When I wrote about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) last September, I described its lush landscapes as “iconography right out of a stained glass window.” This is one hell of a beautiful movie. Its images have a mythic thrust to them, yet they’re still crisp and vital. In their first feature-length venture, Disney and his animators composed a still-unmatched argument for the necessity and power of animation. Lucky for me, that fairest film of them all is the subject of this week’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” over at The Film Experience.
For a first taste of Snow White’s immaculate beauty, just gaze at the layered forest, penetrated by sunbeams and dotted with animal eyes, in my second-favorite shot. It’s a rich illustration of the film’s tonal turning point, when Snow White’s huntsman-inspired terror gives way to renewed joy with her woodland friends. The shadows and gnarled trees that flank the frame are counterbalanced by the friendly yellows and greens cushioning poor Snow White. Even in this snapshot, you can see the mood begin to lift. It contains both the traces of terror and the glimmers of hope. My favorite shot is similarly dense, but expresses a very different range of emotions.
As much as I love the film’s storybook vistas, I just can’t get into Snow White herself. She’s peppy, yeah, but also boring—a blank slate of a princess who’ll give herself over to the first prince or apple-selling hag who comes along. The Evil Queen, however, is fascinating: obsessed with the girl she hates, steeped in arcane knowledge, willing to hex away her own precious beauty just for the chance to poison her rival. She ruins her looks in a painful transformation sequence, just to validate her vanity! Her eyes are radiant with homicidal envy. You do not fuck with this woman.
This shot transpires right before the Queen swigs her potion. Here, the chalice functions as another “magic mirror,” another medium to reflect her authority and control. She has sacrificed everything for total power; now, in that reflection, she and her magic are one. The gray clouds, green bubbles, and sharp red nails add to the sense of mounting danger. This is horror movie territory, as dark and macabre as anything out of Universal. And through that darkness, it’s my most beloved shot in Snow White.
Some thoughts after rewatching Pinocchio (1940)…
- The contrasts with Snow White are obvious: whereas Disney’s first feature film was streamlined, mythical, and monumental, Pinocchio is much more episodic, incidental, and detail-oriented. Snow White dealt in broad fairy tale archetypes; Pinocchio actually has quirky characters like Jiminy Cricket and Honest John who are more than just individual traits or moral signifiers.
- It’s structured as a simple morality tale. Pinocchio takes place in a world of extreme moral clarity, where transgressions have immediate physical consequences (a growing nose, turning into a donkey). Pinocchio himself is only a day old, and new to the concepts of “right” and “wrong.” He succumbs to temptation twice in a row, then has a realization of sorts (spurred by Lampwick’s grotesque, painful transformation) and runs off to save Geppetto. These concessions and consequences guide Pinocchio’s narrative, again in contrast to the less moralistic Snow White.
- Different styles of animation coexist onscreen. Within individual frames of Pinocchio, three art styles are strikingly juxtaposed: humanoid figures (Geppetto, Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket) are drawn cartoonishly, with walled-off areas of solid color; animals (Figaro and Cleo) have softer edges and color gradation; and backgrounds, as in Snow White, are rendered with meticulous realism. Curiously, Honest John and Gideon are visual hybrids, with animal faces and humanoid bodies.
- The film trades in racialized cultural anxieties. Promised the glamorous “actor’s life,” Pinocchio is instead enslaved by the swarthy, boisterous Stromboli, who speaks in an exaggerated Italian accent and is the film’s most “ethnic” character. This scenario unmistakably resembles turn-of-the-century white slavery myths, which vilified racial Others while discouraging white women from being promiscuous or leaving the home. (The latter moral will be loudly reiterated at the end of Pinocchio.)
- Pleasure Island’s urban depravity prefigures film noir. The island’s excesses have a 1940s flavor to them: overeating, smoking, brawling, gambling, and playing pool. In its stylized representation of a hellish, decaying city center, Pinocchio taps into many of the same cultural currents as then-nascent film noir. (A similarly moralistic city of temptations would pop up in The Night of the Hunter.)
- Monstro is Cthulhu. In fact, the climax is right out of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”: characters’ lives are endangered by a giant, non-anthropomorphized monster who’s indifferent to their existences, but gets aggravated when they cause it some minor harm. Like Cthulhu, Monstro is unsentimental, implacable, and terrifying.
- Pinocchio’s near-death is emotionally identical to the end of Sunrise. Just as with Snow White, I’m noticing uncanny parallels to Murnau’s masterpiece. In Sunrise, the Wife (Janet Gaynor) is thought dead after a storm capsizes the couple’s boat; when she’s discovered alive, it leads to a tear-jerking bedside reunion. Pinocchio follows the same pattern, false watery death and all, for its satisfying resolution.
- There’s no place like home. Pinocchio’s ending is decidedly conservative, reaffirming the status quo (family, home, tradition) at the expense of adventure or nonconformity. Jiminy Cricket even gets a line to underscore this point: “Well,” he laughs in the film’s final minutes, “this is practically where I came in!”
(This is part of “Disney Revisited,” my chronological film-by-film exploration of the Disney animated canon.)
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.)
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.