Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)
When reviewing a film like Snow White, one can't help but factor in historical significance, because on all counts, this is an important movie. I disagree with the AFI in calling it the best animated movie of all time, because it is certainly not. I don't think one can call it the best because it is the first. They haven't worked the kinks out yet, and while it is a fantastic movie, it is flawed, and I shall point out those flaws in this review. Still, I like this movie much more than I like Cinderella, and it is perhaps the pinnacle of old-world Disney. It doesn't hold the status of timeless classic like other Disney works because it hasn't exactly aged well, but when put in historical context, Snow White has many things in its favour. It has excellent artwork, fun side characters, a memorable villain, and excellent orchestration.
Most everyone has heard this story in some way or another, so we needn't talk about the movie as if we don't know what it is. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is a Disney-fied version of the classic Grimm's fairy tale. The titular character is a beautiful young princess who is envied by her stepmother, the Evil Queen, for her beauty. The Queen is told by her magic mirror that Snow White has usurped her as the fairest in the land and as revenge, the Queen sends her huntsman out into the woods to kill Snow White and bring back her heart in a box that she had custom-made for the occasion. The huntsman cannot do it, so he tells Snow White to run off into the woods and never come back and he fools the Queen with the heart of a pig.
Snow White herself is a kind, caring, but extremely simple girl, and she means no harm by being prettier than the Queen, so her being marked for death because of her beauty alone makes the Queen all the more villainous. She hides in the woods like the huntsman says and with the help of her animal friends, she comes across the house of seven little "children" who appear to have no mother because their house is a mess. Snow White breaks and enters into the house and decides to clean it up. We then see who the house belongs to: seven mining dwarves who all have names that describe their personalities (all except Doc). There's Bashful, Sleepy, Grumpy, Dopey, Sneezy, Happy, and Doc, and they are easily the most entertaining characters in the film.
The Dwarves find Snow White and they allow her to stay because she offers to cook and clean for them, essentially what a mother would do in that time. But meanwhile, the Queen has figured out the huntsman's ruse and she decides that if you want to get the job done, you have to do it yourself. She formulates a potion to turn herself into an old peddler and creates a poisoned apple with which she will kill Snow White. The effects of the poisoned apple can be reversed with true love's kiss, so the Queen plans to bury Snow White deep in the ground so that will never happen. Her plan is put into action when the dwarves go to work, and being the idiot that she is (and someone that clearly was not taught stranger danger), Snow White lets the Queen into the house and is coerced into taking a bite of the poisoned apple and thus, appears dead.
Snow White is kept in a glass coffin that the dwarves fashioned for her, and eventually, her prince does come and they ride off into the sunset to live happily ever after. Perhaps I should explain. There is a prince in this movie (who doesn't have a name, so I will henceforth call him Joe). Joe appears at the beginning of this movie, and he makes his way into the castle to see the fair maiden with the "lovely" singing voice (which I will talk about later). He is in the movie so little that you could basically do the movie without him, and he has no personality, so he is basically indistinguishable from the princes in Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty (although the latter had a bit more personality than the former). He's a decent looker and a decent singer, but that seems to be the only thing that matters. Joe just shows up at the beginning and the end to perform his princely duties, and he leaves so little of an impression that he could be written out of the movie entirely.
There is another flaw in character with this movie, and that is the titular character, Snow White. When put in historical context, her characterization makes perfect sense, as this was how women acted back in the 1930's. However, her characterization is the main reason why this film didn't age well. Snow White is a blithering idiot and if not for the prince swooping in to rescue, her idiocy would have gotten her killed. Any sensible person would call foul if a creepy old lady offered them an abnormally large, abnormally red apple, but Snow White lets her in, possibly because she sees the old woman as helpless. She is also supposed to be lovely and a great singer, but she is really only average-looking and I find her voice (both speaking and singing) shrill and unpleasant.
The dwarves are the most entertaining characters in the movie by far, and they make for some fun slapstick (not unlike the mice in Cinderella). My favourite dwarves are Dopey and Grumpy, but the rest are fun as well. They seem to fold like houses of cards when Snow White enters their lives, and only Grumpy seems to resist, but he cracks eventually. What I don't understand is why Doc is named Doc as opposed to Stuttery, because stuttering is his defining personality trait. They also sing the only memorable song from the movie, and one of my favourite Disney songs ever. But we aren't talking about the songs yet, we're still talking about the characters. The other memorable character this movie produces is the Evil Queen. She may not have a name, but she is one of the most memorable villains that Disney has produced, as well as one of the most vain characters ever put on film. Her simple motivation is to kill a young girl because she's prettier and she will stop at nothing to do it, including making herself temporarily ugly. There are better villains in the canon now, but she is fantastic nonetheless as the first one (the one that started it all if you will).
The other thing that this movie has going for it is its excellent artwork. For the 1930's, and the first animated film ever made, this film features some excellently lavish animation and great colourization. The design of the human and animal characters is excellent as well, and the film on a whole is splendid and lavish. There really isn't too much more to say about that without repeating myself though, so we'll move on. The songs in this movie, apart from Hi Ho!, are very bland and forgettable. There's the bland love song, the bland "I Want" song, and a few other forgettable tunes. But I don't place too much of the blame on the filmmakers, because this was their first movie and they were working out the kinks. Needless to say, the songs got better, as did the animation, but for the first animated movie ever made, they were both decent.
It isn't the strongest work in the Disney animated canon, and it hasn't aged particularly well, but Snow White is an animated classic, and possibly the most historically important (alongside The Little Mermaid which kicked off the Disney Renaissance). The animation is excellent, and despite a weak heroine and bland hero, it has entertaining side characters and a menacing villain. It has flaws, but the film has a sort of inherent likability that is near-impossible to resist. Even naysayers of this movie have to acknowledge that without this movie, there wouldn't be the string of Disney classics that we know today. The AFI was foolish in naming this the greatest animated film of all time, because the first of a new medium like animation has not had the kinks worked out of it yet. There are a ton of better animated movies that came out after this one that deserve the top spot, but Snow White definitely deserves to be on the list, just not at the top. I would recommend that those who haven't seen it do so immediately, as the whole of the film is available on youtube (since it's so old it's practically in the public domain). This review marks my return to Disney, so expect more reviews of their movies soon.