Lost in the Movies: Snow White and Sleeping Beauty

Snow White and Sleeping Beauty

For whatever reason, I’ve been re-watching a lot of Disney lately. It didn’t hurt that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was playing on TV this Thanksgiving; yet even well before the holiday I was immersed in several books about Walt Disney (throughout this piece I'll be referring to Disney as "they" not "he," i.e. the collective studio not the individual man). And I've been renting or borrowing all the old standbys, some of which I hadn’t seen since childhood. Two films I found myself watching several times – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty; I’m not sure why, though the two films do have striking similarities (and, as is always the case, the similarities serve to highlight major differences as well). Both appear to represent different phases and new directions in the studio’s enterprise, a timely topic given that Disney’s latest attempt to reboot its brand is hitting theaters right about now. I must confess I’m not particularly enticed by Tangled, between the slick CGI (well-servicing a story about robots, but princesses?) and the shampoo ads. And what’s with the dopey name-change – were they afraid “Rapunzel” would be too much of a mouthful? If the studio debuted Pinocchio today, it'd be retitled No Strings Attached with a tie-in to Minwax.

Anyway, back to the classics. Speaking of Pinocchio, that film remains Disney’s benchmark achievement, with the most exciting storytelling, the richest animation, the busiest frame-filling action (seriously, the movie never stops, whereas both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty have their longueurs). Furthermore, between its endlessly imaginative clockwork miniworlds in Gepetto's shop, and (ironically) the creatively themed "lands" of Pleasure Island, Pinocchio is also a harbinger of those Magic Kingdoms on the horizon. Despite these advantages, it's the two slumbering princess films I keep coming back to. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the studio’s first feature, released all the way back in 1937 (when mentioned this to relatives watching TV after the meal, all were incredulous, except my grandmother who remembered seeing it when she was nine). The movie offers a kind of self-discovery on Disney’s part, as they hit on the tropes, gestures, and icons which would become touchstones of the studio’s feature work. The film opens in an odd, ethereal, somewhat unfamiliar mode. Many animated fairy tales begin with a gilded book opening up, and Snow White is no exception, but for some reason its book seems older, less an item of twentieth-century nostalgia than a more authentic antique (maybe it’s the use of a term like “scullery maid” and the absence of a modern narrator on the soundtrack – the ornate words on the page speak for themselves).

There is a shimmering, mythical quality to the early passages in Snow White which make it stand out from the studio’s later attempts to modernize and familiarize the grisly folk tales being adapted (Tangled, I suppose, being the culmination of this trend). For a decade Disney had been cranking out Silly Symphonies, and these too had a kind of timeless, otherworldly appeal (an interesting contrast to the aggressively modern and adult sensibilities of Tex Avery, who would emerge soon after Snow White to offer another point of view). Yet these early shorts mostly remained rooted in a contemporary sensibility and a comic lightness that Snow White initially dispensed with. Meanwhile, the attempts at realism give the human characters both a more concrete physical presence and a wispier sense of personality than the dancing flowers or anthropomorphized animals that flickered across Disney screens in early cartoons. Snow White, Prince Charming, and the huntsman all have a chimerical quality, making them both haunting and evasive; the Queen has a stronger presence, yet she also shimmers before us in an uneasy fashion that treads along the edge of the Uncanny Valley (in which simulated personality seems authentic yet artificial enough to make us viscerally uncomfortable).

Were the whole film in this key, it would be both more fascinating and less engaging; but that sense of self-discovery begins right away, as soon as the huntsman takes Snow White out to kill her. As he glowers in the background, unsheathing his knife, the princess dances along the hill in her familiar blue-red-and-yellow dress and cape (in the first scene she was wearing the dull colors of a maid) – now that her iconic presence is familiar to us from seventy years of Disney promoting this image, we are already beginning to familiarize and comfort ourselves in this strange environment (obviously in this case we have an advantage over 1937 audiences, who were seeing her for the first time). Even so, the huntsman – not just his actions, but his expressions – jars us out of any complacency for the time being. Then the following sequence, with the virtuoso fleeing through the dark wood culminating in the emergence of the friendly, cuddly little animals, gives us a sense of relief. At this point, Snow White has wandered out of the Grimm fairy tale and into…well, a Disney movie.

The seven dwarfs, with their distinct personalities and (pardon the expression) animated presences, are both the greatest concession to modern sensibilities and the film’s most lasting achievement. Through their eyes, and through the liveliness she takes on in their presence, we can finally begin to see Snow White as a human being and not just some kind of mythological figurehead without personality (nonetheless, she remains one of the most limited characters Disney would ever fashion). No such luck for Prince Charming, who is nothing more than a cardboard cutout throughout – without any dialogue and a completely bland physical presence, his only function is to inspire schoolgirlish fantasies on Snow White’s part, ultimately fulfilled in the end when he takes her off to his castle which is literally in the clouds. Poor Dopey doesn’t even get the kiss on the lips he’s been gunning for all movie – just another condescending smooch on his bald head as he and his buddies wave goodbye and their girl waltzes off in the arms of a complete stranger. Not a happily ever after for everyone, apparently.

Few Disney films are as closely linked in their storytelling as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, perhaps given the similarity of the sources themselves (both end when a princess is awakened from a supernaturally deep sleep by a prince’s kiss). Aside from the identical climaxes, both films feature a young woman who goes off into the woods where she’s looked after by bumbling, short, rotund caretakers (fairies in the case of Sleeping Beauty), both feature iconic songs about a dreamy romance (“Someday My Prince Will Come” vs. “Once Upon a Dream”), both have a prince sneaking up on the princess and singing and dancing with her only once before they meet again at her bedside, both have playful, helpful animals as the heroine’s sidekick, and both cast attractively drawn, powerfully charismatic regal women as the villainesses (both of whom have cackling ravens as sidekicks, and both of whom are vanquished after taking another form). On the other hand, Sleeping Beauty imbues its hero and heroine with more distinct personalities than the previous prince and princess, which is refreshing – Aurora/Briar Rose is a teenager in the heat of first love, not just some archetypal girl-woman (Snow White is childish in some ways, yet motherly towards the dwarfs), while Prince Phillip, by virtue of actually having dialogue and screentime, evolves into a far more fleshed-out and identifiable hero than Charming ever was.

The most interesting connection – and difference – between the films is the way both forged new paths for the studio. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was of course the first animated feature for Disney, and one of the first animated features anywhere (certainly the most famous up to this point); its very existence was something new. While Sleeping Beauty was not as overtly groundbreaking, it represented a radical break with the studio’s earlier style. In this light, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty offer a fascinating contrast. The earlier film is all circles; everything from its heroine’s face to the landscapes and architecture which clutter its frames is rounded – whereas Sleeping Beauty is all sharp angles, echoing both gothic spires and the sharply delineated frames of a stained-glass window (the primary colors too pop with a vigor less visible in Snow White’s more mixed palette). From a visual standpoint, Sleeping Beauty is one of the most gorgeous and exciting things the studio ever did, and it would not be until perhaps Lilo and Stitch forty-three years later that Disney would again offer such an invigorating break from the house style.

So is Sleeping Beauty the better film? I wouldn’t say so. The new style can’t carry the material by itself, and while much of the movie is engaging, it drags in spots. Snow White may not be quite as dynamic as Pinocchio but it still maintains an unflagging energy and certainty of purpose at all times; while lacking the grandeur and striking originality of Sleeping Beauty’s drawings (which at times overpower the storytelling) its animation is always in tune with the narrative. As is often the case with groundbreaking work, Snow White’s novelty is not just a matter of historical record – this self-consciousness of being “new” actually imbues the work itself with a snap and freshness that is virtually unachievable otherwise. Every frame of Snow White is exciting and trailblazing – the animators don’t have to worry about repeating themselves or finding a new “angle,” and it shows. You can’t repeat this sort of excitement, and you definitely can’t buy it.

That said, I have to close by acknowledging that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is not my favorite animated adaptation of the Grimm Brothers tale – that honor belongs to the fantastic 10-minute cartoon from 1933, animated by Max Fleischer and starring Betty Boop and Cab Calloway. The fairy tale is sexed up, drugged out, racially coded, and seriously twisted – or tangled – by modern sensibilities. A contradiction of my earlier preference for the straightahead, unironic storytelling of yore? Perhaps, but to be fair if Tangled has a rotoscoped ghost/clown contorting his body and crooning “St. James Infirmary Blues,” maybe I’d give it a chance after all.


Stephen said...

Excellent, MovieMan.A very interesting read.

Can I quote a little bit of this for a not-unrelated piece coming up soon?

Joel Bocko said...

Sure - since you implied the next Disney on your countdown won't be archetypal, I'm guessing it's not in reference to Snow White? Could it be to the Betty Boop? I look forward to finding out!

Joel Bocko said...

Then again, maybe it's Lilo and Stich...either one would be interesting!

Stephen said...

"Sure - since you implied the next Disney on your countdown won't be archetypal, I'm guessing it's not in reference to Snow White?"

Thanks. I think I may have implied wrongly...this choice is the odd-one-out of the odd-ones-out(!)

Tony Dayoub said...

It's funny how a brief exposure to Disney can dredge up a desire to revisit their classic films. I just returned from a vacation to Disney World with the urge to revisit the entire canon (don't know if I'll get to it).

I enjoyed your piece, and follow your reasoning. However, maybe it's the formalist in me which finds SLEEPING BEAUTY the clear front-runner among the classic Disney animated features. Don't know if you caught my post earlier this year touting its wondrous visuals but here it is.

Joel Bocko said...

Yes, they get us early and they never lose their hold, the pernicious bastards!

Not at all surprised to hear Sleeping Beauty is your favorite, of all the Disneys it would have my vote as the loveliest to look at (although Bambi, which I was going to screen-cap last night before my computer had trouble with it, gives it a run for its money, in a naturalistic vein rather than the stylized one of SB).

Ultimately I'll privilege the earlies, which I feel have a stronger unity of story and style, and I find the fairies a bit tiresome as characters (I don't care all that much for the extended sequence with the fathers either; all in all, Sleeping Beauty seems to have a bit more padding than Snow White). The pace of Sleeping Beauty is just right for the style, but I also confess a bit of a preference for the nonstop "business" of Pinocchio. All said though, Sleeping Beauty is probably my favorite of post-40s Disney (only Lady and the Tramp, which was always a personal favorite, could compete with it) and a top contender for the best of this extensive period as well.

Of course, one could argue that Disney's true masterpiece is not a movie at all but, albeit posthumously, Disney World, which never ceases to fascinate me.

Joel Bocko said...

Correction: the post asserted that "Sleeping Beauty" was the first Disney in widescreen but this is incorrect: Lady and the Tramp was certainly in widescreen as well, and I'm pretty sure Peter Pan was too.

Julie Arsenault said...

Sleeping Beauty is my top favorite Disney film, for it's artistry and musical soundtrack

Sam Juliano said...

Wonderful post, and a reminder of how the earliest Disneys (this, PINOCCHIO, BAMBI and FANTASIA) remin the most extraordinary to this very day. What always had be smitten about SNOW WHITE, aside for the compact story and pastel-driven visual tapestry, is Frank Churchill's operatic score. "One Song" is one of the true glories in all of Disney's musical arias.

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