Tuesday, March 8, 2016

AFI Top 100: #34 "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"

The titular Snow White in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

One of only two animated features on the AFI Top 100 list, Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is also the only film on our countdown to represent the pioneering House of Mouse. A pioneer in and of itself within the world of animation, the #34 ranking fantasy is based on the dark and harrowing 1812 Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Snow White, and stands alone in being the first full length animated movie of all time. A list of endless accolades reminds any viewer that they are watching history be made, and regardless of the trouble-points presented in the film's story and primary characters (Snow White specifically), this is an undeniable achievement, and a contribution to movies worth remembering.

The lovely princess Snow White (voiced by Adriana Caselotti), left in the care of her vain stepmother, the Queen (Lucille La Verne), has been punished for her beauty and grace, forced to work as a scullery maid. The Queen's jealousy, however, knows no bounds, as she possesses a Magic Mirror (Moroni Olsen) that for more than a decade has declared her the most beautiful woman in the land. But one day, when asked "Magic Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?" the mirror responds for the first time with Snow White's name. Desperate to be rid of this reminder of her fading beauty, the Queen tries to have Snow White killed, but the Huntsman (Stuart Buchanan) sent to do the deed, wracked with guilt, sets her free in the mystical forest instead. As Snow White befriends the creatures of the wilderness, she comes across the home of seven unruly Dwarf miners, who take it upon themselves to protect her from the pursuit of the Evil Queen and her treachery.

What sweetness this movie possesses. It's noticeably quaint, an indication that it hasn't aged particularly well, but the charm overrides most of the flaws. I feel a bit silly critiquing the plot, considering it was an iconic story even before it became a film, the music and visuals some of the most recognizable in history, but what choice do we have here? Cinematic and historical significance counts for quite a lot, though, particularly where animation is concerned. With Snow White, Walt Disney introduced a formula that would go on to be the trademark of the studio's feature film brand—a princess, woodland creatures, a villain, and a handsome prince to save the day. While this film may have been the originator, the formula was only perfected with later films, specifically Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Comparatively, those movies offer a far more well-rounded, not only heroine, but villainess, as well.

The center of the film is full of the classic 'fun and games' playfulness that makes us remember this feature so fondly, and it takes up the bulk of the story. Disney struck gold with their collection of Dwarfs, spending two long back-to-back sequences (told through songs "Dig-a-Dig Di" and "Heigh-Ho") watching the men work, mess around, and merely walk home—and this same attention is paid to them only a few scenes later during "Bluddle-Uddle-Um-Dum (The Dwarfs' Washing Song)" as they figure out how to wash their hands and faces. They certainly offer unspeakable fun, but it isn't long before we realize how long it takes for the primary characters to even meet, and the plot to move along steadily, while Snow White shifts to the periphery. They have personality, and she, unfortunately, lacks it.

Stuck in the fun rather than her personal story, events shift so quickly into the intense, but incredibly brief, climax, that the most important events are over before you realize it. The Evil Queen's transformation sequence is a sobering reminder what this plot is supposed to be about, but it almost comes too late. As a result, it's not the film's tragic climax that winds up being so beloved (despite the presence of the famous poisoned apple), but rather, its somber, then resoundingly romantic, denouement.

The songs, at this point, can stand on their own, long separated, as it were, from the events of the film, thanks to Disneyland and sing-a-longs galore. Disney's animators, having only live action films to base their work on at the time, took influences from famous horror titles like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to create some of Snow White's most cinematic features. And it's noticeable. The transitions, transformations, shot framing (Snow White falling behind the table as the red apple falls from her hand, just in sight), and dramatic score come to mind. What they accomplished here is nothing short of remarkable, but it's easy for a generation like mine, so spoiled with the riches of the animated genre, to view this achievement as simple, antiquated, and somewhat boring.

Unlike most films, however, the Disney features that speak most to us are favorites passed down through generations. The childhood loves of our parents are translated to us, and for me, Snow White was never a family favorite, therefore, it isn't a personal one. But more than any other film on this AFI list, I have no trouble grasping the historical impact—and contribution to the legacy of Walt Disney—this movie has achieved. Without it, the Disney film franchise as we know it today would not exists—there would certainly be no Bambi, no Sleeping Beauty, no Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast... and what kind of sad, song-less world would that be?

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Walt Disney Pictures]

Check back next time for #33 on the list, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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