Nowadays, animated feature films have become the fifth column of the modern movie industry. Individually painted cels have been supplanted by computer techniques, but the technique of animation is, and always has been, secondary to the specific kind of magic this art form produces. Nowhere else in cinema can a style of storytelling so completely transport us to a world of imagination. And by those standards, no movie so completely succeeds in this as Walt Disney’s seminal masterpiece, the groundbreaking movie that started it all for cinematic animation as we know it, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The story takes place in a medieval fairy tale, where the lovely young princess Snow White lives a lonely life with her wicked stepmother, the Queen. Insanely vain and jealous, the Queen requires daily confirmation from her magic mirror that she is the fairest woman in the land. But when Snow White enters womanhood, she becomes most fair. The Queen will not tolerate such competition and orders the murder of her innocent stepdaughter. Snow White narrowly escapes this grim fate, however, and flees deep into the forest, intending never to return to her home. There, she encounters seven dwarfs—Doc, Grump, Sleepy, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy and Dopey—who could really use somebody around the house to help elevate them above their romper room squalor. They strike a deal: Snow White can stay with the dwarfs as long as she tends to their house. And for a time, all is innocent bliss. But then the Queen asks her mirror once again who is fairest of all, and the mirror cannot lie: since Snow White still lives, she is. Well, the Queen, says, we’ll just have to do something about that, then, won’t we?
To call this movie a classic somewhat undersells the meaning of the word classic. It is the cornerstone not just of the Walt Disney Animation Studios—which have since a massive library of outstanding movies—and not just of the animated feature film as a salable concept, but of fantastic cinematic storytelling. Yes, Snow White is that important. It’s worth remembering that in 1937, movie-making was still in such a nascent stage that to create a live-action version of this story with the same sense of polish, magic and wonder would have been impossible. People had tried. All came up short, which explains why this movie was instantly beloved, and, over time, widely regarded not just as the greatest full-length fully animated film ever (in addition to being the first) but as one of the greatest movies ever made, period. All of those accolades are well earned.
It’s easy to cast a skeptical eyebrow toward this movie when viewed through a modern lens. The fairy-tale conventions are so familiar as to feel rote. The gender roles are a source of regular eye-rolling and dismissal today. And the narrative itself is so simple that even the smallest children can follow it. These things are all features, not bugs, so they invite even further criticism. This simplified and relatively toothless adaptation of a Grimm’s fairy tale isn’t just derivative, it’s diminutive as well. 1937 is, at this point, almost 100 years ago; do we really need to revel in such antiquated gender roles? And even children’s entertainment has become far more sophisticated as we slowly wake up to the notion that kids are merely young adults, not idiots, and often can handle heavier weights than what we give them.
And yet, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs overcomes all of these shortcomings simply by the undeniable power of its myth and magic. Even to modern eyes, this movie is lavishly illustrated and a frame-by-frame master class in color, lines, fluidity and composition. It’s easy, when raised on cut-rate cartoons with choppy frame rates, to see something this smooth and almost think that there must be something wrong with it. But this is a movie that demonstrates how the finest of animation can just about make you forget you’re looking at a huge collection of paintings, and are instead peering into a world of chromatic wizardry.
But the true power of this or any story comes from its characters, and here, too, Snow White does not disappoint. Snow White herself might just be about the most innocent character ever brought to screen, and it takes an awfully hard heart to not sympathize with her once the Queen signs her death warrant. And while we’re on the Queen, let’s recognize one of the screen’s greatest villains of all time, a person so narcissistic and evil that she’d kill a child just to prove she’s prettier than its corpse. Meanwhile, the Dwarfs are an especially memorable composite personality, seven avatars of a particular personality trait that only seem to work when they all work together. They provide an interesting example of how far one must really go to warrant a single-word description that faithfully describes their character, something we might all do well to keep in mind as we go about our daily business.
But perhaps the character that makes the biggest impression is the most important man in Snow White’s life. No, not the handsome Prince who kisses her awake and leads her to live happily ever after. It’s the Huntsman, the Queen’s assassin tasked with murdering Snow White. At the moment of truth, he cannot be part of such wickedness, stays his hand, and bids Snow White to flee the Queen so she might never trouble her again. But before that, he cries and begs her forgiveness. In a children’s tale of this sort, to see such vulnerability is a thing to be treasured. Within us all there is always something that cannot abide the triumph of evil, or play a part in its schemes. It is a voice that often speaks to us more quietly than we can easily hear, but it is to something we should always listen. The heroes among us find a way. So should we all.