April 9, 2011

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

It's a bit tricky for me writing "dwarfs" with an "f."  I'm a Tolkien fan, and so more used to the smoother (and more dangerous) "dwarves."  One might define "dwarves" as a fictional race, while "dwarfs" are people with the genetic condition, but... well in this story they could be either one.  I can't tell.  I don't suppose anybody really thought about it much - they simply are what they are on the surface.  That's much of the modern appeal to fairy tales.  Timeless, placeless; they exist outside of any context but familiar human conflicts.  They are very close to drama and action in pure, theoretical form.

By the way, the story sometimes goes around that the use of dwarfs was a Disney euphemism, and Snow White actually met up with seven thieves in the original story (as in the '90s TV movie, Snow White: A Tale of Terror).  But that would depend greatly on which version you consider the "original."  Apparently they are thieves in some regional versions of the tale, but dwarfs appear much more commonly, including in the Brothers Grimm version.  So Snow White is actually among the most faithful adaptations Disney has ever produced (they still change plenty, but mostly for the sake of streamlining, not sanitizing).

So this was actually the first time I've seen Snow White, that I can remember.  Perhaps I saw it as a child, but nothing seemed familiar.  Which I'm quite glad of, for I greatly enjoyed getting to see such a beloved classic both with fresh eyes and a grown mind to appreciate its subtleties.  Growing up with classics is great too, but a totally different experience.  I have no idea how I'm going to (list spoiler alert!) write about Star Wars, a movie I've seen about 20 zillion times since literally time out of mind.

The story needs no explanation.  The structure here is a bit different from later Disney productions, capturing a bit of the transition from short subject cartoons.  The plot is surprisingly thin, actually reduced in detail from the traditional fairy tale.  In fact it comes close to bookending the movie, rather than being the focus of it.  After the initial business of setting up the Queen's jealousy and chasing Snow White off into the woods, the movie becomes primarily a series of songs and cartoon vignettes.  First she wakes up in the forest amongst the cutest animals in any movie ever.  And they play around a bit and sing a song.  Then they find the empty cottage of the dwarfs, and decide to clean up, which involves more antics and another song.  (Er, sorry, wrong song.  Here you go.)

And then we meet the dwarvvv- dwarfs, and they get a song.  And then the dwarfs come home and there is a lengthy suspense sequence as they realize they have an intruder, which finds comic ways to introduce all of their various character tics (Doc wixes up his murds while Sneezy's allergies nearly give them all away, etc.).  And so on and so forth.  This is the very first feature-length cartoon, after all, and nobody could be certain what that meant.  Resting the whole thing on the dramatic content was surely a scary idea, so the movie instead looks a lot like a short subject blown up to epic proportions.  Fortunately, it wasn't content to rest entirely on its gags either (not that the gags aren't well done - Disney famously offered $5 to anyone on staff who could provide a good joke).  The plot returns with a bang at the end, and brings with it action and intensity and terror and romance on a level no live-action film could compete with.  They can't make the light just so, or the rainfall just so.  These sequences proved definitively what animation is capable of, and I'm sure gave Disney the confidence to put the 'cartoon' label behind and focus later features more on their stories and cinematic qualities (though fleeting anxiety remains in the form of the studio's ubiquitous comic relief sidekicks - the annoyingness of which generally provides a solid objective measure of a Disney film's quality ... if I were Barney Stinson, I would advise staying above the Mushu Mendoza Line).

The film is beautiful to look at, thanks to an art style that is vibrant without trying to look "real."  It retains much of the watercolor wash look of the early cartoons, albeit with more color and complexity, but not afraid to fade away into abstraction.

Snow White herself is transitional, achieving a unique look among Disney princesses as she hasn't fully developed the giant "Disney eyes."  (Oh, sorry again.  This is what I was looking for.)

Zoom in and notice the pencil scribbling under the balcony and on the red turrets.  I love that.  There are also some photographic techniques going on here.  A soft-focus "gauze" filter is clearly being used to enhance the lighting, and I have to assume using a trick like that to capture a painting was a novel idea at the time.  This shot is also one of the many made using Disney's fancy new multiplane camera.  This was a large contraption that allowed numerous layers of glass, paintings, and animation cels stacked like shelves, with the camera looking straight down through them.  Each layer could be moved independently, allowing the the choreography of highly dynamic compositions.  Notice how the foreground turret is blurred, creating a depth-of-field effect.  That's because it really, physically was in the foreground, probably about a foot or so in front of the other painting.  This is similar to the layers of models and matte paintings used to create King Kong, except the whole thing is turned on its side, and, because it isn't so concerned with looking "real," it allows much more creative movement of the various image components, such as the dramatic race through the dark forest.

There was also a great moment where the background and foreground are moved in opposite directions, creating the feeling of the camera swirling around Snow White.  Being the first animated movie, I was on the lookout for how the shots compare to live action.  Generally they keep things naturalistic and inspired by physical camerawork, but with frequent tracking movements that would have been expensive in real-life.  After watching it, I read that Walt Disney instructed his artists to watch a lot of live-action movies, including foreign films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  Their research and attention to detail definitely shows.  And they dabbled in a few things live action can't do, like the below well shot.  This is great, because it seems simple enough... but where do you put the camera?  Unless you want to bother with a complicated two-way mirror setup or something, this shot is impossible in live action. 

Also, the rippling water distortion effect was astonishing to watch.  It's impossibly smooth and clean, like a computer render.  Turns out, this was done with a sheet of rippled glass layered between the paintings (themselves matched through forced perspective) and moved a little bit each frame.  That means there are at least four layers in the above shot - five or six when water drips in the well to create circular ripples. I can't find a screenshot of my favorite effect, in which a gentle stream reflects a deer on the bank.  In this case, the glass must have been set at a 45 degree angle to reflect the animation cel behind it, with a narrow painting in front to obscure the join.  Point being: just because it's animation doesn't mean they just draw everything and have no need for special effects.  These multiplane shots involve some of the more sophisticated effects work of the pre-digital era.  Here's a link with some more interesting making-of info (since the Blu-ray was useless in that regard - Disney special features almost universally suck).

So, I liked it.  Like I said with Captain Blood, the nice thing about being a classic is that you don't have to worry about muddying or redefining your story in order to stand out or avoid unfavorable comparison.  You just get right to the point.  Snow White is sweet, the dwarvfs are lovable, the queen is evil, and the Prince has nice hair.  And we all lived happily ever after.

Actually, I should mention about the Prince, since Mandie talked about it in her review.  It is a bit weird how he shows up for a minute at the beginning to fall in love, and then for a minute at the end just in time to kiss her.  But, in the "original" story he actually has even less than that - he only shows up at the end.  In fact, that's kindof the point: she looks so beautiful even in death that he falls in love just looking at her corpse (and then he buys the coffin and his men jiggle it and the apple falls out... but a kiss is better, right?).  So adding him to the beginning was actually Disney's attempt to expand and naturalize the love story.  Goes to show how much things have changed in 70-odd years.

NEXT WEEK: The Distinguished Gentleman.  Er... Legally Blonde 2.  No... wait, I'll think of it....

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