The Brothers Grimm never named the dwarfs, a point Walt Disney was not about to miss. People like things to be ordered, to be numbered if possible, but at least given a trait and a name to be arranged by. So: Doc, Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy, Bashful, Dopey, and Grumpy. You spend half your time during Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs just trying to establish who’s who amongst these little men, with the exception of the obviously caustic Grumpy and the fluid, vaguely unsettling Dopey. This effort is not a negative aspect of the movie-watching experience; to the contrary, it keeps interest and curiosity alive during the long midsection of the picture.
According to Neal Gabler’s terrific Disney bio, there was going to be a Deafy until late in the production process, a dwarf who would misinterpret the speech of others, to comic effect. He was replaced by the less problematic Sneezy. In fact, Gabler’s book describes an epic, hugely ambitious production process that makes the Disney studio sound like the interior of the dwarfs’ cottage, a chaotic, communal jamboree of fellows whistling while they work, with plenty of dirty dishes left lying about. Disney borrowed heavily and overreached himself and told the story of the movie to anybody who’d listen. He brought in actual little people to gambol about so the animators could observe how the dwarfs might move, but Walt found the real-life dwarfs not cute. The little miners in the film would have to be cute, thus marking a gulf between reality and animation that still exists today.
Seeing the film again after many years (or just seeing the film after childhood) shows how well it lines up with the great appeal and power of classic fairy tales. Disney has forever been charged with softening the original stories, but Snow White is still early enough to capture all the great elements of something ancient: the harshness of the queen, the reality of the knife raised by the huntsman, the horror of the witch and her poison apple, the glorious downward circling of the vultures as they lazily descend to pick at whatever is left of a villain fallen from a great height. Just as important is the craft of cartooning, as the movie looks so lush and layered and inflected with folkloric Mitteleuropean detail; surely this is what a fairy tale looks like, in as definitive a way as a Gustave Doré’s illustrations.
Still, Disney adds the cuddly. The dwarfs are soft and round in art and personality, despite the abrasive presence of Grumpy (everybody’s bachelor friend who just wants the male comradeship to keep going indefinitely). Snow White is girlish and cheerful and a neatnik, and the prince isn’t much of anything. Almost 75 years later, in Tangled (a delightful movie that holds the sassy and the sincere in good balance, and returns to the realm of Germanic folk tale), the Disney heroine is much more interesting: restless and independent and smart.
I was never in love with Disney movies as a kid – too much born into the age of irony – so I don’t have the residual affection that fuels a lot of people’s memories about them (although Fantasia was re-released for its LSD phase when I was about ten, and thus has a special spot for me). One thing that can be said about Snow White is that it feels like one person’s vision. Despite all the different hands at work, it’s all-of-a-piece. It also has a curious shape, going on very long in its middle section with the dwarfs; a committee approach surely would tighten that section up today, but Disney clearly liked that part. Years of adolescent learning seem to be crammed into a single night as the dwarfs discover Snow White and her organized housekeeping methods and interpersonal skills.
In the end it all seems so tidy, but Snow White does leave its traces with the witch and the apple and the trees formed like threatening arms. We wouldn’t remember the movie if it didn’t have those troubling things, even if they are put safely away. (It would take Pinocchio for Disney to get into some really weird, creepy-crawly stuff.) Seeing the ending now, it is impossible not to see the empire rising, the castle of Disneyland and make-believe, which might be a little unfair to Snow White - but still, there it is, dream and brand waiting in the distance. Maybe that’s why in retrospect Dopey seems so unfunny – he was the calculation, the formula needed to put all this over.