Updated: Dec 22, 2019
A young princess is forced to live in hiding with seven dwarves, to escape her evil step-mother, who is a witch.
The opening titles begin with a bang, an orchestra kicks in- trumpets, vocalists, violins and all. A decorated, hard-cover of gold and ivory. And then the title. The book gracefully opens, to a few introductory pages. A dimly lit chamber in a castle, and Queen Grimhilde walking up a short stairway to a mirror. She summons the slave in the magic mirror, a sinister mask shrouded in wisps of smoke. And then the iconic words: “Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”
The mirror tells the queen of one fairer than her, with rosy lips, ebony hair and skin like snow. Grimhilde gasps livid with realisation, and violently hisses “Snow White!”.
Snow White (Adriana Caselotti) is a dreamy-eyed scullery maid to Grimhilde (Lucille La Verne), a scheming Queen. Her stepmother, who arranges to have her killed. But she escapes into a deep forest to a cottage, where the dwarves live. The heroine, kindhearted and gullible, instantly changes the lives of the seven.
The dwarves are so different from each other, but move in unison and sometimes in imitation. Doc is the leader. Happy, Bashful, Sneezy and Grumpy are to be taken literally. But Dopey, he is the silent one, who has never tried speaking. He leaves a mark with his genuine care for those around him. The feelings or symbols the dwarves represent, tell the story. Deceptively, they pose as comic relief, but a closer analysis reveals that they stay with you through the innovative drama, comedy and music long after the film is over.
The instrumentation is inspired and makes the simple scenes interesting. The ordinary, extraordinary. That’s exactly where the secret lies, mundane situations like washing up before meals, cleaning a house or walking home from work. The combination feels impeccable, pulsing with life.
Even if the animation, design and story are now dated, the voices don’t age. Prince Charming’s brief appearance leaves us marvelling at his voice in ‘One Song’. The dwarves sound great together in ‘Whistle While You Work’ and ‘The Washing Song’. Snow White enchants us with ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’.
Excellent script - every figure has a role to play in the story, even the huntsman and the prince who just show up for a few seconds.
Each voice makes the character feel real, whether it is the witch’s evil laughter or Snow White’s innocent “thinking out loud”. The Queen cuts a menacing figure, especially when she transforms into an old lady. The actress creates tension simply with her voice and the brilliant art complements. The dwarves tuck in so much emotion in what they convey - joy, fear, sadness, you name it.
The animation is revolutionary for its time. The cel animation technology makes the characters look modest yet gives them flexibility in expression. The dwarves in their simple tunics and caps; the Queen in her long violet gown, black cape and gold crown, her face ghostly against her cowl; and Snow White too. All painstakingly achieved by outstanding concept artists and animators.
The interplay between the Queen and Snow White is built up right from the beginning. We see the Queen’s hatred right from when she looks down at Snow White from the castle. Surprisingly, the only scene they’re seen together in is right at the end! After impressively transforming herself into an old woman in a black hood and robe, the Queen finds Snow White. Her eyes imposing and vile, her voice croaking, and tempts her with a poisoned apple “Fine, fine, now take a bite.” Snow White brings the apple to her mouth and bites offscreen as the hag looks on.
“Fine, fine, now take a bite.”
“Oh, I feel strange!” The apple rolls out of her hand, her arm gently hits the floor (Snow White’s still offscreen except for her hand). The witch’s laughter knows no bounds. Our hearts weep. This is filmmaking at its best.
It was the first full-length cel animated feature in motion picture history and the first feature to be released under the Walt Disney Productions label. The film was nominated for Best Musical Score at the Academy Awards in 1938, and Walt Disney himself received an honorary award for the film in 1939.