Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is one of the most important films ever made.
It’s rare, in pretty much any walk of life, to be able to look at one specific thing and say, “the world is a different place now, because of this.” Yet, it’s hard to imagine a world where Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs didn’t exist.
The film was an immediate smash success, and (adjusted for inflation) it is one of the 10 highest grossing films of all time. It is still a beloved and treasured movie classic, and most kids today could identify its characters and songs on sight or sound. It laid the groundwork not just for Walt Disney’s career, but for the entire genre of animated film — a genre that still finds itself working within the rules set forth in Disney’s 80-year-old film.
It’s that last bit that is the most important historical legacy of this movie: Because Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first feature-length cel-animated film ever made, it’s impossible to imagine what animated films would be like with another seed at the root of the tree. If Orson Welles had been the originator of the medium, would The Lion King have ever been made? If Frank Capra set the tone for cartoon films, would we have Despicable Me?
It’s impossible to say for sure, because Orson Welles and Frank Capra didn’t invent the medium — Walt Disney did.
Yet, perhaps most fascinatingly of all, Walt Disney did not direct Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He is not listed among the animators for the film. He did not do any vocal work or sound for the film. Judging only by traditional film titles, he was only as influential on this film as Steven Mnuchin was on Wonder Woman. But, obviously, that is not true.
As the opening frame of the film explains, this is A Walt Disney Production — a phrase that, today, means something far different than it did back in 1937.
While Disney did not direct or animate the film, every moment within it exudes feelings, emotions and ideas that we all associate with him: Whimsy, serenity, peril, love, naivete, musicality. It doesn’t matter that Walt Disney didn’t direct the film nor animate the film, because it’s his film. It wouldn’t exist without him — which truly cannot be said for anyone else who worked on it. He fought for this movie to be made, often with the very people making it. It’s his singular artistic vision, yet that vision was filtered through the immensely talented people crafting the film.
And that, more than anything, typifies early Walt Disney films: The feeling that we’re witnessing the expression of a lone artist whose fundamental belief is that adults and children deserve stories that can speak honestly to both.
The movie starts with a now-familiar framing device — yet one that is still magical 80 years later: A live-action shot of a book titled “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” opening by itself before our eyes. From there, we have the ornate text we associate with fairy tales laid out before us — laying out the basic stakes of the film. It’s a clever idea — because the tropes of animated film didn’t yet exist to allow the audience an easy passage into the film, Disney chose to steal a visual vocabulary from fairy tales (upon which, his film was based).
And then, we get something that can only be described as revolutionary.
The very first animated frame of the film shows a castle off in the distance — and then, we zoom in toward it. As we do, trees pass by the camera until another shot of a window fades in. This — the first use of Disney’s famed multiplane camera in a feature film — immediately demonstrated the complexity of the film the audience was about to see. This wasn’t a basic cartoon — there was going to be real, cinematic storytelling.
But while Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs uses filmmaking techniques to tell its story, it doesn’t really feel like a movie. From the scenic painting, to the music, to the movement of its characters, it feels far more like a ballet. Snow White moves with the intentionality of a dancer, and the background art feels more like a scenic painting than a lived in space.
Perhaps, however, that really is the secret to its brilliance. The emotional storytelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs goes beyond moment-to-moment plot development, artistic realism, or even character growth. It’s more tonal and environmental. It’s not designed to trick you into believing you’re watching a live-action film. Nor is it intended to make you feel any way about Snow White herself or even the Queen. Instead, it’s designed simply to make you feel.
And that is why, beyond its historical relevance as the first animated film, it perseveres as an iconic piece of art.
There is no grand statement about the human condition present when Snow White dances with the Dwarfs. There is no illuminating discussion about the nature of man when woodland creatures use their tails to clean up a small cottage. What exists, instead, is an argument made by the film’s existence itself: Things don’t need to be important to be important.
Walt Disney spent millions of dollars making a cartoon, not because it said something profound, but precisely because it didn’t. That tension — that something could simultaneously be so difficult to produce, yet so utterly frivolous — is what drove Disney’s work. He had lived through the carnage of World War I and the devastation of the Great Depression. It wasn’t, in that moment, immediately obvious that there was anything pleasurable about life at all. So, in his first feature film, Walt Disney concerned himself with the pleasurable rather than the intellectual.
Later in his career, Walt would strive for those kinds of high-minded ideals. He’d go on to buy a tract of land in central Florida with the intention of turning it into his vision for a utopic modern city. Later in life, he’d decide to try to change the world. But, in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, that Walt Disney hadn’t yet come into existence. The Walt Disney who was around just wanted to remind us that being alive, itself, was a wonderful thing.
Sometimes in life, it’s easy to forget that you need to make time for things that are just silly fun. They don’t have meaning. They don’t have a larger point. They’re just fun. They’re just carefree. Sure, the protein keeps you alive, but it’s the sugar that keeps you happy about it.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a film designed to reignite the simple pleasure of being human. It’s fun to laugh at Sneezy. It’s relaxing to listen to Snow White sing. It’s beautiful to look at the gem mine. Why does there have to be anything more? Perhaps there doesn’t. Perhaps a bit of naive joy isn’t so naive after all. Perhaps that’s the whole point of going to the movies in the first place.
Aren’t we lucky to be able to experience these feelings at all? Isn’t life just a wonderful thing?