Length: 83 min.
Age: 4 and up. commonsense.org sez: 5+
Scary Factor: huntsman drawing dagger to kill Snow White is a momentary threat, Snow White afraid in the dark forest, the Queen concocting spells and transforming into an old crone, the dwarves chasing the Queen is rather exciting/suspenseful, image of face in mirror is creepy to some
Intense scenes: Snow White eats poison apple and falls down, dwarves grieving over Snow White’s dead body might be a little intense for some.
Interests: fairy tales, princesses, magic, animals
What’s Next: read the original Grimm’s version, MOVIES: Cinderella
The beautiful princess Snow White flees from her wicked stepmother the Queen, who is jealous of her beauty. She finds refuge in the cottage of seven dwarves, but only until the Queen (also a sorceress) comes after her, and tricks her into eating a poisoned apple. Arriving too late, the dwarves chase the queen through a terrible storm up a craggy peak, where a convenient bolt of lightning sends her plunging to her death. Too beautiful to bury, Snow White is placed in a glass coffin. A passing prince kisses her, and she comes back to life for a fairy tale happy ending.
This, the very first Disney feature length animated film has aged extremely well, largely due to the timeless quality of the original fairy tale. The artwork is really beautiful, definitely showing off the meticulous care and time that Disney took with it. He also spent a great deal of time adapting the original tale. The Snow White story, as told by the brothers Grimm, is extremely dark and violent. The wicked Queen makes three attempts on Snow White’s life, including squeezing the life out of her with a corset, and meets her own end at Snow White’s wedding, forced to dance to death in red hot iron shoes!
Walt Disney lightened the entire story by playing up the role of the dwarfs and playing down the Queen. He spent extra time on gags and humour, and cut the scary stuff short. The Queen’s role in the tale is much reduced, time-wise, and a far less gruesome end is found for her. Much screen time is given instead to Snow White’s animal and bird friends, and the seven little men. The scene in which the woodland creatures help Snow White clean up the cottage has got some really beautiful animation, full of charming detail. Then the dwarves enter for some classic Disney gags, falling over each other and mugging shamelessly. The characters of the seven (undifferentiated and unnamed in the original tale) are so well drawn that they have remained beloved through the decades. The dwarves and their shenanigans seem to go on and on, but they, and the woodland creatures are totally charming, and lighten the tone of the film.
The resulting balance between fairy tale grimness (pun intended) and Disney cutesiness was derided by some critics, who criticized Disney for ‘sunnying up’ the Brothers Grimm, plastering over the darkness with corny gags, sentimental songs, and chronic cuteness. Interestingly enough, however, at the time of its release Snow White was still widely regarded as too violent and scary for children. There is a story (possibly apocryphal) that the upholstery of the seats in Radio City Music Hall where it screened had to be replaced due to frightened children peeing themselves. As Leonard Maltin recounts in The Disney Films, the movie was “under a partial ban in several countries, such as England, where censors ruled that children under sixteen would not be allowed to see the film unless accompanied by adults, for fear of the tots having nightmares after seeing the film’s horror sequences. Most of the other restrictions in countries ranging from South Africa to the Netherlands were lifted in response to public outcry…”
The Scary Stuff
By modern standards especially, this film shouldn’t frighten too many, though it’s probably too frightening to be seen as a ‘first movie’ at too young an age. Individual discretion is the key. Here’s the lowdown…
1. The Queen instructs a huntsman to kill the princess. He raises his knife for a moment of high suspense, but can’t bring himself to do the deed. Instead he tells Snow White to run away. The Queen had instructed him to bring back Snow White’s heart, but instead he brings back an animal heart to fool her. (This bit of business is handled rather discreetly, the heart itself is kept out of sight in an ominous box decorated with a heart with a dagger through it.)
2. In another scene Snow White flees, terrified, into the dark forest. In her imagination the trees reach out for her and trip her up. It may not be clear to the very young that this is all in her imagination. It could be quite scary, but the eyes in the dark are quickly shown to be ultra-cute woodland creatures, who gather around to help her.
3. When the Queen re-enters the story, things get dark again as she mixes up magical potions. Her transformation into an old crone could creep some children out… or delight them, if they are fans of anything Hallowe’eny.
4. The climactic chase scene is more exciting and suspenseful than scary. And the death of the queen is accomplished by an act of God (see above), as she simply disappears into a misty abyss… with vultures circling down after her.
5. My three-year-old braved through all the overtly scary scenes but was seriously freaked out by the magic mirror! Something about the realistic face made her scream for me to skip that part on the DVD, though the wicked witch’s doings didn’t faze her in the least!
The Princess Thing
Another major objection to this film can be made on feminist grounds: the heroine is pretty passive, diligently domestic, and intent solely on finding Mr. (Prince) Right. However this element is true to the original fairy tale source, and is part of a far wider phenomenon, hard to dismiss entirely. Perhaps a way to counter this is to balance the story with other stories of stronger, heroic females. (More to come on this topic!)
In the final analysis, it’s a lovely, beautiful film, a major cinematic achievement, but it still might require some parental hand-holding for the first viewing.
(One final, minor, caveat – the high-pitched voice of Snow White may drive you crazy. Kids don’t seem to mind it, however.)