Since I live in Tokyo, I am constantly being asked how many times I have been to Tokyo Disneyland, which is something of an obsession with many Japanese people. Whoever asks me this question never fails to be surprised that I have never been to Tokyo Disneyland, or any Disneyland for that matter, and hate all things Disney, including the movies and the theme parks, with the possible exception of Fantasia. My complaint against Disney films is a pretty common one—they take classic fairy tales that have existed for centuries and completely sanitize them in order to make them conform to a conservative view of “family entertainment.”
Recently I have been I have been reading The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, which mentions quiet a few recent Disney films, and I realized for better for for worse, that Disney adaptations have become part of the vocabulary used for talking about cinema and storytelling. So I somewhat reluctantly decided to set about on the project of watching every Disney animated film in chronological order, giving myself some breaks we I need them.
Disney’s first animated feature, and one of the first animated features in the world, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs certainly fall under the heading of my general criticism of Disney films. Many of the darker elements of the fairy tale as recorded by the Brothers Grimm have been sanitized or removed. The wicked queen in the original story demands the lungs, liver and heart of the fairest of them all, and actually has them cooked up and eats them, unaware that are actually the organs of a wild boar, as the huntsman was unable to slay the princess. In the end, she is punished by being forced to wear red-hot iron shoes and dance till she drops dead. These gory details are not surprisingly dropped from the Disney version.,
However, the biggest change Disney made to original tale was placing so much emphasis on the seven dwarfs. Contrary to popular belief, Walt Disney was not the first person to assign individual names to the little forest dwellers, which had been given different names in a 1912 Broadway play. But he did decide to center much of the story on them. From the very beginning of the development, what attracted Disney to the story was the seven dwarfs and their potential for “gags” and “screwiness.” While this certainly ups the cuteness factor, it has the disorienting effect of pushing the title character to the wayside. Lost are the semi-magical origins of Snow White, whose mother wished for a daughter with skin as white as snow after pricking her finger and noticing the contrast of three drops of blood on the white snow. The focus on the dwarfs is seen not only in characterization and screen time, but in the animation. The only place shading seems to have been used in the whole film are the jowls and bulbous noses of the dwarfs. Meanwhile, Snow White’s neck disappears every time she is seen straight on. This all adds up to denying the audience a clear central character to carry the story. Also lost is the fairy tale’s central theme of self-serving vanity and obsession with youth, which characterized Charlize Theron’s portrayal of the queen in Snow White and the Huntsman.
Despite these problems with the story line, it can’t be denied that the film was a remarkable achievement on the part of Walt Disney. He mortgaged his own house and ignored the pleas of his brother and wife to abandon the expensive project, which eventually ran up a budget of nearly $1.5 million, a huge sum at the time. But in the end he proved that an color animated feature film was not only technically possible, but was also commercially viable. The film made $8 million during its first of many theatrical releases. A shot early in the film of Snow White shown from below the water of a well she looks down into, as pebbles she drops cause ripples showcases the considerable talent of Disney’s teams of animators. While there are a few shots that reveal awkward movement or positions, there are just as many that reveal masterful technique.
If there is a single central character in the film, it is not the princess, but the vindictive queen, who is given the best animated sequences, including her first conversation with the man in the mirror and her transformation into the old witch. I have the feeling that this will not be the only Disney film in which the villain is far more interesting than the hero or heroine.