Snow White gets the Royal Treatment
By Daniel Kraus

The new "Platinum Edition" Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs DVD is being hailed by some as the best DVD yet created, and it very well might be. The two-disc set offers a tome of documentaries, short films, art galleries, still photographs, audio tapes, character sketches, deleted scenes, interactive games, and kids’ karaoke so complete it could only be described as "exhaustive." If you’ve got four days to kill and a mind impervious to incessant Disney cheer, this is the DVD for you.

Despite the simply maddening amount of extras, this new edition of Snow White successfully paints a picture—a BIG picture—of the pains that went into the making of the first ever feature-length animated motion picture. It is a story ripe with rich trivia, and rarely does it sink to the level of mindless "That cop is played by the director’s cousin" commentary.

Snow White was better known as "Disney’s Folly" during the long production period, for no one believed that a feature-length cartoon could ever succeed. The colors and motion would hurt your eyes at that length, detractors said. And how could you keep up the level of gags and visual tomfoolery for 90 minutes without driving an audience batty?

What the public didn’t know was that Walt Disney intended Snow White not to be merely a longer version of his madcap short-length "Merry Melodies," but a serious motion picture with realistic characters and believable story arc. Walt had been obsessed with the Grimm’s Fairy Tale since he had seen a silent version in 1916, and he knew that there was only so much money that could be made by tacking short cartoons on to larger features. It was time, he thought, to take center stage.

Gathering his troops at the office one night, Walt told the entire story out loud, acting out all the characters and indicating where all the songs would be. By the end of the impassioned performance, his hundreds of employees were ready to risk the future of the studio on the project. Walt estimated the movie would cost $250,000. The final cost: $1,500,000.

The animators, having been weaned on years of rubbery cartoon caricatures, began designing the characters. Snow White was a wide-eyed Betty Boop look-alike. The evil Queen was a fat, frumpy, ugly wench. But Walt hated it—the movie needed to be REAL. So he put all of his artists in life drawing classes, were they re-learned the basics of human movement. For the first time ever, cartoon humans were to have an implied skeletal structure.

Walt experimented with these principles by creating several new "Merry Melody" short films featuring human characters (much like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas would experiment with digital technology with the TV series "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles"). In addition, he filmed live actors as models for the animators to follow, and constructed miniature sets for the animators to work from.

Over 25,000 cells were hand-painted with 1,500 shades of paint. The Disney inkers—who were mostly women—used actual rouge on Snow White’s cheeks. Meanwhile, other artists were experimenting with realistic perspective, light sources, reflections, and foreground/background relations.

However, despite the enormous advances in animation, the artists found that making an adult male cartoon move believably was still beyond their powers. Thus, the character of the Prince was drastically cut—and entire sequence involving his capture and escape from the Queen was sacked.

The chubby little Dwarfs, on the other hand, were old hat for the artists, and they spit them out with ease, even creating way more than necessary. Nixed dwarfs included: Awful, Hoppy, Dirty, Cranky, Hungry, Soulful, Flabby, Shifty, Baldy, Hickey, and Burpy.

The movie was released in 1937 to great fanfare and marked the first time ever that movie merchandise was available upon a film’s opening—including toys, figurines, puppets, clothes, and the first motion picture soundtrack album. The film brought in $8 Million during its first run (during a time, mind you, when a child could buy a ticket for 20 cents), and garnered Walt a special Academy Award—one big Oscar and seven little ones.

The eight different theatrical trailers collected on the DVD—each representing one of the nine theatrical releases of Snow White—present a clear picture of how Walt Disney has always embraced the advertising tactic of hyperbolic self-acclaim:

1930’s: "It is an authentic masterpiece!"

1940’s: "More than a great picture – it is a thrilling experience of happiness!"

1950’s: "Will live forever! So refreshing, so wonderful!"

1960’s: "A masterful motion picture achievement!"

1980’s: "The motion picture event of the year!"

1990’s: "The greatest animated motion picture of all time!"

2001: "The one that started it all!"

Although the 84-minute film itself cannot help but be overwhelmed by this overzealous aggrandizing, Snow White is still a refreshing film. There are no self-conscious references or crass, noisy gags. The film has a soft, European, storybook feel to it, as if every frame was gently rendered with watercolor.

Even Snow White herself is a breath of fresh air—the soft, undefined drawing style of her face and body recalls a time when every Disney heroine didn’t have to look like J. Lo. Likewise, her squeaky, little-girl voice and romantic speeches recall a time when every Disney heroine didn’t need to represent a forced sense of feminist "girl power."

Narratively, the film is awkward, but it truly has the feel of something NEW—you can almost sense the excitement of the artists who were creating it. It comes from a time when each new motion picture (Dumbo, Pinocchio, Bambi, Alice in Wonderland, Fantasia) took great technical leaps forward. When this golden age had passed, animation spent decades in the gutter, only awakening recently with the releases of such computer-aided experiments as Toy Story, Dinosaur, and this year’s Final Fantasy.

Watching the Snow White DVD doesn’t provide assurance that the future of animation has even an iota of the heart that Walt Disney had. But it does explain the tricks behind the classic, without dispelling the simple charm of the film itself.