Tuesday, 15 December 2009
Day 1: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937)
As accidental timely starts to Disney-based film marathon blogs go, this has to be one of the timeliest - it was not until 'round midnight that I discovered that Walt Disney passed away thirty-three years ago today, on December 15th 1966. I can't help but be impressed that one man had such an impact on animated cinema before my mother even turned five. To me, 1986 is impossibly historic - even cartoon films produced before then strike me with the sort of awe I normally reserve for trips to the Natural History Museum, walking amongst dinosaurs and stuffed capybaras. So to consider that there were almost thirty years before Disney's death in which he pioneered animated cinema is a difficult prospect for me. And yet thirty years there were, and it was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that stood at the very beginning of this. Until this point Disney had been focusing on animated shorts starring his flagship characters - Mickey, Donald and the gang. With Snow White, Disney threw caution to the wind - the first animated feature produced in America was his to claim.
I suppose it makes sense that there were doubters of Walt's first feature - many called it 'Disney's Folly', which is a terribly 1930's way of saying 'We think you're wasting your time, mate.' Nobody seemed to see any potential in a feature length cartoon - and as Disney put more and more of his own money into funding the film, critics saw it as a bigger and bigger waste of money. Now, of course, we can't even pretend to comprehend what it must have been like to live in a world without animated movies. We have so many now that even the computer-generated films have low budget releases coming out every year, usually so poorly done that you can't help but wonder if a producer thought of the title before the plot itself. Space Chimps, for example. Fly Me To The Moon. All a world away from Snow White, of course, but all direct descendents nonetheless. Terrible, terrible direct descendents, of course. The sort of descendents that let the family down and don't get invites to the annual reunion.
That said, how fantastic is Snow White, really? There's no way around the fact that the film is a landmark of cinema, in the same way that, say, Casablanca, Gone With The Wind and Citizen Kane are landmarks. The problem is that very often the very accolade of being a landmark is enough to over-sell the film, to hype it up to a level where it can only disappoint. Last week I went to an independent cinema in Nottingham to see Citizen Kane for the second time in my life. I sat in the dark with a pint of cider, wrapped warm in my coat, and took in a film often described as a landmark in cinema. Now, I like to consider myself a moderately intelligent person; I own several books, and once got eighteen answers correct whilst watching University Challenge. All in the same episode, too. Nevertheless, I just can't align myself with the idea that Citizen Kane is one of the best films ever made. It's well-plotted, but far too long; for every stunning shot there's an unnecessary scene slowing the story-telling down. In some ways, Snow White suffers similarly.
Watching the film last night I realised that my only real problem with it was that which is shared by many films older than, say, forty years - it was too slow. Really, this isn't too much of a flaw on a contextual level; older films generally have a much slower pace than those released in the last twenty years. This is one of the two reasons that your grandparents don't like Transformers - the pace is simply too fast for their tastes. The other reason, by the way, is that Transformers is a genuinely terrible film. Really.
But it can become painfully obvious at times that Disney seemed to be stretching out a fairly minimalistic plot over the film's eighty minute running time. Frankly, more complicated plots have been told with greater success in single episodes of The Simpsons. There are extended scenes involving, well, not that much. The dwarfs spend about five minutes of the film realising someone is in their house, and deciding what to do about it. There's a whole song about washing up before dinner! There's another one about how fun and easy it can be to tidy up! Frankly, sometimes it felt like my mother had been drafted in for song-writing purposes.
The biggest surprise for me was the first appearance of 'Heigh-Ho!' in the film - I hadn't realised that its debut in the film contained the lyric 'Heigh-ho, heigh-ho/It's home from work we go' as opposed to the 'off to work' version we are all used to. That latter lyric does appear later, but I enjoyed the first appearance more - it makes more sense to me to get excited about leaving work as opposed to the opposite. Really,who gets excited about going to work? Terry Wogan and, one can assuming, anyone who actually works at Disney.
I enjoyed Snow White, ultimately. It drags - but that's how older narratives worked, and this is a problem I know I'll have to deal with for the next two weeks or so, up until I break past the Cinderella Barrier around Christmas Day. Excusing that, then, and it certainly is a pleasure to see the beginnings of the world of Disney that most every child on Earth has taken for granted ever since the late 1930s. If you think about it, there is something quite remarkable in my ability now to watch a film made before my grandmother was even alive, and it has to say something about the quality of the film itself also. Snow White may not be perfect, but it's a wonderful way to start my Fifty Days of Disney.
Tomorrow: Pinocchio (1941)