More than any other type of culture, I absolutely love animation. Naturally, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is very dear to my heart. It was the first feature length cel animated film, released at a time when animation was otherwise limited to short gag features and short musical features. . It showed that animation was capable of being scenic and lyrical and dramatic. It is a masterpiece of filmmaking. It is also damn near unwatchable.
The film starts with a live action book being opened. On the first page we read the following:
“Once upon a time there lived a lovely little Princess named Snow White. Her vain and wicked Stepmother the Queen feared that some day Snow White’s beauty would surpass her own. So she dressed the little Princess in rags and forced her to work as a Scullery Maid.
Each day the vain Queen consulted her Magic Mirror, “Magic Mirror on the Wall, Who is the fairest one of all?”…and as long as the Mirror answered, “You are the fairest one of all, ” Snow White was safe from the Queen’s cruel jealousy.”
Following that prologue, we see the Queen consulting with her Mirror. This is the inevitable day that the Mirror tells her that Snow White’s beauty has overtaken the Queen’s. This is not a subtle statement: The Queen looks in a mirror and it tells her that she is not beautiful enough, driving her into a jealous rage.
We now meet Snow White. She is shown to be beautiful despite her stepmother’s attempts at stripping her of any glamor. She is cleaning a wishing well and talking to the birds, who listen raptly to her every vapid word. She is wishing that a man will come and take her away and treat her nice.
While she is singing her repugnant dreams into a wishing well, a handsome Prince arrives, and he is instantly smitten with Snow White, who plays coy. The Queen witnesses this courtship from a window, and this is her breaking point. To her, feminine sexual beauty is the only virtue of any importance. Now that her young stepdaughter is is an object of sexual desire, she has become an intolerable threat that must be dealt with.
It is an important point that “fairest” in this film indicates not just “beauty” but specifically the sexual beauty of womanhood. The character of Snow White has hit that uncomfortable transition state between child and woman. She still retains the innocence of youth, but it is her nascent sexuality that causes her to become more fair than her rival. And in the world of Snow White the virtue of “fairness” is quantifiable. Something so important could not possibly be subjective.
So now that Snow White has surpassed the Queen in sexual desirability, there is nothing to be done but kill her. A Huntsman is tasked with the job, and given a sweet-ass box for heart retrieval.
However, when push comes to stab, the Huntsman can’t off the beautiful princess and instead tells her to run and never come back. It almost looks like Snow White takes an active role at this point in the story, running away from her-would be killer, but that isn’t really so. She is only spared because the killer cannot harm one as beautiful as she, and she only runs because he commands her to. In fact, after her initial panic, she is embarrassed that she ever doubted that the universe would automatically protect her.
Snow White is now alone in the woods. She is so lovely that all the cute creatures of the forest are drawn to her, where like every living creature other than the Queen they hang onto every stupid thought she utters. Exiled from home after a failed attempt on her life by her only living relative, Snow White bemusedly wonders to her woodland friends where she will now live. She doesn’t worry about her current lot, nor does she make any move to solve the problem herself. And why should she? The creatures of the woods love her, and they lead her to a small secluded cottage. “Just like a dollhouse.”
Despite the fact that this house is clearly lived in, Snow White has no qualms about letting herself in and poking around the premises. The house is a dump and has tiny furniture, and from this she surmises that it must be occupied by children. She enlists her animal friends to help her with doing the only thing other than wishing that she is good at: cleaning.
Of course, this house does not belong to seven children, it in fact belongs to seven dwarfs, who without a woman to clean for them, have no choice but to live in filth. First appearing at 21 minutes into the film, seen hard at work in a mine brimming with pre-cut gems, the titular dwarfs come as a bit of a shock. The film has thus far been astonishingly, gorgeously naturalistic, unlike anything the audiences of 1937 had ever seen. By contrast, the dwarfs are as cartoony and stylized as you would expect from a typical Disney short feature. It is quite jarring.
The dwarfs are genuinely great creations. They are caricatures, each built around a single trait, which is a delightful conceit that is quite well-realized. They are given some wonderful gags which are expertly animated. They stand as a fascinating contrast, against the lush naturalism of the rest of the film. I think in a different film that contrast could be used to great effect. Here, they simply fail to mesh with the tone of the rest of the film, especially since there is frankly nothing in this story that is serviced by the presence of seven comically lovable dwarfs.
At any rate, the dwarfs finish their day at the mine, and come home to discover that their house has been entered and that the intruder has cleaned it. Their initial fear at this violation is played for comedy, but eventually they meet the princess-in-exile and a bargain is struck: Snow White will be allowed to stay with them, in exchange she will keep house.
Now, obviously there is an unsavory aspect to a young woman staying with seven grown men. Since her budding womanhood is at the heart of her character, the film can’t cast her as a child amongst men. Therefore, the dwarfs are instead infantilized. Although they are all smitten by the girl’s beauty, they are written as so childlike that they can not possibly pose a sexual threat.
Meanwhile, the Queen’s Mirror continues to tell her that she is not beautiful enough. And so she has discovered that Snow White lives and that she is living with the dwarfs. Upon this discovery she hatches a complicated plan to disguise herself as a hag and in that guise gift Snow White a poison apple. One may wonder why she doesn’t just send a squadron of soldiers to burn the dwarven hut to the ground., but it seems obvious that she fears Snow White’s power, i.e., her beauty. After all, that beauty foiled the original murdering.
The Queen turns herself into a hideous crone. Of course she does. To her, this seems the perfect disguise. She fears nothing so much as beauty, so the uglier the person, the less threatening it seems. And of course, thematically, it means that she now has an exterior ugliness to match her interior ugliness.
As for the apple, it won’t actually kill Snow White outright, but will freeze her into a “living death” that can only be disrupted by “love’s first kiss”. That may seem like a horribly foreshadowed loophole to jaded 21st century audiences, but the Queen is distracted by the sweet sweet notion of Snow White being buried alive.
The next day, when the dwarfs leave Snow White for the mine, the Queen-as-hag arrives, giving Snow White an apple. This is played for suspense, as if the Queen is perpetrating a great con, when of course Snow White has no reason to question why a stranger would gift her with treats. She expects special treatment. After all, she is beautiful and a princess, which in her world is one and the same.
Snow White’s woodland animal friends know better than to trust an ugly old woman. They rush to get the dwarfs so that they can save the utterly incapable princess. Meanwhile, the Queen tells Snow White that the poison apple is a “Magic Wishing Apple.” And so Snow White once again wishes for a handsome prince to take care of her. Then she bites the apple and dies. Cruelly, we are denied the privilege of seeing her die on-camera.
The dwarfs, having arrived too late to save the princess, chase the Queen to the edge of a cliff, where she falls to her death, thus saving her from being bludgeoned to death by dwarven beating sticks.
But the princess is, to all intents and purposes dead. Snow White is “so beautiful, even in death, that the dwarfs could not find it in their hearts to bury her.” Instead they built her a glass coffin so they could look at her lovely, perfect corpse. Snow White is prominently displayed so that she may be mourned anew every day as the months pass.
Eventually, The Prince, who has no personality traits other than princeliness, finds the sleeping princess. Without a word, without delay, he kisses her and she awakens.
That’s it. Without a word spoken between the two of them, it is understood that he will take her away to his castle. She does not seem in any way surprised. She is the fairest of them all, and this is sort of thing is to be expected. She gives the dwarfs farewell kisses. Their use to her is at an end.
And they lived happily ever after.
Snow White is the story of a horrible young woman who exists to be beautiful and to let others take care of her. Her only skills are housework and wishing. Even if that wasn’t a morally repugnant message to be sending our daughters (which it is) it would be just plain bad storytelling. Snow White is our protagonist and what she wants is for her problems to be solved by someone else. She is thoroughly awful.
The other day I got a call at work from my girlfriend. She had found Snow White in the DVD player and needed reassurance that I hadn’t been showing this to our three year old daughter. I reassured her I would never do that. Straight up, this is a terrible, poisonous work of film. How any parent could want their child to emulate this passive, entitled user of a character is beyond me, and yet the mulitbillion dollar “princess culture” has over the past decade become the single dominant force in girl’s entertainment. It is beyond vile.
Great animation, though.