Walt Disney's Grimm Reality

To say of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that it is among the genuine artistic achievements of this country takes no great daring. In fact, outside of Chaplin, Disney’s is the one Hollywood name that any corn doctor of art and culture dare mention without fear of losing face, or on the other hand of having to know too much about the subject. There is this to be said of Disney, however: he is appreciated by all ages, but he is granted the license and simplification of those who tell tales for children, because that is his elected medium to start with. It is not easy to do amusing things for children, but the more complex field of adult relations is far severer in its demands.

Snow White is a fairy tale, surely the most vivid and gay and sweet in the world; it is done in color, photographed on different planes to give depth, and it runs almost an hour and a half. Some of the short cartoons have been more of a riot, some have been more tender even. But this is sustained fantasy, the animated cartoon grown up. The fairy-tale princess is just what you would have her; the witch is a perfect ringer for Lionel Barrymore (not by accident, I take it); and the seven dwarfs have been perfectly humanized by somewhat the same technique, though each is more a composite of types, not quite identifiable. The animals of course are as uncannily studied and set in motion as they have always been.

The Disney artists and animators are practically zoological, nearer to the actual life of animals than any who have endowed it with human traits for purposes of fable. Take the young deer in the little scene where the forest life first gathers around Snow White: shy but sniffing forward, then as she starts to pat it, the head going down, ears back, the body shrinking and tense, ready to bound dear; then reassurance, body and head coming up and forward to push against the hand—half a dozen motions shrewdly carried over from the common cat. Or take the way (later) the same deer moves awkward and unsteady on its long limbs in the crush of animals milling about, as it should, but presently is graceful in flight, out in front like a flash. Disney has animals that are played up for comedy, like the turtle here, the lecherous vultures, the baby bird whose musical attempts are a source of alternate pride and embarrassment to his parents (on a finale he will get as high as eight inches straight up from the limb); but even in these cases, the exaggeration is based on typical form and trait.

The story is familiar in its simple fantasy. The castle, the step-mother with her black arts, Snow White escaping in the forest and keeping house for the little men; the witch seeking her out with the apple of living death; finally the young prince coming to break the charm. But all of Disney’s fantasy starts out with a simple frame of story: the main body of the thing is incident. And the incidents start from a firm base in the realism of the every-day, serving to steady the fantastic (dwarfs, witches, alchemy) either by complementing it with the matter-of-fact, or by becoming fantastic through a seemingly logical progression from their common shape and function. Thus the fairy-tale dwarfs, in their diamond mine and home, go about their business in a highly natural manner, digging, appraising, grading, leaving the dirty dishes and going to bed. And thus the birds and animals, invading the empty house with the shy fits and starts appropriate to them as real birds and animals, fall to helping the girl clean up with highly unnatural abilities (the squirrel’s tail for a bottle brush, other tails for brooms and dusters, the birds winding up cobwebs, flying with sheets).

I was disappointed to see the comedy faltering at times here. Such things as running into doors and trees on the dignified exit, the jumbled consonant (bood goy, I mean goob doy, I mean . . .), headers into various liquids, etc, are short of good Disney. For the most part, the thing is as ingenious as ever, the idiosyncrasies of each dwarf quickly established and made capital of—Grumpy, Dopey and Sneezy in particular—the flow of comedy through animism still on that level at which Disney’s men have never been equaled. Witness the organ pipes in that wonderful music-hour sequence, made of penguins, the vent holes being choked off with little clappers. Grumpy frequently losing patience with his stop and whacking them shut by hand.

It is not all comic and quaint. The imaginative transformation of the stepmother, her mission, flight and death (the vultures banking slowly down in the dark air), make a suspense and chase interval that will put your heart back a few seconds; and there is something not mawkish but gentle and nice about the little girl, her face and singing and adventures in friendliness with every living thing. Something beautiful about all of it, I think, because it does not try to be wise about fairy tales, or fairy talish about its birds, rabbits, people. And all of it, the whole feature-length true motion picture, is nothing but a hundred-odd thousand colored drawings, photographed, and set to music

The art work is fine, particularly the castle at night, the scenes in the woods, the march home of the little men. The color is the best ever, though it is true that its pastels would be up against more difficulty in a film less deliberately imaginative. And the music is as much a part of the picture as it always is in the Disney scorings, with nice songs and a rollicking chant and swell background stuff for the moods of the story.

Disney gives credit to his directors, animators, musicians in a way that is heartening to see and a list as long as our arm; but while it is true that his pictures are built on the conference method, good ideas being kicked around until they suggest others, there is the fact that he apparently has known how to pick his men, train them and give them free rein to contribute their individual best. A film is a collective enterprise anyway and should be made that way; but in general there are too few men of talent at the top who have the leadership and patience, the exaltation of job over ego, to do it. Walt Disney is a pioneer in more things than his conception of and tireless experiment with the animated cartoon as a reflection of life. Now that the best picture of 1937 has been adjudicated, awarded, etc., the best and most important picture for 1938 is called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

This piece originally ran in the January 26, 1938, issue of the magazine.