Tuesday, August 9, 2011

DATE Night: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

We kick our DATE Nights off with the grandmammy of them all- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The Background:

This poster is worth more than what I
make in two years. Sigh.
You can't help but have a lot of expectations watching Snow White. This is, after all, where it all began. No one had ever attempted a full-length animated feature on this scale before. As the budget ballooned, it was dubbed "Disney's Folly" and common wisdom was that Disney was in way over its head. A six or seven minute long cartoon was one thing, but a whole animated movie? Who would want to go out and see it? But Disney fought to get it made, even mortgaging his home to pay for it and opens the film with a thank you to his staff, who helped the film get made, which strikes me as a very poignant gesture to acknowledge everyone's sacrifice and hard work.

In the end, Disney came out on top. Adjusted for inflation, Snow White is one of the highest grossing films of all time. He built his studio with the profits from the film. He established his brand as an artistic force to be reckoned with and a profitable one at that. The movie is consistently acknowledged as one of the greatest of all time. Its importance culturally and artistically is pretty hard to overstate.

It's almost impossible to think of something as formulaic when it's actually creating the formula. Elements that we have seen a hundred times over can be attributed to the influence of this movie. The opening of the storybook to kick things off. The kind, spunky princess. The hot prince. The evil antagonist. The princess "yawn and stretch" wake that Amy Adams nails in Enchanted. The friendly animals. The funny sidekicks. The songs. The central themes of wishes and dreams. And most importantly, the happily ever after. Though some of these things existed before Disney, after this film, they would be branded forever with a capital D.

The First Impression:

Thoughts on Snow White: The animation still looks stunning today. The evil queen is terrifying. The Dwarves are hilarious. All the comedic business is genius. The score is lovely. The Prince is a bit of a dud, but handsome. Such a brilliant film!

The Art:

The way the use light is breathtaking in this scene.
8/10. Stunning. Though you can see how far we have come technically, the art never looks crude or simple. The backgrounds are watercolor and feel so lush and soft. The use of the brand-new multi-plane camera allows for an astonishing, even for today, sense of depth. There are effects that are so fantastic, like the water in the well, the rain, the glow of the lights and the sparkle of the gems. I still have no idea how they did them. The detail in the art is also pretty astounding. The Queen's (appropriately enough) peacock throne and the wood carvings throughout the Dwarfs' cabin are two examples. Things that you would gloss over because you are caught up in the story really surface in multiple viewings.

One of the surprising things in the film is the subtle use of color. I actively noticed it first in Snow White's dress. We are so used to the skirt being shown as blazingly bright yellow. In the film it is actually a much lighter, more delicate shade. After all the restorations and research, I can only assume that the skirt is the color that it was originally intended to be. Those careful color choices extend throughout, helping to establish the difference between this and the bright, Technicolor shorts. It adds to the sense of realism and artistry. You are not in a cartoon forest, but a darker, more dangerous one, where unexpected things could happen.

The style bridges the cartoon look of the shorts and the yet-to-be-attempted super-realistic look that dominates animation now. I like the hybrid of two that Disney used in its animation. We take it for granted now, when there are new animated movies every month, but this was the very first, and it must have been stunning to see artists create an entire world out of ink and paint. And everything leads up to that absolutely breathtaking final shot of the castle in the shy. Why in the world isn't that castle in one of the parks? Swoon!

The Story:

The storybook that started it all.
7/10. Surprisingly solid, save the title card shoehorned in to get us to the happy ending. Otherwise the plot moves briskly and never sags. It's very cool that the first character we really see is the Evil Queen and her reaction to Snow White. It gives us a feeling that good an evil are closely linked in the world of this story. As soon as you are lulled into a happy place, the story switches to something darker (Oh, those funny Dwarfs are so silly washing up! Ha! Ha... Eek! That Queen is creeperific!) and the juxtaposition is jarring and exciting.

The movie is not afraid of those scarier moments. Snow White is almost attacked by the Huntsman in the midst of an act of kindness. The scene of Snow White being terrified by the trees in the forest, which in her paranoid head have become monsters, as she runs away is an edge-of-your-seat psychological thriller that illuminates her mental state metaphorically through the art. Deep stuff. The Queen's transformation into the hag and the section that precedes it are some of the most atmospheric and horrifying moments ever on screen, not to mention an artistic triumph. Then when she asks a skeleton if it's thirsty, kicks a jug towards it and cackles, you know we are dealing with a soulless psychopath.

There are some beautifully directed moments, as well. They had to find creative ways to imply horrible things and by now showing them, they actually had more impact. We don't see Snow White fall after she takes a bite from the apple. The shot moves from the hag watching her bite, to the floor, to the bitten into apple rolling from Snow White's hand. It's spine tingling. We don't see the hag dead. We just see the buzzards begin to circle. On the other end of the spectrum, the scene where the Dwarfs are mourning Snow White, the whole room has an almost ethereal hazy glow. Even the candles dripping wax and nature raining shed tears for the loss of the princess. It is a lovely way to support the impact of the moment.

The Characters:

7/10. Snow White is not the most dimensional princess, but she is a good template. She's not afraid to get a bit sassy ("You must be Grumpy!"), but is not beyond giving her hair a bit of a fluff before entering a strange cottage for the first time. I will say that she catches a case of the dumbs when she trusts the creepy hag. That did take a bit of suspension of disbelief on my part. Note to self: do not trust hags bearing gifts. The Prince is kind of a void. They apparently cut much of his business to focus more on other aspects of the story. I can't say I mind, but it leaves him as a handsome accessory.

She will eat your soul for brunch.
The Evil Queen makes me piddle in my britches a little bit. She is terrifying despite, or perhaps because of, her beauty. She subverts our expectation that good equals lovely and evil equals ugly. The voice work by Lucille La Verne is great to boot, going from understated regal tones to bone-crunching cackles. This time through I noticed that the Magic Mirror is actually kind of a dish. He may be a future Disney Dreamboat. I love the chiseled features and the deep voice. Me-yow.

Super adorbs!
The woodland creatures are all charmingly rendered. Is there anything cuter in the world than these little forest niblets curling up to go to sleep or helping Snow White clean up? I thought not. They also serve to as outsiders witnessing the story as we do. They stand in for the audience and since the animals love her, so, in turn, do we. My favorite is that adorable little turtle who is always left behind, pulling himself up the stairs by his teeth only to get there just as everyone else leaves. Plus ain't he just the cutest lil' washboard you ever seen?

The Dwarfs are fantastic. They provide the sight gags and comic relief and are genuinely funny. Each of them has such a distinct personality. I love Doc's malapropisms ("Search every crooked fanny, uh nook and cranny!"). Grumpy has such a fascinating arc built that he may be the most layered character in the whole movie. It is such a departure from our first encounters with him ("How do you do what?") that when he first smiles after Snow White kisses him, it's enough to melt you and his grief at Snow White's death is really palpable. Dopey, however, is my favorite. He is so child-like, bald and with one tooth, in oversized clothes, sticking his tongue out when he concentrates, always lagging behind and skipping to catch up. He is exuberant and so easy to fall in love with. I do question, however, who they are selling the gems they mine to and how much they are getting underpaid since they live in a tiny, dirty cabin. Even in Storybook Land I guess you gotta work your butt off to put money in the pockets of The Man. Harumph.

The Music:

8/10. The music works so perfectly. The movie is really a well-made piece of musical theatre. Not only are the songs, by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey, fantastic, but they actually further the plot along. Snow White has a beautiful I Want song in "I'm Wishing" and continues to long for her love in the aching but hopeful "Someday My Prince Will Come". "Whistle While You Work" and "With a Smile and a Song" give us insight into Snow White's positive philosophies on life. Adriana Caselotti has a pretty voice, though it is very much of its time and may sound a bit odd to modern ears. "Heigh-Ho" introduces the Dwarfs and is so catchy that listening once will imprint it on your brain for hours.

My favorite musical moment is probably "The Silly Song", which is a charm song for the Dwarfs as they yodel and dance about with Snow White. Watching that sequence makes me so happy that my face almost splits in two from the grinning. It's so joyful, the animation is so fun, and the song is so, well, silly. Plus Grumpy plays the organ with his butt. I hope he puts that under "Special Skills" on his resume. I'd call him back just to see him do it. Another fascinating tidbit about the song is that some of the animation was reused later in Robin Hood. This video does a great job of showing the two together, along with some other reused Disney animation.

Two other things struck me about the music. The score itself is wonderful. Composed by Paul J. Smith and Leigh Harline, it functions just as beautifully as any modern musical score. It heightens the emotion of the moment, making you shudder at the scary moments, chuckle at the funny ones and weep at the sad. The sophistication really struck me because the score is so integral to the storytelling in the film. I also love the way that the dialogue leading up to the songs becomes rhythmic and rhyming as a way to take us in a less jarring way from speech to song and integrating, rather than just dropping, them in.

The Gay Scale:

6/10. Any time you have a princess and a prince, you have something for the gays. From here on out, it will be known as the 3P (Pretty Pretty Princess) Factor. These princesses are outsiders, often teased, mocked, made to feel different and less than, and hurt. Through sheer will and positivity, they overcome and are vindicated- getting their prince, their happy ending and everything they could want. That is the narrative that many gay boys wish for themselves when they escape their everyday and it still resonates as an adult. Disney Princess movies inevitably speak to them. Snow White goes from scrubbing the floor to riding off into the sunset with her prince.

The gays also love a great villain. They especially love a good glamorous villain and they don't get much more glamourous than the Evil Queen, who looks like she could have walked right out of a Hollywood nightclub even if she would have been a bit overdressed. They wish that they could wield all of that power, using it to get what they want, consequences be damned. Plus they know that being the villain is just plain more fun. Most gays would probably skip out on the beggar woman section of the whole affair. Many would probably make an appointment for Botox.

He was definitely a music major.
With a minor in women's studies.
The other queer element is Bashful. Come on. You know that he's the gay dwarf. The long, fluttery eyelashes. The fruity stance. The way he notices the flowers. The fact that he wants to hear a love story. He is not, however, an outcast from the group, which leads me to believe that the dwarfs were in fact progressive about alternative sexualities, which is pretty cool. Actually, now that I come to think of it, there is something vaguely queer about the fact that seven grown men live together in one ornately carved shack in the woods when they aren't searching for sparkly jewels, but that is all counterbalanced by the fact that they are filthy pigs who don't bathe or clean.

The Bottom Line:

8/10. The movie deserves all the adoration that has been heaped on it. It really is the standard to which all others will be compared. Plus, it really at the core is a story about love triumphing over evil. Who hasn't felt like they've been revived by love's first kiss from the sleeping death? There is magic in that first kiss from the one you love. When Tom and I had our first kiss, we even had woodland creatures prancing about. Maybe that's just us and Snow White, but the rest of it is totes universal.

The Miscellanea:

First off, please visit my Odd Disney World: Disney Remixed entry and watch the video called "Wishery". This artist takes brief clips from Disney films, patchworking new pieces of music out of them, and creates music videos to go along with them. They are fascinating and fully awesome. "Wishery" is based on Snow White and is one of my favorites.

One of my favorite parts of the "Snow White's Scary Adventures" ride at Disneyland is the Evil Queen who appear periodically at the window above, glaring down, daring us to come inside so she can dump a rock on our heads. She is actually quite creepy, as is the ride as a whole. In Walt Disney World, every ride takes place in a medieval tent, so I didn't see this until my first trip to Disneyland last year. Plus, with the Fantasyland expansion that's happening right now in WDW, the ride is being gutted and turned into a meet and greet for the princesses anyway. But when the Mouse taketh away, he often giveth and there will be a new mine train ride featuring the dwarfs, which I'm sure will be awesomesauce! This video shows the Evil Queen from outside the ride in Disneyland Paris. I love it! It's like the freakiest game of peek-a-boo ever.

I also remember very distinctly from childhood a live action musical version of Snow White that I used to rent on VHS. Watching the film made me curious about that memory. Come to find out it was performed at Radio City Music Hall from late 1979 to early 1980. It has never been released on DVD and is hard to track down on tape. But (pretty badly synced) clips from is have surfaced on Youtube. It is pretty fascinating to see how Disney put together a live Broadway style musical long before the recent trend of screen to stage translations. There's something charming about the old-school simplicity of it. Plus Mary Jo Salerno has a lovely voice, not gonna lie about it. The clips are totes worth checking out.

The last random bit I found is not at all politically correct. I am not easily offended at all and moments of this video felt like I was getting a bucket of cold water thrown at my face. Be advised if you decide to watch it. Warner Brothers had its own line of shorts called Merrie Melodies. One of those shorts produced in 1943 was called "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs". Though it has been widely banned, and understandably so, it is often cited as one of the best cartoon shorts of all time. It is a clever, jazzy, all-black parody of the Snow White story and it is also offensive as all get out. What makes the racial stereotyping so hard to swallow for me is its context. This is a classic cartoon short, which we traditionally think of as for impressionable kids. It's stupefying what was considered appropriate humor at the time. I am a huge believer in confronting historical stereotypes and exploring them as part of your cultural identity. Ignoring the past doesn't erase its existence. As a gay man, it is something that I do all the time and it gives me a sense of where I have come from and where I want to go in my own life, though I know not everyone looks at stuff like this the same way. For some, it just stings and I totally get that. Still, I think this is a fascinating piece of history and a pretty great cartoon.

So, there we have our first DATE Night! I would love to hear your thoughts! What did you think of the movie? Do you have any thing to add? Do you agree with my assessment or did I totally get it wrong? Do you have any bits of Snow White miscellanea you've found that you'd like to share? Give me a holler!

Next week's DATE Night: We get swallowed up by a whale with Pinocchio!

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