Review: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938)

snow white and the seven dwarfs 1938 movie poster one sheetWatching the gorgeous Disney Blu-Ray release of the Disney classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it’s hard to remember that every single second of this animated masterpiece was drawn by hand. Every rustling tree, every moody cloud, every water drop, all drawn by an extraordinarily talented team of animators under the watchful eye of Walt Disney himself.

And that was back when Walt Disney Corporation was on tenuous financial footing, decades before Disneyland opened, and concurrent with the early years of Mickey Mouse (Steamboat Willie was released in 1928, making Mickey only a bit older than Snow White). One apocryphal story has it that Walt invested so much in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that if it had flopped then the nascent animation house would have gone bankrupt too.

Fortunately the Disney-ified version of this classic Grimm Brothers fairy tale was a smash success and stands as a testament to the power of animation. The story also still stands up as as a cautionary tale of vanity, and it all starts out with a beautiful young princess kept subjugated as a lowly maid by her jealous Wicked Stepmother…

In one of my favorite scenes in all cinema, the princess (voice of Adriana Caselotti) sings a song about her one true love to her bird friends, harmonizing with her own echo from the wishing well. You can watch this scene on YouTube, and please do: The Wishing Well Song from Snow White. Keep in mind as you watch it that everything’s hand drawn. Every nuance, every ripple. A really amazing technical accomplishment!

The handsome prince rides by the castle and overhears her singing, falling instantly in love with this beautiful girl with the voice of an angel. But Wicked Stepmother (voice of Lucille La Verne) has other plans after having checked with her magic mirror (the voice of Moroni Olsen) and finding out that Snow White is the “fairest in the land”, not her. She tasks her evil henchman The Huntsman (voice of Stuart Buchanan) with the heinous job of luring Snow White into the forest and murdering her, proving he’s accomplished his deed by bringing back her heart in a wooden box. A dark, dark current in the story, but The Huntsman cannot commit the task, in a remarkable scene, and encourages Snow White to flee, flee deep into the woods.

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Snow White sings to the Dwarfs, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”

After a frightening nightmarish dash through an increasingly evil woods (a model for subsequent Disney nightmare sequences) she makes friends with all the forest creatures (Thumper? Bambi? You can see early versions of them here) and they come across a cute little cottage. It’s the house of the Seven Dwarfs, Doc, Sleepy, Grumpy, Sneezy, Happy, Dopey and Bashful, and Snow White quickly adapts to her role of surrogate mother while they all quickly appreciate having a girl to bring a “woman’s touch” to their messy, disorganized home. The sequence where the other dwarfs compel Grumpy into washing his hands before their evening meal is particularly entertaining.

The Wicked Stepmother turns herself into an evil crone — with the help of a frightened blackbird that I think is a fabulous character, on screen for too short a time — and tricks Snow White into eating a poisoned apple, dropping her into a sleep as unto death. A sleep that can only be broken by love’s true kiss. A climactic chase scene, and years later the reappearance of The Prince and it’s the original happy ending as they ride off into the sunset. And us viewers? Well, this critic might have had some extraneous moisture in his eye by this point in the tale.

snow white and the seven dwarfs, disney blu-ray release, dvd boxThere are definitely dated aspects to the story compared to a more modern tale of empowered women and appropriate male/female roles in our contemporary society, but Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs really holds up extraordinarily well considering it’s almost 80 years old. And the Blu-Ray release is gorgeous with a crystal-clear soundtrack, delivering a viewing experience that’s doubtless far superior to the original screening of the film back in 1938.

The Blu-Ray release also has some really interesting extras, including “Designing Disney’s First Princess” and an alternate scene that never made it into the final film but offers some insight into the evolution of the animated masterpiece with its rough, sketched format.

Some people say that Disney never did top Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and while I don’t know that I’d go that far, I will say that it’s a sweet, entertaining movie that my 12yo daughter found a pleasure to watch and yes, I got caught up in the story too, even knowing exactly how everything would unfold and that it would deliver up a satisfying happy ending.

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