Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Snow White

This week (December 21st) marks the 74th anniversary of the debut of the Walt Disney classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Ugh, I've said it. I've used the word "classic." That's a barnacle of a term, isn't it? It sticks like cement and once it's there it's nearly impossible to pry off. Worst of all, it keeps you from getting a really clear view of what you've got. Hard to see a "classic" with a fresh eye. Unless you're four, it's hard to watch Snow White as if you were seeing it for the first time. Hard to turn back the clock and see what audiences saw on December 21st, 1937, when Snow White first hit the screens, not as a creaky classic, but as a grand experiment in animated movie-making.

It wasn't a sure thing, you know. No one had ever seen a full-length animated movie before and the idea seemed preposterous to many. Cartoons were for kids. They were short. Heck, they were even called "shorts." They were filler, an appetizer for the real movie, not the main course movie itself. No one would sit through a full-length cartoon, critics said. Dwarfs or no dwarfs.

Besides, cartoons were supposed to be full of gags. Funny, slapstick-style easily digestible humor. They weren't dark and shadowy like the fairy tale on which Walt's movie would be based. What was he thinking?

Walt put himself and his company on the line to make his dream movie. He spent three years, committing his entire staff and a good deal of his own money. It is customary with classics to call their creators visionaries. Walt was that, but he had a vision in more than the metaphorical sense. He saw Snow White--literally saw it, frame by frame, as if it played already in his head. He dictated what he wanted to his animators, acting out scenes for them. He knew how each character should look and act, right down to the expressions on their faces. He even knew which kinds of mushrooms should be growing in the woods in the background.

On December 21, 1937, Walt's determination paid off. People lined up for blocks for a chance to see the movie. Animation now hardly seems worth a second glance. But Snow White was as cutting edge for its time as Star Wars and Avatar were for theirs. The movie broke records for ticket sales and won an Academy Award. And had Walt listened to the nay-sayers, he would have been the only one to see it. So glad he shared.