Released in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first feature length animated film from Walt Disney. I should begin this post with a caveat: Snow White was never my favourite Disney fairy tale. I don’t think I’ve actually rewatched it this millenium and the copy I’m using is the same VCR tape I watched as a child, which has a promotional prelude advertising The Lion King as ‘now showing at a cinema near you’.
The fairy tale: I’ve covered the Grimm brothers version in detail here, as part of the Fairy Tale Tuesday project.
The film: The first character we meet is the wicked queen, looking fabulous in purple and demanding her mirror confirm that. It is a scary mask floating inside the glass, not looking at all like a trustworthy source, and it tactlessly tells her that she’s been surpassed – little Snow White, her neglected stepdaughter, is now the leading looker in the land. This is basically a beauty pageant with the mirror as judge and the entire female population of the kingdom as unknowing participants. The queen is all rage.
Segue to the princess, dressed in rags and scrubbing the palace steps, making the best of things. Having befriended a flock of pigeons, she tells them that the castle well is a wishing well, and starts singing about her hopes for the future. True love features prominently. Totally by chance, the prince of her dreams happens to be riding past and decides to jump over the wall so he can join the singalong.
Snow White, very reasonably, is scared and runs inside. The prince’s dreamy baritone soon wins her over, however, and she gives him a blushing pigeon as a token of her affections. Unfortunately, the queen bears witness to the budding romance. She orders her huntsman to take Snow into the woods to pick wildflowers…and there, to kill her. She even has a sinister little jewellery box, with a golden heart stabbed through by a knife on the front, for holding the princess’s heart as evidence.
Perhaps it’s been a while since she was permitted outside the castle, because Snow goes a bit wild in the woods, leaping from one patch of wildflowers to another and flirting with bluebirds. She could not be more shocked and terrified when the huntsman looms over her, knife raised – but he can’t go through with the queen’s orders and instead tells Snow White to run. The poor girl is in a mad panic. Her fear turns the wood into a nightmarish death trap. The animation here is incredible, transforming branches into grasping hands and broken logs into crocodiles. (Probably alligators, actually. This is a very American forest.)
She eventually falls in a sobbing heap. When she recovers, she’s surrounded by nervous woodland creatures trying to be sympathetic. Apologising for her freak-out, Snow White leads an impromptu song party with her new friends. When she explains her situation, they lead her to a delightful little cottage that she assumes is occupied by orphaned children, based on its teeny furniture and appalling state of disorder. Deeply sympathetic, she convinces her friends to help her clean the place up. The squirrels, in particular, take to dusting like naturals. The stag is less impressed by his role as clothes rack.
I’m being won over. Can you tell? Snow and her fluffy woodland entourage are one powerful cocktail of cuteness.
But who really owns the cottage? In a mine not too far away, seven dwarves are packing up their tools and setting off with a cheery ‘hi ho, hi ho, it’s home from work we go’. And I just realised I’m spelling ‘dwarves’ the Tolkien way, though that is not how it is spelled in the movie title – nor am I going to stop spelling it the Tolkien way, because it just looks wrong with an ‘f’.
By the time the dwarves get home, Snow and co. have not only cleaned the whole house from top to bottom, the table’s laid for supper and there’s a pot of soup bubbling on the fire. The exhausted princess has crashed upstairs across about three of the dwarves’ beds, with all the other beds claimed by the woodland entourage. They are lighter sleepers than Snow and flee the house when they hear the dwarves returning.
Seeing the lit windows and smoking chimney, the dwarves consult in a frightened huddle. They end up filing inside, picks raised, and Snow’s bluebirds – who have stayed behind up in the rafters – can’t resist scaring them with decidedly un-bluebirdish hoots. Once they’ve demolished much of Snow’s good work in their mad scramble, and after that, reassembled their collective courage, the dwarves creep upstairs to deal with the monster that has invaded their home. What they find is an adorable, china-doll-pretty princess.
Six of the dwarves are immediately smitten. Grumpy, your friendly neighbourhood misogynist – only not the friendly bit – tries to convince the others that as a woman, Snow will have ‘wicked wiles’. At this point, Snow wakes to see she’s surrounded by short bearded men. She recovers her poise with admirable speed and after politely introducing herself, she proceeds to correctly guess each dwarf’s name based on the names carved into their beds. Unexpectedly, they’ve heard of her. Grumpy, at least, has also heard of the queen. He tells his friends that Snow’s stepmother is an expert in the black arts and will kill them all when she finds out where her victim is hidden. Snow has more confidence in her retreat and offers to become a housekeeper/ mother figure if she’s allowed to stay. Promised all their favourite desserts, the other dwarves are very quick to agree, even though that means being sweetly bullied into developing table manners and personal hygiene. Grumpy maintains his bad attitude by mocking their willingness to please. They respond by throwing him in the water trough.
Meanwhile, back at the castle, the queen has her heart box in hand and is anticipating a good gloat, but the magic mirror gives it ALL AWAY, right down to Snow White’s current address. Filled with cloak-swirling fury, the queen descends to her wicked lair. It’s full of skulls and potions and a wannabe evil raven who is actually scared stiff of her. The queen whips up the potions for a foolproof disguise, transforming herself into an elderly woman. The secret ingredient is lightning. Frankenstein would love this.
Snow suspects not a thing – the dwarves are showing off their music skills after supper and she’s having a marvellous time. Dopey stands on Sneezy’s shoulders to dance at the princess’s height; Grumpy channels his foul mood into organ playing. When it’s Snow White’s turn to perform and she tells the story of how she met the prince (it’s a pretty short story), the dwarves reveal they are closet romantics by demanding all the details. It never hit me before, Snow White never got the prince’s actual name. That’s why she calls him Charming.
The movie then devotes several minutes to show us everyone going to sleep. Except the queen; she’s busily poisoning an apple and monologuing about death. With a maniacal laugh, she sets off for the dwarves’ cottage.
The next morning, the dwarves warn Snow White not to open the door to anybody and set off to work. She starts baking, assisted by adoring birds. They go on the attack when a scary old lady appears suddenly at the window; Snow White, being Snow White, comes to the old lady’s rescue and leads her inside to rest. She also believes the queen’s story that the reddest apple in her basket is a ‘magic wishing apple’. The woodland entourage stampede towards the dwarves’ mine, but in the time it takes to get the message across, Snow has bitten the poisoned fruit.
She stops breathing. She falls.
It begins to storm. Emerging from the cottage, the queen sees the rescue party thundering towards her and runs. She climbs a cliff and tries to roll a boulder over her pursuers, but instead the rock ledge crumbles and she plunges to her death.
The grieving dwarves lay Snow White in a glass casket, in a clearing where her woodland friends can see her too. The prince, who has been looking for his ideal duet partner all this time, arrives and strides straight up to kiss the dead girl. IT IS SO INAPPROPRIATE. But it also works, since Love’s First Kiss is the only antidote to the poison and no sooner has he brushed her lips than Snow sits up. She’s thrilled. Everybody’s thrilled. The prince carries her off to his horse but proves he’s maybe okay underneath the Ken-doll blandness by lifting up each dwarf so Snow can kiss them goodbye. The couple then ride off into the sunset like the storybook royalty they are.
Spot the Difference: The Disney version ages up Snow White and trims off the other murder attempts. It also avoids the more gruesome deaths some versions inflict on the queen. The dwarves get to have separate personalities, albeit rather simplistic ones, and of course there’s the woodland entourage chewing up scenery (sometimes literally). Overall, though, it’s a pretty faithful adaptation. That said, it is very American. From the raccoons and alligators in the forest to Grumpy’s drawl and Snow White’s hair cut, there’s no missing Disney’s stamp.
It’s still not my favourite, by a long shot, but I like it better rewatching as an adult. There’s an interesting streak of stealth feminism I missed the first time round – pretty much every time Grumpy says something sexist or tries to shame the other dwarves for their obliging behaviour, the narrative makes him look an idiot. Snow White’s romance is also given a touch more legitimacy by introducing her to the prince before he brings her back from the dead. She remains every inch a royal even in exile, commanding the loyalty of woodland creatures and convincing complete strangers to do what she wants by force of sheer adorableness. By that I don’t mean just good looks; she’s an enthusiastic, optimistic, surprisingly egalitarian girl who wants to adopt everyone she meets. I find it very easy to imagine her ruling a country.