I mentioned on this blog that I don’t really know as much about historical Disney films as a person who enjoys children’s animation as much as I do should. So I figured I should watch, and write my thoughts about, every Disney animated feature, starting with Snow White and ending with, well, whatever’s in theaters when I finish this series. Then I figured I’d call it “Watching Every Disney Animated Feature.” Now, I’m not enough of an expert to review or write any meaningful historical context for these movies, so this series is really just going to be my first-gloss thoughts after watching the respective film. Any research done is basic, and at my whim. Things I write in these posts can be incorrect. Don’t take anything written here as fact (unless explicitly stated), just as observations.
Watching Every Disney Animated Feature #1: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Let’s start with the mildly sacrilegious: I didn’t particularly like this movie as a kid. I think I only saw it once in full, at a matinee at the dollar theater, with the babysitter that stole stuff from my mom.
There are good reasons for my not really liking the film as a kid. Even as an adult, I kind of have to remind myself every so often, “this movie was historic, it deserves your goddamn respect.”
And it does. It changed the art of animation in its entirety. Which is why the beginning feels a bit odd. It starts with… live-action. A physical storybook was filmed, with the words of the introduction calligraphied onto the pages. Cell animation appears shortly enough, but I think it’s interesting that the world of animated films begins with a bit of live-action. After that, there’s the famous “mirror-mirror” scene, and then we have the title character singing a very forgettable song. This is where this post stops being a recap of the film, because I really just wanted to note said song and the scene that contains it for their dichotomies.
Like the song itself, so forgettable that I’ve already forgotten it, it struck me that Snow White’s voice actress sounded pretty much like any standard 1930’s-1940’s chorus girl. It makes sense: nobody could have a career in movie voice acting before movies need voice actors. There’s no art for it, no industry for it. Obviously the first voice actress lead would have a background doing something else. Some wiki-ing afterwards showed me that, yes, Adriana Caselotti (Snow White’s voice), had been a chorus girl before being hired by Disney, and basically didn’t do anything after Snow White.
But, on the other hand, the visual effects of that scene are incredible. Many had me thinking “nobody today would put in the effort needed to get that much detail,” and one even had me thinking “that shouldn’t be possible with 1930’s technology.”
So on the one hand you’ve got something that doesn’t quite know what it is, but on the other hand you’ve got something that is clearly very good. I can relate, in a way. As an aspiring writer I have to learn by experimentation, and sometimes that means simply ignoring one artistic goal in order to ensure that I achieve a different one.
I think this next bit is going to be a recurring theme for the first decade or so of films, a sort of slow development as animators and directors discovered what this new animal they had created was actually capable of. My main impression of Snow White, from an adult’s perspective, from an artist’s perspective, was that it wasn’t a complete film. Again, no disrespect intended: for the time it was an incredible achievement. But instead of being a full story from beginning to end, it felt more like a primary story arc that was intermittently interrupted by scenes that could have easily been theatrical shorts on the same level as the Mickey Mouse or Felix the Cat shorts that preceded it, if taken out of the context of the film. Primarily, these would be almost any scenes focusing on the titular Dwarfs.
It makes sense. Even today, a full animated feature is a tremendous undertaking done my multiple teams. Back at the dawn of the art form, they had to figure out how to get different animators’ works to look good together without clashing thematically. And so you had clearly defined scenes that were tentatively related to one another through the main plot, but didn’t require the rest of the film to be understandable.
My guess (which I’ll comment on more in later posts) is that all the films until Cinderella will fall either into the category of trying to blend these individual scenes together so that they didn’t *feel* like individual scenes (your Pinocchios and your Bambis), or the category of embracing a fractured structure for a film (your Fantasias and your Saludos Amigoses). All of these movies acting as experiments, the animators trying to perfect the craft that they had only just invented.
And it starts with Snow White, an perfect example of imperfection.