Let's get this out of the way right now: no, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was not the first feature-length animated film. There were a handful of others that were made prior, most notably the silhouette-animated The Adventures of Prince Achmed, even though those all seem to have been lost to time. So no, Snow White technically wasn't the first.
But let's be honest: in many ways, it may as well have been.
This probably goes without saying, but I wasn't actually alive in the 1930s, so I don't have a first-hand account of the state of animation prior to Snow White. Though, according to just about everything that I've read and heard, it would seem that animation prior to 1937 was, generally, regarded as little more than children's entertainment; five or ten-minute shorts that acted as silly sideshows before the beginnings of "real" movies.
Of course, I'm oversimplifying here. There was a lot of groundbreaking and revolutionary animation prior to Snow White. There aren't too many examples for me to point to because, like I said, most of them are long lost by now. However, from what I have seen of the time (Gertie the Dinosaur, Felix the Cat, Popeye the Sailor Man), most of them wouldn't have been able to pass for a feature-length. That's not to say that the animation of the time was unimpressive, particularly in context. But the finished products were still in their experimental stage. And I understand how difficult it must have been to experiment animation frame-by-frame (I've tried my hand at animation before - it didn't go well), but it's clear that animation still needed more time to properly develop before it could be seen as a "legitimate" genre.
By the 1930s, we were beginning to see signs of things to come. Walt Disney's own production company had produced many popular Mickey Mouse shorts, as well as the Silly Symphonies series (which ran between 1929 and 1939), both of which should be credited for greatly progressing both the quality and reputation of animation, particularly in the United States. And, while Silly Symphonies was obviously not the only thing bridging the gap between Steamboat Willie and Snow White, it nevertheless marked the beginning of Disney's rise in reputation in the animation industry, particularly through its innovative uses of Technicolor film-making, memorable music, and emotionally-charged storytelling.
It would seem that the technical and commercial success of Silly Symphonies, which won multiple Oscars over multiple years, finally gave Disney the confidence (and the money) to expand his horizons and begin working on a feature-length film in 1934.
Beginning with a budget of $250,000, already a good chunk of change, this first film (allegedly) went through a gamut of production setbacks. As many financiers were uncertain as to whether an animated feature could ever be successful, Disney apparently had to repeatedly fight to get the film finished. I've heard that he had to mortgage his house during production, and that the budget eventually ran up to nearly 1.5 million dollars, which was an absurd amount of money at the time. Production was getting so messy that Hollywood supposedly began to refer to the film as "Disney's folly" before it was even released.
(I don't know how much of this is actually true, by the way. Many of these "facts" have been hotly debated over the years, and some assert that the "Disney's folly" moniker is a complete myth. Still, considering how new this all was for Hollywood, I have to believe these stories have at least one foot in reality.)
Regardless of the obstacles, Disney and his team somehow managed to power through, with passion and relentless determination, finally completing the film in 1937. And, as we now know, the film was an immediate commercial and critical success. It more than made its money back, grossing almost eight million dollar worldwide, and viewers of all ages were taken by it. The hard work had paid off, and animated film (as we know it today) was essentially born.
Even in a present-day viewing of Snow White, it's easy to see why the film was such an immediate success. Right from the opening scene (even the opening still), where the Queen's castle is depicted in a landscape, you can't help but notice the beauty and atmosphere of the broad and colouful animation on display. It honestly feels light years ahead of the disjointed and grainy shorts that were released just a few years earlier.
The colour of the film is gorgeous (just look at that shot), but I should also mention the beauty of the minor details. The introduction of Prince Charming through the well, while also a creative way to introduce a character, is beautifully depicted through his reflection in the water. Similarly, the rain splashing on the rocks in the film's climax lends both realism and atmosphere to the story. It likely would have been much easier to present the scene as a clear, sunny day. But small decisions like these exemplify the fact that the animators wanted to give their best effort in presenting a film that would be visually engaging.
One of the smartest decisions Walt Disney made when adapting Snow White was that he made an effort to tell a story that would be driven by emotion and mood, rather than plot. I think this decision lends itself perfectly to the medium of animation, because it keeps the story simple and straight-forward, while placing an emphasis on design, character, and music.
Take the forest scene as an example. It has nothing to do with the plot of the film. And, if it were cut, nothing crucial from the story would be lost. However, the scene was included because of how well it conveys Snow White's fear and naivete. Rather than simply dropping a line about how scared she is, the animators go the extra mile by exaggerating the details of the forest for nightmarish effect. Tree limbs turn into hands, logs turn into crocodiles, and so on. It not only creates a more vivid experience for the viewer, it showcases the creative potential that animation has to offer.
If I were to point to one weakness of the animation in the film, it would be that of Snow White herself, as well as of Prince Charming. Apparently, these characters were initially shot using live action, and were subsequently rotoscoped into animation. And, well, it shows. Disney reportedly wanted to disallow the use of rotoscope animation for his characters, particularly because of how limiting it was. Everything else in the film could be drawn exactly as the animators would like, but Snow White and Prince Charming were forced to looks and move similar to live-action footage.
This leads into unarguably the weakest aspect of the story: the actual relationship between Snow White and Prince Charming. Disney was clearly unhappy with the look of the prince, so his screen time was subsequently reduced by a significant margin. This explains why he has one single scene at the beginning, and then just sort of disappears until the end of the film, resulting in a romance that feels rushed and inauthentic, especially from a modern perspective.
As for the character of Snow White, I'll say she serves her purpose. I'm going to try to avoid discussing the Disney princesses from a feminist perspective, because it is something that I am neither comfortable nor qualified to do. Instead, I'll just say that she's mostly a blank slate, but definitely a decent framework for the princesses that would follow. A likeable protagonist, at the very least.
Though I should mention that the character of Snow White also ties into what I consider to be the single most dated aspect of the entire film: her voice. For the most part, Snow White is a timeless film, in large part as a result of Disney's wise choice to adapt a classic, well-established fairy tale. However, Adriana Caselotti's (the voice of Snow White) high-pitched squeak always brings me right to the 1930s. I don't want to rag on Caselotti too hard, becaue she often lends a lot of charm to a character that could have been even blander that it already was, and her singing still sounds pleasant. But her voice, especially her singing voice, is very much a product of its time. Many connections have been made between the Snow White's voice and Betty Boop's, and I can certainly hear it. Something being dated isn't necessarily a bad thing, and I wouldn't say that it ruins the movie for me or anything, but it's pretty much the only aspect of the movie that feels like a product of the early days of animation. Well, that and the rotoscoping. Sorry, Adriana.
Of course, there are some great characters to balance this out. It goes without saying at this point, but one of the film's absolute highlights is the villain, The Evil Queen. She's still one of the most iconic villains in film history, both in design and in her obsession with vanity. I'll concede that she isn't given a ton to do in the first half of the film (she doesn't even share a scene with Snow White), but her sinister restraint certainly comes across.
Her character reaches even greater heights, however, once she transforms in The Witch. Following her transformation, a scene that is one of the most impressively animated segments in the entire film (done partially through the use of multi-plane cameras, giving the scene a three-dimensional, dizzy feel), she becomes scarier, funnier, and all the more threatening. For instance, the moment where she suddenly appears in the windowsill of the dwarf cottage has always creeped me out.
(And, yes, I know she doesn't really transform into a witch. But I don't know what else to call her (Hag? Crone?), and I know you know what I'm talking about when I refer to her as The Witch.)
There are some that still rank The Queen/Witch as the greatest Disney villain, which says a lot about the longevity of the character. I don't think I'd go quite as far as to call her the best, but she is certainly top tier, and easily the most influential. It's clear that this villain, both as The Queen and The Witch, were incredibly instrumental to the depictions of many future Disney villains, including Maleficent, Cruella de Vil, and Ursula, among others.
Special props should be given to Lucille La Verne, the voice actress for both The Queen and The Witch. Both voices are incredibly vivid, perfectly matching their respective characters, which is especially impressive because they sound nothing alike. I honestly never would have been able to tell that the same woman voiced both roles. Apparently, in one of my favourite behind-the-scenes stories of the movie, La Verne managed to alter her voice while portraying The Witch by simply taking her teeth out.
And, while we're on the topic of great characters, I have the mention the seven scene-stealers of the film: the dwarfs. You know them by now: Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey. Let's be honest: these characters are the reason why Snow White was made in the first place. As a kid, they were easily my reason for watching the film again and again. They were funny, well-animated, and had distinct personalities. Trust me: as a kid, I had a lot of the merchandise.
I must admit that, in revisiting this film once again, the dwarfs were still my favourite part of the whole movie. They always will be, I can't help it. I love how fluid their animation is, how funny each of them are, and how they all have a unique relationship with Snow White. Whenever anyone discusses their love for this film, they (myself included) usually begin by addressing their love of the dwarfs, usually followed by identifying their personal favourite (mine's Bashful). There's good reason for that: all these years later, they're still the most marketable aspect of the movie, and they still steal the show, or at least they do for me.
Viewing Snow White from a present-day perspective, it's astonishing to think that it was the first feature-length cel animated film, or even Disney's first. It's simple, but it's also confident, fully-realized, and professionally crafted, without feeling remotely adolescent or experimental. Even if Snow White wasn't Disney's first film, it would still undoubtedly be fondly remembered by many for its beautiful animation, likeable music, and memorable characters. However, the fact that it was the first, and was able to overcome so many initial obstacles, proves that this film has earned its place as a landmark achievement in film history. Both the quality and success of this film changed animation forever, and I can still watch and love this movie to this day.
** Thanks to this film, I've never known whether the proper pluralization for "dwarf" is "dwarfs" or "dwarves". I've looked it up, and it seems that both are technically right, but I still feel wrong writing "dwarfs". Though I wouldn't say that making the distinction has ever been a frequent issue.
** I love the fact that Walt Disney included a shout-out to his staff at the very beginning of the film. You can tell how much he appreciated the efforts of each and every person who worked for him, and it's little touches like these that give Walt his current image.
** Sergei Eisenstein once called Snow White the greatest movie ever made. I'd say that's pretty good praise.
** One thing that I've always thought gets overlooked when it comes to this film is the score. It's present throughout the entire film, from the opening titles, to the aforementioned scary forest scene, to the somber-as-hell grieving scene. And, while it's sometimes a little on-the-nose, it often adds a lot of mood to the film.
** As a kid, I don't think I ever really processed the fact that The Queen actually demands the huntsman to cut out Snow White's heart, and then place it in a box as proof (or, perhaps, as a keepsake). Talk about overkill.
** I love this shot:
** This is more of a personal preference, but Happy always stood out to me as being the least interesting dwarf. In large part, I think that's because, with the exception of Grumpy, all of the dwarfs are relatively happy. It's the least exclusive of the seven character traits, so he feels the least unique.
** So Snow White is making hot soup, but decides to take a nap while it's cooking? My grandmother would not have been happy to see that.
** That poor turtle. Let's hope he never had to climb another set of stairs.
** The mirror's a bit of a snitch, isn't he? The Queen simply asked as to who was the fairest one of all. The mirror didn't have to immediately mention where Snow White was staying.
** I understand the irony of The Queen making herself as ugly as possible to kill the "fair" Snow White, but I hope she had a spell for changing back into her original appearance. Otherwise, Snow White certainly wouldn't have become the only one fairer than her.
** In 2004, the American Film Institute ranked "Some Day My Prince Will Come" as the nineteenth greatest song in American film history. It's a cute little number, but I'm not sure I'd rank it that high. I don't even know if I'd rank it as the best song from its own movie.
** Those vultures sure are effective, aren't they? We know exactly what they represent, and their mere presence adds so much eeriness to every moment they are a part of. Not exactly the cuddly woodland creatures that help Snow White clean the cottage.
** Why didn't Sleepy get a final kiss goodbye? Did Snow White find out about his apathy regarding The Queen finding her?
** I love the storybook bookends of the early Disney movies. And, outdated as it may be today, I wish they would somehow find a way to still utilize it once in a while.
Join me next time, as we move from Germany to Italy, and look at a movie that continues to induce nightmares.