Tag Archives: fairy tale

Disney Revisited: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

By Andreas

Some thoughts after rewatching Snow White

  • It’s self-consciously a “work of art.” From the opening credits to the literary prologue to the beautifully rendered plants and animals, every piece of Snow White emphasizes its prestige, its uniqueness, and its artistry. Consequently, the film has a very relaxed pace: as it tells its simple, well-known story, it always has time to pause for a gorgeous tableau or two featuring iconography right out of a stained glass window.
  • It’s also a triumph of animation over writing. Every character is static, and few get anything more than a loosely sketched-out personality. For example, Snow White’s only trait is “effervescence,” and only 3/7 of the dwarfs (Dopey, Doc, and Grumpy) get any distinguishing characteristics beyond their names. The story has no subtlety or surprise to it, the act breaks are explicitly delineated, and the film is clearly feature-length in order to showcase more animation, not to build up narrative momentum.
  • It’s full of expressionistic landscapes. When Snow White flees from the huntsman’s abortive murder attempt, the lighting instantly changes from midday to deep night, and she descends into a violent, nightmarish forest complete with an Evil Dead tree. In other words, emotions dictate the weather and scenery. (Similarly, a thunderstorm breaks out immediately after Snow White bites the poisoned apple.) The power of this judiciously applied expressionism is amplified by its contrast with the breathtaking realism that usually defines Snow White’s surroundings.
  • The staging of the huntsman’s attempted murder is taken from Sunrise (1927). Beat for beat, it’s identical to the scene in F.W. Murnau’s silent classic where the Man (George O’Brien) attempts to strangle his wife. Both men share the hulking gait, the downcast faces, and the incapacitating self-disgust as soon as they realize that they can’t do it. (Both men are also urged to homicide by sultry femmes fatales.)
  • The Queen is scary! She’s also the engine that drives the film’s plot. She’s the film’s only mature, intelligent, or independent character, with a goal (to be “the fairest of them all”) that she pursues to terrifying lengths. As animated here, she gives Snow White’s best “performance,” commanding her huntsman with rigid, cold-eyed intensity. And whereas Snow White’s constant rhyming is gratingly cutesy, the Queen’s rhymes connect her with black magic traditions dating back to Macbeth.
  • The slapstick is suited to the film’s style. By which I mean that Snow White’s slapstick (involving mostly Dopey and the other dwarfs) is radically different in nature from, say, the slapstick in an early-to-mid-’30s Fleischer Bros. cartoon. The dwarfs’ slapstick is repetitive without being rhythmic; it’s fixated on the action in itself rather than any sense of cause-and-effect. Fleischer Bros. slapstick, meanwhile, is frenetic, progressive, and transformational. In Snow White, it’s oriented to the quality and content of the image onscreen; in Betty Boop cartoons, it’s about what the image does. This difference is tied into Snow White’s greater length, more relaxed pace, and focus on sheer, overwhelming beauty. (The film is always more invested in causing Stendhal syndrome than in making the audience laugh or cry.)
  • The climax is straight out of D.W. Griffith. Once the dwarfs are summoned by Snow White’s animal friends, their ride back to the cabin is intercut in a blatantly melodramatic fashion with Snow White’s gradual decision to bite the apple. The editing rhythm makes it a dead ringer for the “Klan to the rescue!” climax of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, or the tragic “Too late!” that ends Broken Blossoms.

(This is part of “Disney Revisited,” my chronological film-by-film exploration of the Disney animated canon.)

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Alvy and the Wicked Queen

By Andreas

Sometimes I think that every movie should an animated sequence. If done right, it can potentially add so much to a film’s energy and visual imagination. Just look, for example, at Kill Bill Vol. 1 or Run Lola Run, each of which make liberal use of animation’s unique capacities. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen pulls animation out of his postmodern bag of tricks so he can talk about his all-important Woman Problems. Ostensibly talking to a policeman on horseback, he opines,

You know, even as a kid, I always went for the wrong women. I think that’s my problem. When my mother took me to see Snow White, everyone else fell for Snow White. I immediately fell for the wicked queen.

We then get a brief vision of Alvy’s domestic life, with him rendered as Stuart Hample’s comic-strip version of Allen and Snow White’s queen, voiced by Diane Keaton, in place of Annie. The animation, by veteran Disney animator Chris Ishii, is hardly Fantasia quality, but it gets the point across. The dialogue is mildly funny—e.g., “I don’t get a period! I’m a cartoon character.”—but never uproarious. However, the sequence succeeds at its main purpose: it’s startling. It breaks up not only the free-floating narrative, but also the film’s visual flow. It proves that Allen’s taking off the stylistic kid gloves.

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“Atalanta” and self-determination

So, this isn’t nostalgia for me, since I wouldn’t be born for another couple decades, but it might be for some people. This is an excerpt from a 1974 TV special called Free to Be… You and Me. Attributed to “Marlo Thomas and Friends” (other participants include Mel Brooks, Rosey Grier, and little Michael Jackson), Free to Be… is basically a series of songs and skits in the vein of Schoolhouse Rock or Sesame Street attempting to teach children about gender roles, tolerance, and the fact that they were indeed “free to be” identified with whichever gendered behaviors they chose. On the whole, it’s pretty cute, if sometimes a little nauseating or unintentionally hilarious. But the best part, without doubt, is “Atalanta,” a fairy tale cartoon voiced by Thomas and Alan Alda. Watch it for yourself.

It’s not the best-made cartoon of all time  – the animation style is low-rent and reminiscent of cheap storybooks, the music is dated, and the voicework sounds like Alda and Thomas are reading through and enjoying themselves. But it’s not bad for part of a TV special, and that’s the point anyway: it’s the moral. After decades (centuries?) of being told stories where a woman/princess is only an object of desire, caught between forces into which she can have no input, only able to hope that a handsome prince will win her hand, this is finally a fable about gender equity.

It’s an adorable fairy tale with three likeable characters (no requisite villain to be seen) that allows its protagonist’s self-determination. Among the most heartening moments: Atalanta’s correcting of her father’s decrees; John’s respect for Atalanta’s wishes; and of course the ending, when everybody really does end up happily ever after. No one is funneled into an enforced, specific type of “happiness” like that under fairy tale marriages. (E.g., what happens when Cinderella finds out that the Prince – who she’d only had a few hours’ worth of contact with before committing herself for life – has a few bad habits of his own?)

Instead, Atalanta and John get to choose their lives for themselves. They don’t blindly pigeonhole themselves into one single life choice that will decide everything else for them. The cartoon accepts that people change over time and that when you’re pretty young probably isn’t the time to make quick decisions with lifelong repercussions. It’s important to be able to go out, explore the world, discover new alternatives, beliefs, lifestyles, etc. Maybe they’ll end up settling on a more traditional mode of life. Maybe they’ll find their own way to go, distinct from all established ways of living. And maybe they’ll realize that they’re too dissimilar and pursue other people instead. As the cartoon wisely concludes, who knows?

So I highly recommend showing this cartoon to any young children or older children or really anyone you know who could still learn a thing or two about relationships and life decisions. Sometimes it’s astonishing how ignorant people can be about all the choices they have; when I can, I try to tell children, Different people can do different things. Not everyone needs to follow the same track of college, marriage, job, kids, house, etc. Some people can, and good for them, but not everybody. And maybe not Atalanta, even if she is a princess. Our birth ranks – like our genitals, chromosomes, bank accounts, and skin colors – should not determine where we end up in life. The only ones who should preside over that decision are us.

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