This past week in class, we watched the first animated feature film, Die Abenteur des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed). Directed by Lotte Reiniger, it premiered in 1926 and was revolutionary in its use of the multiplane camera and cutout animation. “The multiplane camera was used to give an illusion of depth to traditional 2D animation. To achieve this, pieces of artwork were moved past the camera at various speeds and at various distances. Some areas of artwork were left transparent so that layers below could be seen behind them” (Cavalier, pg. 89).
Fast-forward eleven years and you’ve reached Walt Disney’s first feature-length animation film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The film was wildly successful both commercially and critically. It has gone down in animation history as a major advancement for the medium due to Disney’s work in combining rotoscope and hand-drawn animated characters, complex color palettes, real human feelings over the whole emotional spectrum and expansive landscaping through multiplane cameras.
While all of that is fine and well, the question we must ask ourselves today is, how well does the film hold up in 2014? While I am reluctant to say, “not well at all,” the truth is that the film suffers. However, it is not from the reasons you may assume. I’m actually a fan of hand-drawn animation compared to the digital 3D muck we get today. There is a certain cinematic romanticism to it. No, the reason Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs no longer holds up is from stretching a short story in to a feature film in an effort to show off fancy animation, due to the overindulgence and hubris of Walt Disney.
The story of Snow White is fairly simple. An envious stepmother condemns her beautiful daughter to death for being prettier than her. Fortunately for the girl with skin as white as snow, the Huntsman sent to do the deed chickens out and tells the girl to run away. The girl wanders through the woods and finds solace in the company of seven dwarfs. She cooks and cleans for the dwarves until the stepmother realizes Snow White is still alive. With black magic, the stepmother disguises herself as an old woman and tricks Snow White into eating a poison apple. The dwarfs show up and push her off a cliff while the dashing prince shows up and kisses Snow White to wake her up.
While that may seem like a lot, it is really not. At times, particularly the very end, it all feels very rushed. However, the beginning is bogged down by extended sequences of animals running around accomplishing nothing more than showing off the depth and detail of the animation. Then the middle of the film slows down as we are introduced to the seven dwarfs. Hand drawn, compared to the rotoscoped Snow White, the dwarfs are the heart and soul of the film while the animals and forest background support the animation prowess. A lot of time is spent watching the animals frolic and the dwarfs bumble around as Snow White performs her womanly duties in the kitchen for the men. There is a song and dance sequence that goes on for entirely too long that is just further proof of Disney’s desire to shout from the tops of the buildings, “Look at how cool my animations are!”
These gratuitous scenes do nothing to further the story, and actually slow down the story of the evil stepmother. When she finally does show up again, it feels completely out of place in this new picture solely about a woman and her dwarf friends. Nevertheless, the poisoning takes place, the dwarfs retaliate in an exciting chase scene resulting in an anti-climactic death for a witch. Then the prince shows up seemingly out of nowhere and forces us to callback to the very beginning of the film when he was there for like 10 seconds. Then things tidy up nice and quick and the movie ends.
If the animals and the dwarfs were given a reasonable amount of screen time and not repetitively engaged in nonsense, the narrative would have been a lot tighter. Unfortunately, that would significantly shorten the film and make it an animation short, thus losing the title of “Walt Disney’s First Full Length Feature Production.” A current film that also suffers from this same problem would have to be Avatar (2009).
While I’m sure I would have felt very differently back in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs does not hold up to today’s standards of the balance between breathtaking visual spectacle and engaging storytelling.