes that “little children” live in the house, which she seems to think is adorable. But really they’re hairy old perverts. It’s funny how cute she thinks their little things are and I’d love it if she kept cluelessly saying that kind of shit to their faces.
The aspect that has evolved the most in Disney movies since then is the portrayal of women, the “Disney Princesses.” It’s kind of off-putting at first to see this girl with her high-pitched voice singing to birds and running away bashfully when some handsome dude randomly shows up and starts singing to her. But considering how old this thing is it’s not that bad. There’s much worse shit that could’ve been in there. Luckily the only weird racial business is some bitch that wants her skin to be pale. Probly wasn’t that fair after she got struck by lightning. (SPOILER.)
It’s astounding how good the art is in this fuckin thing. The old European styling of the buildings, the nice watercolor backgrounds, the subtle character that comes through in the expressions, the tastefully muted colors. It looks beautiful. I think Disney probly made some better cartoons later, but this one really set a tone and atmosphere and a perfect balance of cute and spooky. He knew what the fuck he was doing. Now nobody gives a shit but back then everybody thought he was crazy, he knew he wasn’t, did what he wanted to do and made them all kiss his ass.
The Disney brand name has been around so long now, been so dominant in its field, become such a massive company, that there’s a pretty common attitude now where people think of “Disney” as meaning saccharine-sweet and merchandised-to-death and they think they’re blowing the lid off of America’s dark secrets if they say that such and such cartoon is racist or brainwashing children or they claim Walt Disney was a Nazi or some phony baloney like that. I’m not trying to pick on the fellas who were making similar claims in a recent comment thread, but I want to address it a little.
It’s true, Walt Disney was not a saint. He was merely a guy who completely revolutionized an entire art form, sought out and cultivated a team of incredible artists and led them in creating a whole bunch of pop culture’s most enduring characters and stories, and then spent the money he made from it to build a fucking fantasyland and hiring geniuses to invent robotic pirates and ghosts to fill it with. That’s a striver for excellence if there ever was one, and to pretend otherwise is just horse shit.
It’s not some accident or 75 year long mistake that makes this body of work and style are such an institution. But of course it’s easy to take it for granted, like you would Coca-Cola or the Statue of Liberty, you’re not gonna praise those too often either. “Mmm, this can of Coke is delicious. Where did you find it?” But just because everybody in the world (with the notable exception of Hitler) loved Disney’s movies and they became inescapable doesn’t mean we gotta pretend they aren’t amazing.
I guess it’s a common human instinct to try to tear down and shit on anything that has lasted longer than you will. That’s fine for sullen teenagers, but as an adult I think you gotta look at it more rationally. Even if you hate it there are some areas in which you gotta be honest and give it props. It’s fucked up that Thomas Jefferson had slaves, but I like his Declaration of Independence. The then-progressive portrayal of African-American crows in DUMBO makes me a little uncomfortable, but they did a pretty fuckin good job drawing that elephant.
SNOW WHITE was both the AVATAR and the TOY STORY 3 of its time. It’s like AVATAR because Disney was doubted and ridiculed beforehand. The press called it “Disney’s Folly” because of the amount of money he spent and because they didn’t believe that people would be able to sit through a feature length cartoon. I guess people even said that the bright colors of animation would hurt people’s eyes at that length. In my opinion they were wrong.
The reason I compare it to TOY STORY 3 is because it made adults cry. Disney was the Pixar of their time, except way more revolutionary since they were doing something that had never been done before and was not believed to be possible. Even Disney and his animators weren’t sure if they could make people scared of a cartoon or sympathetic toward its characters. Nobody had really tried what they were trying. But when it came out it was known for making adults cry during the scene where the dwarves grieve over Snow White’s corpse. I don’t think it really has that effect anymore, but it definitely holds up to modern entertainment standards better than many movies from 1937, or the ’80s for that matter.
If you read anything about their history you know it’s not a coincidence that Pixar merged with Disney. John Lasseter and many of Pixar’s other founders and artists grew up worshipping at the altar of Disney. Disney movies made them want to be animators. Most of them went to the college created and founded by Disney, where they learned from Disney’s animators. Then many of them worked as animators at Disney. Lasseter also worked at Disneyland, driving the Jungle Cruise boat. And alot of their philosophy of training and storytelling comes straight out of the Disney playbook. Shit, they even send their artists on research trips or bring in animals for them to study just like Disney did.
That’s not to say you gotta respect all these movies or consider all of them as being in the same spirit. I don’t think Walt even has that much say in the movies they’ve made since his head was frozen. And later we can get into some of the other issues you brought up if you want, but the point is don’t give me that “Disney is the Devil and Pixar is God” shit. You know who you are. (Paul.) And more importantly I just want to say to give credit where credit is due. It doesn’t matter if you hate Mickey Mouse dolls or are offended by the dog’s accents in LADY AND THE TRAMP, if the guy made SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS then he deserves some god damn credit
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.