Friday, February 20, 2009

Disney Marathon: Snow White

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937, David Hand, supervising director)

Adapted from the Brothers Grimm tale, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs tells the adventure of a young and beautiful princess, Snow White, the fairest of them all, and how she encounters seven remarkable dwarfs in the kingdom’s forest after being made an outcast by her treacherous and overtly jealous step mother, the queen. First things first, this is a fairy tale story with a, if I may use the term, children-friendly flavour to it. The dark and brooding quality readers have come to expect from the Brothers Grimm won’t be making any significant appearance. I say significant because there a few moodier scenes in the film after all, albeit far and few between.

I’ve never been a very big admirer of fairy tales. That isn’t to say I specifically dislike them, only that I have rarely in my life given them the time of day. This meant that by watching Snow White, I had to be wary not to roll my eyes at some of the, let’s just call them ‘magical moments’, as I would normally be prone to do. While there are moments that I had trouble digesting (I will get to them shortly, fear not), I won’t deny that overall, I could see where the foundations of the mammoth that Disney Animated Studios has begun emerge. Fun, interesting and generally well written characters, an impressive display of top quality animation, catchy, easy to follow songs, and a plot that really isn’t difficult at all to follow but that nonetheless carries enough narrative weight and character moments to sustain a running length that, while can it be officially deemed ‘feature length’, isn’t too long either. The movie clocks in at 83 minutes after all. Return of the King this is not.

I imagine that I can speak for several, although not everyone perhaps, in claiming that the titular seven dwarfs seem to steal the show. I was never as entertained in other scenes as I was when Doc, Grumpy, Dopey, Sleepy, Sneezy, Bashful and Happy were working, singing and having fun. Or doing anything for that matter. Just as long as those seven men were on screen I was content. I found it quite remarkable how, even though none individually earn that much screen time, by the end I was under the impression that I knew each one fairly well. Well, I suppose that means little given that each is provided with a single trait to distinguish one another. Still, I thought it was impressive how the filmmakers rose to the challenge at making seven interesting, entertaining dwarfs. They could have drawn seven and only spend meaningful time with 2 or 3, but no. Each one gets at least a few moments to shine and shine they do. I think the kicker is that they never separate. Seeing Sleepy on his own for 15 minutes I imagine would become tedious after perhaps 5. This is a case in which the sum seems to be greater than its individual parts, which must certainly count for something. There is a marvellous level of detail to their home as well. If one pays close attention to the furniture, staircases and doorways (which admittedly is easier upon repeated viewing, perhaps not the first time), you can see how the shapes of animals are carved into the wood every where. I though that was a really nice touch, that there was a nice symbolism to it. They live in the woods among the animals, have cut down some of the trees (which the animals use) in order to build this house and therefore decided to honour nature. They are far more destructive creatures than the animals and the trees and therefore wanted to remind themselves of the ecosystem they live in, to not forget what they are a part of. I don’t know, just some weird thought that came to me.

Snow White is a bit of an oddity however. There are moments when she clearly appears as witty, compassionate and possessing possibly even leadership qualities. She becomes a mother for the dwarfs, showing them a proper, sanitary way of living. She engages with them in a playful (I love how she guesses who Grumpy is when she meets them. It’s quite sweet) and respective manner. A fine princess indeed. And yet every now and then the film pulls a joker on me and makes little lady White seem… I’m searching for another word than ‘juvenile’, but I might as well stick with that. Her reaction when the witch queen, then masquerading as an old woman, offers her a magical apple runs false for me. She was so competent and mature 5 minutes ago, what in blazes happened? Equally puzzling is her behaviour at the beginning of the film. The story book intro reads how Snow White was being kept in the castle as a ‘scully maid’ by the queen. I don’t know about you, but she seems quite perky and cheerful for someone who is essentially a slave to Satan’s daughter. Repressing those brooding emotions through song? Completely oblivious to her situation? I’ll you decided that one. I don’t want to come off as disliking her per say, which isn’t true. However, I felt the writers didn’t find an adequate balance with her character.

The Queen, despite her short screen time, is really, really effective, both when displaying her natural physical traits and when disguised as the crusty old fart. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that she’s scarier before the transformation. She slender and seems fit, but has a crazy voice and look in her eyes. She comes in small doses but I thought she really packed a wallop of a punch.

The film, to its benefit I should say, invests time both in the narrative and the character driven moments. From what I understand, the majority of the story appears to transpire over the course of a day and a half, if that (notwithstanding the final few scenes which of course occur several months later). For all intents and purposes there isn’t much of a story at all. It’s all rather simple and easy, but what the movie does to save its skin is spend quality time with Snow White and the dwarfs. There are stretches during which the narrative halts and takes a back seat to let the viewer enjoy funny or simply joyful moments with the inhabitants of this world. Those moments are both successful and important, and I believe the reasons to be twofold. First, they’re entertaining. There is rarely a dull moment when the story takes a rest and it’s rewarding to get to learn about these people. Second is that when the queen tricks Snow White, the moment is all the more effective. Her fait, as well as the sadness it brings upon the dwarfs is earned. I know that, a few paragraphs ago, I explained how conflicted I was regarding the ease with which Snow White falls prey to the queen’s trick. I still am, but that didn’t prevent me from, after it had taken place, to feel sorry for the dwarfs and Snow White. Essentially, the film does an admirable job at juggling both narrative and character moments.

It isn’t perfect however as some would claim. I suppose I shouldn’t make such a statement given how all these reviews we write here on the boards are subjective anyhow, but I couldn’t prevent myself from being a bit ill at ease on a few occasions. Immediately following Snow White’s horrific dash through the woods (a superb sequence by the way), the forest animals come to her aid. They are curious about this odd person lying on the grass and approach. Okay, fairy tale land, I can let this slide. A few minutes later, after apparently putting them under a spell with her voice (I’m exaggerating obviously, but hear me out), they escort her to the dwarfs home. Hmm, either these animals are particularly friendly or Snow White has greater sorceress powers than the queen. It doesn’t stop there of course. Shortly after inspecting the dwarfs’ home (they are still at work at this time) she gets the animals to clean the house. And they accept! Now, I’m not stupid, I know this is a kids cartoon and I am aware this is an adaptation of a fairy tale. But there was something underneath all of this that irked me. She was being held captive essentially by the queen to work as a slave, and now she has figuratively enslaved the forest animals to do her bidding. I don’t know… I’m probably over thinking this sequence, but I’ve watched it 3 times now and I still can’t get over those sentiments. It’s just weird for me.

Another sequence, albeit a briefer one, that rubbed me the wrong way was the finale (final spoiler warning. I swear, stop reading this now if you have yet to watch the movie). Poor Snow White (I know I’ve bashed her more than I’ve praised her but I still like her), is caught in her sleeping death with the dwarfs mourning here. Well, along comes the prince to give her the kiss that shall break the spell and revive here. Where did he come from? Why does he want to kiss a corpse? Does he have inside info and is therefore aware that Snow White is under this particular spell and knows exactly what it is he’s doing? Earlier, the queen was laughing at the thought that the dwarfs would not recognize that Snow White would be merely under a spell. She expected them to think her dead and burry her alive. I’m guessing 6 feet under ‘burry’, not practically outdoors except with a thin glass shield ‘burry’. Wow, that gamble didn’t pan out for her.

The animation quality is absolutely superb when once takes into consideration when this was created. The filmmakers made use of the multiplane camera, which allows for several drawings, or pieces of artwork, to glide past the camera. This is used on a few occasions, most notably when the picture seems to zoom in on the queen’s castle. It really looks as tough the tree branches are closer to the viewer than the castle is, rather then merely draw large and the castle small. Several branches glide past the frame at different places and at different speeds. Very nifty. The animators also captured real life human movements when putting the pencils to the paper. Snow White, the queen, the handsome prince, all move with stunning grace. There are instances when I jerked my head back just because the fluidity of the character’s movements took me off guard. There are two or three very quick shots of Snow White looking down a well. The audience’s vision is from beneath the water’s surface level within the well looking up at Snow White, who is looking down at us. The ripples in the water are amazing and their effect on Snow White’s face and other object above the water. This isn’t Bolt here, this is 1937 2D animation. Even the drawn shadows and lighting is detailed and feels accurate to how they would behave in real life.

One can’t forget of course about the music in the film. The music that naturally springs to mind are the songs. ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’, ‘Whistle While You Work’ ‘Heigh Ho’ and many others, I thought all were very catchy and suited the mood nicely. The score is also superb I felt. I’m not much of a music person and I think this review is getting a bit long, so suffice to say I thought the music overall was stellar.

That concludes my general thoughts towards Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I liked it to a certain degree. I’ve spent more time than I should have explaining why I didn’t ‘love’ the film, so forgive me if I’m not all goo-goo eyed and struggling to find more synonyms for the word ‘fantastic.’ Still, a lot of the essential, bread and butter foundations for the high quality Disney would chuck out for decades after this can be found here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As I said over at the spot, I took the animals actions towards Snow White to be a sign of their shared innocence.

Great point about the animal carvings in the Dwarfs house, I never thought of that before.

All in all, great review. I personally think Snow White is a perfect, or near perfect film, but then again I get the sense that I am much more partial to fairy tales than you. But, like I said, great work.