Walt Disney’s 1937 film was a pioneer in many ways. The first
animated feature in color, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs used larger animation cels to capture all of the detail Disney demanded in each frame. The way the animators layered their drawings – and then
moved each layer separately – created an astonishing new
illusion of depth.
All of this technical innovation led to an even more valuable
aesthetic one: For the first time, a “children’s
movie” gave kids the level of artistry they deserve.
Full of silliness yet not just a silly romp, populated by cute
animals yet also conflicted human ones, Snow White was as sophisticated as any adult film of its day. The fact that it was grounded in one of the primal fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm didn’t mean it was child’s play.
The most indelible images from the movie really have little to do
with the title heroine. Instead, it’s the mournful face in the
mirror we recall, or the vain countenance of the evil queen as she
peers into it.
Later, the trees that claw at Snow White in the forest are like
something from a psychedelic nightmare, as are the glowing yellow
eyes that are eventually revealed to belong to harmless woodland
creatures. Snow White, like Bambi five years later, upholds the fairy-tale vision of the forest as a place of danger and wonder.
The dwarfs themselves are amazing early examples of characterization
through animation (rather than dialogue or plot). All seven get their
due, mainly because Disney’s animators have given each of them
crucially distinct features and movements. If Snow White doesn’t seem as revolutionary today as it did in 1937, that’s only because nearly every animated feature of the next six decades – Disney and otherwise – followed its pattern.