First up in our Disney Challenge to watch all the Disney Animated Films (including the Pixar ones) is the first Disney princess, Snow White. She even has her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. This first full-length film from the Disney Studios came out in December 1937.
The movie relies heavily on the Brothers Grimm who created a pastiche from oral traditions. Recently, scholars have also identified two possible historical sources for the tale of Snow White. There might even be a real magic mirror.But, Disney mostly based the film on a Bavarian fairy tale as reported by the brother’s Grimm.
So, everyone knows the story, right? Wicked, vain stepmother (AKA the Evil Queen) with a mysterious magic mirror and envy issues, a merciful huntsman, our “fairest of them all” heroine with lips as red as blood, skin as white as snow, and hair as black as night, but not all that smart, our handsome and dashing–if mostly mute–Prince Charming and seven dwarves. The nitwit heroine hides out in the forest with some dwarves (seven, in fact) before taking a bite of the poisoned apple and falling into an enchanted sleep and placed in a glass coffin before being revived by a kiss from Prince Charming who just happened to wander past at the right moment, probably still singing.
There are significant differences between the Disney version and the original Grimm one. The Grimm brothers themselves toned down the story in subsequent versions. In the first version of the tale, the Evil Queen is Snow White’s biological mother who takes her into the forest herself and abandons her to her fate. In the subsequent Grimm version, the Queen is now the cannibalistic stepmother. In the story, instead of her heart, she requests that the huntsman bring her Snow’s lungs and liver–which she then eats, with a lot of salt. Yum! A cursory glance at the Bible or any number of historical stories give us the motivation for the second wife wanting the child of a first marriage out of the way–still, resorting to cannibalism seems a bit extreme.
At the climax of the Grimm story, the prince, overcome by Snow White’s beautiful corpse, makes his servants drag around the glass coffin so he can have it handy for looking at her. Such a healthy relationship! One of the servants drops it (or hits her–depending on the version) and she revives. It’s like medieval CPR. Still, arguably, a better climax than the corpse kissing. The ending of the Grimm story is also much more gruesome. The Evil Queen is punished for her vanity by being forced into red hot metal shoes that she wears as she dances to death at Snow and the Prince’s wedding. The Grimm brothers were not messing around.
So, first the good. This movie was such an amazing feat of animation. There are some lovely, charming moments like when she first sees the dwarves cottage. The movie is a triumph of craftsmanship and groundbreaking, recognized for revolutionizing animation as we know it. It paved the way for all the animated movies–both Disney and not–that came after it–the so-called “All Animation is Disney” TV trope. In recognition, Snow White won a special academy award–one big Oscar and seven little ones and shows up on many best movie of all time list. It’s not because of the plot and characters but because of the technical, life-like animation. Here’s the clip of the Oscar being presented to Walt Disney by Shirley Temple.
Here’s a behind the scenes glimpse at the making of Snow White, narrated by Angela Lansbury.
So, besides the technical achievement, what else does this movie do well? The dwarves are pretty cute. Though they were first named in a play in the early 1900s, Disney changed the names to be more appealing. They also only have 4 fingers–suggesting that they are fey–which is intriguing too. I would like to know more about them and their backstory.
Trivia question: Can you name the seven dwarves? We learned this mnemonic when I worked at Disney: 2S, 2D, and 3 emotions: Sleepy, Sneezy, Doc, Dopey, Happy, Bashful, and Grumpy. It must have worked because, even 30 years later, I can still rattle it off 🙂 Anyway, it’s good that the Dwarves get a title credit because they have A LOT of screentime. Like three songs worth and multiple humorous bits.
I’m currently listening to the amazing There and Back Again story seminar by Alastair Stephens (formerly of StoryWonk, now Point North Media) and couldn’t help but contrast these cuddly, friendly dwarves with Tolkien’s contemporaneous group of dwarves from The Hobbit (published just three months before the film debut). Can you imagine Doc and Co. meeting up with pompous Thorin Oakshield? (Actually, you don’t have to! There’s fanfic for it). How misogynistic can Grumpy be? Behind the scenes, Walt says that they made him a woman hater to mitigate some of Snow White’s cutesy. Yikes!
But, overall, their songs are memorable. Heigh-ho being one of the more famous numbers. And they’re cute in the way they relate to each other and to Snow.
So, onto the bad. The movie fails because it’s protagonist (Snow White) is a twit and the unnamed prince is a paper cutout. These are not fully developed characters. They are archetypes.
This movie is where all the negative stereotypes of Disney princess culture comes from. Snow White reminds me of what romance readers dub the Too Stupid to Live (TSTL) heroine. Snow White’s big “I Want” song (“I’m Wishing/Someday My Prince Will Come”) says she wants to be rescued. She’s waiting for a prince on a white horse to rescue her. In the meantime, she’ll stay under her stepmother’s thumb and scrub the castle stairs.
This doesn’t play well to modern audiences. We want women who want more than just love or the presence of a hero in their life. It’s fine to want love but she needs to also have personal goals and interests outside the romance. Occasionally, we’ll see a modern heroine specifically setting out to find love or a man, sometimes to become a mother. But usually, these are women that have succeeded in their chosen career first. In most modern romance, love is a nice addition to the heroine’s otherwise full and busy life.
I get that she’s compassionate and kind. To me, she’s also dull, which is far more unforgivable in a character, especially the heroine. And the hero? Prince Charming is little more than a heroic paper screen to project our romantic notions upon. I’ve heard the theory that he’s death coming to take her away which is at least interesting.
The Prince is good because he is the Prince. He is tall, dark, and handsome plus he’s got a white horse. And he sings well. He doesn’t even get a name. We call him Prince Charming because Snow later says he was very charming. Some additional Disney information that says his name is Frederick or possibly Florian. Does it matter? Nope. He also does not fight or do battle like most of the other Disney princes. In the original storyline, he was supposed to be imprisoned in the EQ/WS’s dungeon, chained to the wall and left to drown. At least that would be interesting. Sadly, the animators couldn’t draw men well so his part got cut.
So Snow and the Prince can sing together and what else do they have in common? All romance stories face the challenge of showing the connection between the hero and heroine. Most of Act II is devoted to showing what the hero and heroine have in common and why they are a good match. It’s not necessarily an easy thing to develop and demonstrate. Even the latest Beauty and the Beast movie struggles with it. Usually, most stories happen in a compressed time frame which makes growing intimacy (not necessarily sexual intimacy) difficult to establish. But Beauty and the Beast relies on the enemies to lovers trope as it moves them from active dislike through grudging respect to friendship and then, finally, to love. Snow pretty much is like: male? white horse? sings? I’ll take him!
Talk about instalove! The Prince and snow white are on screen together for about three minutes of an 83-minute movie. Seriously, Snow has more dialogue with the murderous huntsman than she does with Prince What’s-His-Face. He shows up at the wishing well and turns her song into a duet. Then, inexplicably, she dashes off because she’s frightened. Then sends a bird to kiss his teeth (IDK if they were trying to draw the bird kissing his mouth but it ends up looking like she’s pecking his teeth like an avian dental assistant). We don’t see him again until seconds before the credits roll when he’s so overcome by the beauty of Snow’s corpse, he kisses her before they depart to his castle on the cloud. This isn’t romance. It’s a bad Tinder date.
Here we have the creepy corpse kisser being saved by love’s FIRST kiss (note the emphasis on chastity here).
I’d like to say this movie was made at a much simpler time, when we didn’t require as much depth from our characters. But this movie came out the same year as Gone with the Wind and three years after It Happened One Night which boosted characters with plenty of depth. So that’s not it. Maybe it just doesn’t translate well to modern times?
By far and away, the strongest character is the Evil Queen/Wicked Stepmother. Did you know she has a name? It’s Grimhilde. She’s basically a mix of Lady MacBeth, the Big Bad Wolf, and Joan Crawford. Beauty is all in the Queen’s story. Snow White is, we’re told over and over, very beautiful–lips red as the rose (it’s blood in the original), hair dark as ebony, and skin as white as snow. She’s in the full bloom of youth and budding sexuality.
The Queen is vain. She just can’t cope with being outshone by her stepdaughter. Her looks are fading, and thus her status in a society where her looks are all she’s valued for. Soon she’ll be invisible. Her motivations are understandable even today–maybe especially today. The movie tells us it’s fine to be beautiful (on the outside–no one much cares about what’s happening within. In fact, outside beauty equates to character here.) and that’s enough to establish you as desirable–but you better not be vain about it.
Apparently, the Queen also wanted Prince charming’s attention. The press kit called him every woman’s dream man. And, when she’s glowering down at their duet, supposedly EQ/WS got jealous over the male attention that she previously enjoyed being showered on her main staircase washer and that’s what turned her envy to murderous rage. A much better, much stronger motivation than “Well, he’s a pretty good singer!”
In addition to a warning against vanity, the story also presents sharply contrasting views of motherhood. Snow interacts with the dwarves as a loving and kind, if prissy rule following, pain in the ass maternal presence as opposed to her envious, murderous stepmother. I don’t think it’s accidental that the EQ/WS poisons her via food. Contrast that with the nourishing soup that Snow prepares.
Mirrors seem to play a significant part in fairy tales–we see a mirror again in Beauty and the Beast. Snow and Prince Charming see their reflection in the bottom of the well, a wholesome and—don’t hate me—charming image—as opposed to the rotting greens, yellows, and purples (the colors of decay) of the Magic Mirror. An interesting symbol.
The evil queen/wicked stepmother is not defeated by Snow, Prince Charming, or the Dwarves (of course not–they have no agency!). She’s killed by a lightening strike-a literal deus ex machina bolt from the blue. She is the original Disney villain death.
I still have questions at the end too–there are a lot of loose ends in this storyline and unanswered questions
- Where’d the magic mirror come from?
- What’s the Huntsman’s story? And what happens to him after he frees Snow and his deception with the heart is known?
- What’s Prince Charming’s story? He just wanders the woods singing and kissing corpses?
- What happened to Snow White and the Evil Queen’s kingdom? After all, the Evil Queen got smashed by a rock and Snow headed off to the cloud castle with what-his-name.
There are, of course, tons of Snow White adaptations too. Most prominently, Snow is a major character in Once Upon A Time (available to stream on Netflix), the mother of the protagonist, Emma Swan. Once Upon a Time is a special case though–they pretty much took the Disney properties and tossed them in a blender. It’s like fanfic on crack. I’m about halfway through the first season and I love it. And that version of Snow White, while still beautiful, sweet, and kind, has a backbone of steel. She’s portrayed as a cross between Robin Hood and a schoolmarm. Plus, she gets to have an extramarital affair with Prince Charming. (So not kidding!)
There are also new in-depth treatments of the Evil Queen/Wicked Stepmother, who is actually a far more interesting and more complex character than Snow White herself. Again, Once Upon a Time offers that along with an actual magic mirror character. There’s also Disney’s own line of books, including Fairest of All: A Tale of the Wicked Queen. (I’m reading this now and enjoying it!)
There are a few more well-known adaptations, including Mirror Mirror (campy and crazy!) and Snow White and the Huntsman (which at least has the benefit of Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman). I like the idea of the Huntsman being the love interest of either Snow or the Evil Queen or sometimes both!
There’s a Disney Animated Classics series with the teenaged versions of several fairy tale characters too, along with a film called Descendents, which is very clever too. But overall, I just can’t quite love this movie.
If I choose this fairy tale for my future series, Snow will need a major update. She can still be compassionate and kind but she’s got to be smart too. Throughout the film, Snow White is emphasized as beautiful, which is considered by far the most important thing for a woman within the bounds of this story world. And we can infer that the Evil Queen was also beautiful. Beauty equating to character is not going to work in a modern retelling. But vanity, the urge to hold on to youth and beauty, as well as envy for younger women that have it–well, that’s pretty universal–along with the tension between a stepmother and stepdaughter. I think I might be able to make something of that. I’m still thinking. One challenge in writing an update is not to let the stepmother character overshadow Snow.
I also need a fully developed Prince Charming. But, he’s such a blank slate that’s not difficult. I also think the Huntsman character is far more interesting–he’s in service (however one wants to take that word 🙂 to the Queen and he’s merciful. Much better than Prince What’s HIs Name.
Next up…Pinocchio, or, as I like to call it, the original Caillou. More next week, Disney Friends!