'Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs' Turns 80 Today And It's Still One Of The Most Important Movies Ever Made

(Welcome to The Disney Discourse, a recurring feature where Josh Spiegel discusses the latest in Disney news. He goes deep on everything from the animated classics to the theme parks to live-action franchises. In this edition: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came out 80 years ago today, so let's reflect on that.)

Many of the best stories from the Walt Disney Company revolve around a seemingly impossible gamble. (The same goes for newer, less exciting stories, like Disney buying Fox, as well.) It was a major gamble for Walt Disney to create a theme park that was both inspired by some of his films as well as a general sense of adventure, optimism, and futurism. But Disneyland Park has been a massive success for over 60 years, leading to other theme parks and resorts around the world. It was a major gamble for the Walt Disney Company to distribute a fully computer-animated film at a time when such technology was primarily used for brief effects in blockbusters or in TV commercials. But Toy Story was a huge success for Disney, and Pixar has become one of the most influential studios in Hollywood. The original gamble, famously known as Disney's Folly, was in the same ballpark as Toy Story, yet even more daring at the time: making a feature-length hand-drawn animated film.

Today marks the 80th anniversary of that folly. Some of the oft-considered great films in American cinema did not initially get a warm reception from critics and audiences; movies like Citizen Kane and Vertigo only grew in prominence over time as opposed to being championed by the consensus upon their initial release. But Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has ridden a wave of love almost from the moment it premiered at the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles, California on December 21, 1937. It is arguably one of the five or six most influential films ever made — though it is not the first animated feature released anywhere in the world, it's the first American-made animated feature — and was immediately praised as one of the greatest films ever by filmmakers and icons like Sergei Eisenstein and Charlie Chaplin. But what is the true mark of the influence that Snow White left behind? The state of animation is vastly different now than it was 80 years ago, in ways that are so tangled as to barely see Snow White's cinematic footprint as being present.

Setting the Template

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is not the best Disney animated film. The American Film Institute disagrees with me (many of you may disagree as well), having positioned it as the best animated film in its list from 2008. Snow White, more than anything else, created the template for the animated film, a template on which other Disney movies (and movies from other animation studios over the last eight decades) were able to build upon and subvert. What do you think of when you think of the ingredients of a Disney animated film? Most of those elements are present in Snow White, even if they appear in a slightly different form than they do in modern films like Moana or Frozen. An upbeat, demure female lead? Check. Musical numbers that range from ballads to show-stoppers? Check. Raffish comic-relief characters who help out the heroine? Check. A fearsome villain whose lust for power will prove to be their undoing? Check. A romance between two cartoonishly good-looking characters? Check.

Since there are so many familiar elements in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, most of which have been improved upon vastly over time, what may be most striking of all is how well the film holds up visually. (Your mileage may vary on how some of the characterizations work, but the romance in Snow White is almost parodic in how brief it is, to the point where Snow White's Prince literally has no name, and has all of a handful of lines of dialogue. It's not automatically a bad thing that he's set dressing, but...he's set dressing.) Hand-drawn animation is not able to evince a sense of photorealism in quite the same way as computer animation. A recent Pixar film like The Good Dinosaur may be largely unremarkable in its storytelling, but its design of a world where humans and dinosaurs co-habitate is among the most jaw-droppingly realistic visions captured through computer technology. Snow White cannot claim a similar sense of photorealism, even though it (like a number of other Disney animated films of the 1940s and 1950s) used live actors as reference points for Snow White, the Prince, and others. But hand-drawn animation, in its own special way, is timeless and Snow White proves that as definitively as possible.

The Majesty of the Multiplane

The opening moments of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs depict something fairly simple: a castle emerging from the forest. We will eventually meet Snow White and the evil Queen, both residing in the castle as the film begins, the latter struck by incurable jealousy that she is not as beautiful as her stepdaughter. But the opening shots highlight the film's true, ineffable beauty. Whatever folly people might have felt Walt Disney was embarking upon was primarily exacerbated by the sense that animated shorts were more static in nature; yes, characters could move around in a frame, but the frame itself would not offer much depth or dimension. If the flatness that people saw in these shorts was present in a feature, would it be worth sitting through for 90 minutes? Disney and his animators put any such fears to rest within seconds, because the aforementioned castle emerges through the forest in one shot, the camera seeming to push through the trees, zooming forward to locate the castle so the story can begin.

Hand-drawn animation remains the very best style of feature animation, thanks in no small part to the technology that enabled shots like the one described above: the multiplane camera. The multiplane camera is now a relic — just three of them remain, at Disney's Burbank studios, a Disneyland Paris attraction, and the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, respectively. The last time a Disney animated feature utilized the multiplane camera effect was nearly 30 years ago, with The Little Mermaid. The technology that the multiplane camera spearheaded, the ability to add depth and three dimensions to two-dimensionally animated characters and environments, has since moved forward with computer systems such as CAPS, also known as the Computer Animation Production System, as well as the advent of computer-animated feature films. But the multiplane camera and its effect offer something as legitimately thrilling as anything Pixar has ever devised. It was first utilized in the 1937 Disney short The Old Mill, a haunting bit of animation depicting animals in and around a mill beset upon by a storm that hinted at the wonders to come in features like Snow White.

Later in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, we see how low the Queen will sink to get one over on the young heroine, as she turns herself into an old hag with the aim of poisoning and killing her stepdaughter and regaining her status as the fairest maiden in all the land. The transformation scene, as the camera spins around the Queen during her horrific change into a bent, physically ugly crone, achieves that spinning effect thanks to the multiplane camera. The technology — wherein animators could create different animation cels, place multiple ones on different layers through which they could be filmed by a camera moving at specifically timed speeds, making each layer "move" in conjunction with each other  —is so exquisitely designed that most people don't even realize the effect unfolding before them. Multiplane technology is on display in many more movies than Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; everything from Pinocchio (when the camera soars and swoops through the little Italian village where Geppetto lives on the morning after his wooden marionette Pinocchio is brought to life) to Bambi and The Jungle Book feature the camera's usage. These films have many wonderful aspects already, but the visual design and movement relies often on this old-fashioned yet wondrous technology.

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The Relic of Hand-Drawn Animation

Now, of course, talking about hand-drawn animation may make me sound like a bit of a dinosaur. The last hand-drawn animated Disney feature was the cruelly underrated 2011 film Winnie the Pooh. Before that, there was a brief hint at a larger revival when Disney mounted the lovely, vibrant, and exciting 2009 film The Princess and the Frog. But these days, when Disney hand-drawn animation is back in the news, it's because a new live-action remake of a hand-drawn animated film is being announced. (Or, in one case, an animated remake of an animated film is being announced. I see you, The Lion King 2019.) Walt Disney famously stated that his core belief was to "keep moving forward," which is inarguably something that his company continues to do. They have moved far away and past what the company made back in the 1930s, experimenting with animation styles and techniques to tell old-fashioned stories of adventure, romance, thrills, and excitement. But moving forward shouldn't be equated with ignoring the past.

Of course, hand-drawn animation still has a place, of some kind, at Walt Disney Animation Studios as well as Pixar Animation Studios. Newer films like Coco and Moana have hand-drawn storyboards before they're brought to life in three colorful dimensions. More importantly, the technological breakthroughs of the multiplane camera, and of feature-length hand-drawn animation in general, have inspired other innovators and filmmakers over time. Many more men and women have been inspired to become animators because of the experience of watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, themselves bringing something new to the art of animation that did not exist when they watched that original feature film. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs may not be the best Disney animated film (or, at least, it's not my favorite), but its influence and inspiration are genuinely impossible to overstate.

However, it's easy to think about the 80 years between the release of Snow White and now, and think about what there is to come in the world of feature animation in the ensuing decades. Some of the early Disney animated features, unlike Snow White, were neither critically nor financially successful; movies that we now revere as classics, such as Pinocchio and Fantasia, were once ignored at the box office and treated with bafflement by film writers. But they led to new iconography for Disney, from the image of Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice to the inspiration for theme-park attractions and shows. The impact of these films, as well as Snow White, can be found in many recent Disney animated features. Frozen and Moana, in successful and unsuccessful ways, subvert the princess-movie template that Snow White established, just as Zootopia represents how far the studio has come at animating and telling stories about somewhat anthropomorphized animals, like those in Fantasia and Bambi.

The Future Influence of Snow White

Will Snow White's influence persist in the next 10, 20, or 80 years? What will feature animation look like in December of 2037 on its centennial? The major animation studios are more prone to making self-referential, pop-culture-literate films, from Blue Sky's Ferdinand to Zootopia to The LEGO Batman Movie, and many more in between. This isn't to suggest that such films are bad — Zootopia and LEGO Batman are both quite clever and enjoyable — but they are tonally and thematically vastly different from the seemingly simplistic story of good triumphing over evil in Snow White.

The immediate future of Walt Disney Animation Studios is somewhat murky. In the fall of 2018 and 2019, Disney will release two respective sequels: Wreck-It Ralph 2 and Frozen 2. For now, at least, their slate is otherwise empty in terms of officially confirmed films. They were going to take on one of the most well-known fairy tales of all, "Jack and the Beanstalk," in Gigantic, but that film was recently taken off the calendar. So, for now, the Disney Animation slate ends with Frozen 2, a film whose predecessor communicated very directly with the tropes on display in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and countless other princess movies.

In many respects, movies like Frozen are a massive step forward for an animation studio that once had tinier ambitions in mind. But while computer technology may seem more cutting-edge, considering Snow White on its 80th anniversary is a fine time to reflect on the reality that its old-fashioned charms and now-antiquated techniques may be among the most important and valuable innovations in cinema history.