Much has been made of the way Walt Disney defanged his sources—be they classic fairy tales, children’s novels like Pinocchio, or classical music—in the process of turning them into movies, but the complaint misses the point. Never mind that thoroughly faithful adaptations tend to die on the screen; Disney and his team used old materials to make something new for audiences still trying to figure out what exactly they wanted to see at the movies. There had never been a full-length animated movie prior to Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, a fact repeated throughout the special features on the new Blu-ray edition of the film. And while Disney no doubt had to overcome skepticism as to whether an audience would watch a cartoon that long, he also innately understood that feature-length animation would happen with or without him sooner or later. The question was how to fill the time.
Visually, there’s a lot going on in each frame of Snow White—a fact never more evident at home than on Blu-ray—and somewhat less going on in the story, which has been pared down even from its spare fairy-tale origins until it’s just a few incidents and a lot of entertaining comic business. Yet the film benefits from simplicity, which pits the arch, vain, Hollywood-inspired glamour of the jealous Queen against the all-American, scullery-maid-next-door virtues of Snow White. The heroine is a comically sweet vision of femininity: Her goodness is so evident that even the creatures of the forest—rendered with Disney’s soon-to-be-trademark attention to natural detail—follow her around. And she’s so nurturing that when she meets a batch of dwarves in the woods, she immediately sets about turning their hovel into a home, and implementing a proper hand-washing regimen. Snow White is almost completely without will, a trait most subsequent Disney heroines would rebel against to varying degrees. That makes her hard to embrace as a feminist icon, but she’s also, to borrow a phrase from Don Draper, so pure she makes the heart hurt.
So is the movie, a dreamy operetta born of a childlike vision of love and evil and how the former always triumphs over the latter, even in the face of death. It’s a lie, of course, but also a child’s introduction to the sort of beautiful, sustaining lies we tell ourselves to keep living, even if we tend to lose the rabbits and dwarves when we grow up.
Key features: The new edition ports over a lot from the previous DVD, but that’s okay, especially when the old features include a great John Canemaker commentary interpolating vintage interviews with Disney and others. The best new feature: Rediscovered storyboards from what appears to be a proposed sequel called Snow White Returns, likely intended as a short using scenes cut from the release of the original Snow White.