Thursday, December 21, 2017

Why "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" Continues to Endure 80 Years Later

Scene from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
It isn't often that a film can be seen as groundbreaking to the point that it changes an entire medium forever. Yet that is exactly what happened when Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released on December 21, 1937. There had been animated shorts before, but what creator Walt Disney presupposed was that it could be used to elevate the story telling format to something grander, and he did so by tackling The Brothers Grimm fairytale of a woman lost in the forest. With sweeping shots of the titular dwarfs singing "Heigh-Ho" as they returned from work, Disney innovated an art form that many would imitate, but few would capture with as much critical and cultural success. Snow White was the first animated movie, and it has managed to remain just as memorable and iconic now as it did then, thanks to breathtaking animation and a catch little box of songs.

There's plenty about early Disney that separates it from contemporary hits like Tangled and Moana. For instance, the hand drawn animation told stories that were darker, thrusting the family film into a dangerous territory dictated by the Great Depression and World War II, as well as their source material. If one thinks that Snow White is dark, one need only to read the source material to understand what was changed for cinematic integrity. In its place was several elements that would come to define the studio: a princess, songs, princes saving the day, and evil stepmothers. It was a template that they would continue to explore and arguably improve upon as the medium became more ambitious. But in 1937, everything was new and it was up to Disney to present a film that made the medium seem like something worth investing in

The argument was simple: he succeeded, winning seven miniature specialty Oscars in the process. He had found a way to innovate family entertainment by turning animation into a narrative device. What was initially impossible to do in live action was now more than capable on computers. It took diligent effort, several animators, and years of backbreaking work to produce the film - and every frame reflected its beauty. This was a film where even the water had an impressive ripple as it mirrored Snow White's face, looking down a well and wishing for a prince. The story by today's standards may be simple and almost ready for parody, but it's important to note that the film is still far more engaging than several other groundbreaking achievements. The silent-to-talkies era was filled with stilted and unnatural dialogue. Toy Story, for all of its enjoyment, has very dated CG animation. Snow White on the other hand looks like a classical photograph brought to life, imagining what it would look like to see a girl dancing with woodland creatures who helped her clean dishes. For a film of its time, it lacks the shortcomings that most cinema of the 1930's had. It was slow, but it was never boring.

Part of the charm came from the additional cast, and the general execution of the familiar iconography. The Wicked Stepmother became a staple of Disneyland parks in later years. The quest to name all seven of the dwarfs lead many to try and name them in rapid succession as a game. The film was a curious affair because so much of it still feels fresh, where even the songs have become song of the studio's best work. Sure, Disney may have made better movies, but the idea of them making a film so successfully revered decades later just shows how assured they were with how they wanted the public to see them. With one film, they created a dynamic that would continue to define them for 80 years now. They may have abandoned hand drawn animation, but they remain true to the emotional core of what makes their movies so popular. They are family entertainment, in that people of every age would enjoy something about it. There was no condescension. It was all just great story telling.

It's tough to imagine a world without Disney. It's one of those innovations on par with the internet or Star Wars. It's become so commonplace that to not know it would be an impossible feat. Everyone now has some story involving Disney movies, where something about them touched their emotional core as a child. It gets passed down like the old Brothers Grimm tales do. They are shown to new generations and soon they become folklore on par with their source material. Most kids would be familiar these stories because of Disney, who likely have given names like Hans Christian Andersen a second life thanks to films like Frozen and The Little Mermaid. These are all incredible achievements spanning over 50 films with dozens more probably coming before the reader dies. It's inescapable, and a lot of credit should go to the early run, whose films like Snow White or Pinocchio created the brand and made people know what to expect from a studio who sought to change cinema forever.

Snow White is more than one of the best films of the 30's. It was one that predicted the future of studio animation, and family entertainment in general. With no more than songs like "Someday My Prince Will Come," the film marked a change in the culture. Suddenly fantasy became more plausible thanks to the ability of animating more complicated sequences. It helped to create an art that many fell in love with and many others wanted to imitate. Most of all, they were entertaining enough that they were impossible to forget. They were smart movies for families who wanted escapism, which proved to be the perfect secret weapon. Beyond the catchy songs, Snow White was a film that wanted to thrill a person from 8 to 80. By some stroke of luck, it still is relevant and memorable in 2017 as it was in 1937. Everything about the film has aged well, which is not something that could be said about other groundbreaking achievements. 

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