The first animated feature film in history was El Apóstol, a political satire made in 1917 that does not seem to have been screened widely outside its native Argentina and which has not survived to the present day. (Or even past 1926, when all known copies were destroyed in a fire). Even if it had, its highly topical subject matter would still have made it a footnote in history to the first animated feature made in the United States: Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White was the film that began the conversion of Walt Disney’s company from a cartoon shop to one of the most successful brand names the world has ever seen, and as a movie, it virtually defined what animated feature films would be for decades to come. Disney has re-opened its vaults to release Snow White again on home video, this time for the new high-definition Blu-ray format, and the final results of this new Diamond Edition are first-rate.
Snow White is a classic in every sense of the word, as demonstrated by the fact that the movie is as delightful and enjoyable now as it was when it debuted in 1937. Its ample charms and technical achievements are still dazzling today, especially in the marvelous remastered version on display in this new edition. The plot is almost too trivial to sum up: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl because of evil stepmother, boy gets girl back thanks to seven little people, and they live happily ever after. But Snow White is the kind of movie that continues to be enjoyable no matter how many times you’ve watched it. There are pioneering movies that are recognized for their historical importance, but which modern audiences find nearly unwatchable. Snow White is definitely not one of them. If nothing else, the movie is a marvelous showcase for the character animation skills of the first generation of Disney animators like Grim Natwick and Bill Tytla, who taught the Nine Old Men when the Nine Old Men were Nine Very Young Men. The extremely cartoon-ish dwarfs upstage nearly all the human characters of the movie, becoming the first of a long line of Disney supporting characters that are actually more interesting than the ostensible leads. The only possible exception is the evil Queen, who is brought to vibrant and malevolent life with the slightest, barely noticeable grace notes, like the flare of anger on her face as she draws her curtains or the fury communicated in the way she moves as she makes a hasty descent into her dungeon after learning her hated stepdaughter is still alive. Still, it’s hard not to fall a little in love with the sweet, innocent, and entirely guileless Snow White, beautifully voiced and sung by Adriana Caselotti and modeled with a delightful young energy by a young Marge Belcher (soon to become Marge Champion).
Current day viewers will need to make surprisingly few concessions to the era to watch and enjoy Snow White, and many of them are due to Disney still experimenting to find out what would and wouldn’t work in an animated feature film. The movie hews more closely to the original fairy tales than many of the Disney movies that followed, but the side-effect is that characterization tends to be pretty thin. The Prince is little more than a walking plot device, appearing once for no substantive purpose and then again just to give the movie its happily-ever-after wrap up. Snow White herself also has little to no control over her own fate, making her far more passive than almost any modern film would dare to make her. At times, it also feels like the animators at Disney were still thinking in terms of short films rather than feature-length ones. The movie often feels like a succession of exceptionally well-executed shorts loosely held together by the larger plot, stopping the movie’s narrative momentum dead for animated monkey business like the dwarfs washing up for dinner. There are also moments when it seems that the animators had a sudden loss of faith in their ample visual storytelling skills; it’s surprising that a movie that could execute a scene as well as the Huntsman’s attempt to kill Snow White would also relay the movie’s closing story points using title cards that seem lifted straight from silent films. Finally, Snow White was Disney’s first experiment with truly human-looking animated characters, and the movie was the one and only time that they experimented seriously with rotoscoping. They abandoned the rotoscope after Snow White, however, quickly recognizing the seeming contradiction that the highly realistic movements of rotoscoped characters look weirdly artificial and wrong in animation.
The Snow White Diamond Edition will uphold Disney’s reputation for premium home video packages when it comes to the studios animated icons. Like many of their high-end Blu-ray releases, Snow White contains the movie on both a high-definition Blu-ray disc and a standard-definition DVD, and comes with a second Blu-ray stuffed with bonus features. For this release, Disney has decided to use two separate packages for exactly the same content: one in DVD packaging and one in the smaller, blue-tinted Blu-ray packaging. Unfortunately, I suspect that this will lead only to increased confusion among both consumers and retailers. At least one retailer has ended up charging more for the Blu-ray package, either ignorant that the contents are identical or in a cynical attempt to gouge a few more bucks out of Blu-ray owners. There are also probably more than a few consumers expecting the bonus disc in the DVD package to be a standard DVD, and I expect the confusion over packaging will only get worse come November, when Disney re-releases the movie in an actual 2-disc DVD edition. I can’t think of any good reasons to package the movie this way that outweigh the negatives against it, and hope Disney abandons this split packaging for their next big Blu-ray Diamond Edition release.
Disney has given Snow White another remastering for high-definition, and the results are stunning. The DVD looks quite good, but the Blu-ray is a real leap in image quality. The clean up and remastering of the movie has resulted in a crystal clear image, with the rich earth tones in the color palette brought out beautifully. Other than the storytelling elements that have become outdated or fallen out of fashion, it would be easy to believe that Snow White was released relatively recently. In fact, the remastering of the Blu-ray may have even gone a bit too far. To give a hint at the resolutions that Disney was working in, the first pass at high-definition remastering revealed the fingerprints of the artists that lay down the cels for the camera. However, there are a few scenes in the movie where, to my eyes, it seems like the high-definition transfer separates the animation cels from the watercolor backgrounds a bit too sharply. Seeing an animation cel in person often makes the characters look as though they’re floating and disconnected from the background, and a few scenes on the Blu-ray look the same way: Keep an eye out for the scene where the dwarfs discover their house has been cleaned for them, and at Grumpy as he tries to ignore Snow White singing “Someday My Prince Will Come.” This separation between the cels and the background doesn’t seem to happen on the DVD at all, and I’m still slightly torn on whether I like the effect or not, but it was distracting enough on my copy to slightly disrupt the movie. Sound on the Blu-ray is either in English in 7.1 DTS-HD sound or a restored mono soundtrack, or in French or Spanish in 5.1 sound. I don’t quite have the gear to fully appreciate the 7.1 soundtrack, but on a 5.1 system it certainly sounds beautiful, with just the slightest hints of extra low-end punch when it’s needed.
The new Diamond Edition also comes with a raft of extras that may well take a few days to explore thoroughly unless you can set aside an entire weekend for them. In fact, there were multiple times when I thought I was almost done watching bonus features, only to find a few more tucked away. The DVD and the first Blu-ray disc contain trailers and several of the same bonuses, with the Blu-ray presenting them in high-definition video where appropriate:
AUDIO COMMENTARY TRACK: This excellent commentary track is recycled from the 2001 Platinum Edition re-release of the movie, composited from comments by animator and historian John Canemaker and audio clips of Walt Disney himself. Interestingly, it turns out to be much easier to be distracted by the movie during Uncle Walt’s comments, since they often have little or nothing to do with the on-screen action. Canemaker is a highly knowledgeable, if low-key, presence, and his commentary is always illuminating and educational.
“SOMEDAY MY PRINCE WILL COME” MUSIC VIDEO: Sonny with a Chance‘s Tiffany Thornton is the latest Disney teen idol recruited to cover a classic Disney song. Normally, I can’t stand these things, so I was rather surprised to find how solid this one turned out to be. Thornton has enough vocal talent and the right girlish tone to pull off a straight cover, which is exactly what she does in the opening bars until the song becomes the usual over-produced, overly-synthesized teen pop mush. Even then, the song isn’t as bad as some of the earlier, utterly forgettable covers of Disney classic tunes.
SNEAK PEEK AT THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG: The opening six minutes of Disney’s upcoming movie, putting the latest Disney Princess next to the first one. This makes for an interesting comparison of how times and movie-making sensibilities have changed after 70 years. Some of the footage is raw and unfinished, but still looks quite good. The DVD hides this clip under the “Music and More” option rather than the “Bonus Features” section.
The Blu-ray discs also contain the following extras, all in high-definition unless noted:
DELETED SCENES/”SNOW WHITE RETURNS:” Hosted by Disney’s Don Hahn, this featurette reveals newly discovered materials suggesting that work had begun on a sequel to Snow White. The sequel was most likely intended as a short, and would have centered on the dwarfs. After explaining the discovery and what documentation there was behind it, the featurette steps through the storyboard sketches that remain and splices in selections from scenes deleted from the original movie (a “soup eating” scene and a “building a bed” scene, both of which appeared on the earlier DVD and which can also be viewed in their entirety separately). The sequel was never made, of course, but the bonus feature turns out to be a fascinating bit of Disney history. It’s also something Hollywood could learn from: in the commentary track, Disney notes how everyone kept asking him for more of his hits—more Mickey, more Three Little Pigs, more Dwarfs— and yet Disney himself never gave in to the temptation to do a direct sequel to any of his biggest hits, opting instead to continue exploring new and different territory.
HYPERION STUDIOS VIRTUAL TOUR: A staggering featurette that dominates Disc 2, this bonus takes the viewer behind the scenes at Disney’s Hyperion Studios, where Snow White was made. One gets the impression that the Pixar Animation Studio fosters the same kind of freewheeling physical and creative environment as the Hyperion Studio did at the time, except the modern version is executed on a much larger scale. The featurette is broken up into about a dozen sub-sections, stepping through the making of an animated movie in developing story, character design, animation, camera work, live-action reference, music, and more. Each sub-section features art galleries; short featurettes that often include vintage audio or video clips; introductions and explanations by a variety of Disney and animation historians and current Disney luminaries; and a surprising number of classic Disney short films. These latter inclusions alone may make the bonus Blu-ray worth the price of admission for serious Disney fans, since they include such pioneering shorts as “Steamboat Willie,” “The Old Mill,” and “Skeleton Dance,” all cleaned up and remastered in high-definition. One nice touch is that the index for this featurette (hit “down” on your remote once you get past the introduction) shows you which features you’ve already watched and which you haven’t, which is extremely helpful once all the segment titles start sounding alike.
“THE ONE THAT STARTED IT ALL:” A new 17-minute documentary on the making of the movie, placing it in its proper historical context. This documentary covers some of the same ground as the Hyperion Studios tour and includes several of the same video clips, but arranged in a more traditional documentary film format. This does not seem to be a carry-over from the 2001 DVD release. It is also notable that both this and the Hyperion Studios tour use clips from the newly remastered version of the movie, where a lot of older featurettes tended to use un-restored film elements that looked much worse than the feature.
ANIMATION VOICE TALENT: A carry-over from the 2001 DVD, this six-minute featurette digs briefly into the voice casting of the movie. Highlights include the brief clip of the late Adriana Caselotti describing how she got the role of Snow White in her high, remarkably well-preserved girlish voice, and the revelation of the celebrity stunt casting of the era in selecting voices for the seven dwarfs. This feature is in standard-definition, and seems to have been stretched to fill a high-definition widecreen, making almost everyone seem broader and flatter.
DISNEY THROUGH THE DECADES: Another carry-over from the 2001 DVD, these brief shorts give a capsule history of the Walt Disney company, decade by decade starting in the 1930’s. They are narrated by different stars, including Roy Disney, Angela Lansbury, Jodi Benson, and Ming-Na. This edition gets a new introduction and a new segment dedicated to the 2000’s, both hosted by John Ratzenberger. The shorts are mildly interesting, but rather self-promotional. Interspersed between the decade summaries are the theatrical trailers for the different theatrical (and, eventually, home video) re-releases of Snow White. The older material also seems to be standard-definition full-frame video stretched to widescreen format.
THE MAGIC MIRROR AND DISNEYVIEW: In a cute gimmick, the Blu-ray menu is managed by the Magic Mirror from the movie, who is at least aware enough to know things like the time of day, whether you’ve watched the movie, and what bonus features you’ve already seen. Snow White also allows viewers to watch the movie in “DisneyView,” which fills in the black bars on the sides of the screen with watercolor panels painted by Toby Bluth; a nice feature for those who can’t stand seeing black bars on their TV sets, but not essential by any stretch. I also remembered it being easier to turn DisneyView on and off with Pinocchio.
GAMES AND ACTIVITIES: Blu-rays allow for more interesting games than DVDs, although the activities still don’t really seem worth the effort. “Jewel Jumble” is a decent variation on Tetris, while “What Do You See?” lets you decipher a scrambled image on screen, and “Scene Stealer” lets you incorporate your own photos into a Snow White music video. “Mirror, Mirror On the Wall” is an interactive quiz that lets you determine which Disney Princess you are most like (it turns out I’m Belle), and even allows home viewers to get a phone message from the Princess they closest resemble. A “Wild Mine Ride” game and a “Heigh-Ho” karaoke sing-along both appear on the second bonus disc as well, which are both labeled as carry-overs from the 2001 DVD.
Oddly, there are ads for DisneyFile digital copies, but no actual digital copy of the movie on this release. The disc is also enhanced with BD-Live, but other than the games, this feature seemed limited to showing many of the same trailers that are already on the Blu-ray.
With more than 70 years of animated movie film history behind us, it may be easy for modern audiences to scoff at the critics of that era who dubbed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs “Disney’s Folly,” thinking that audiences wouldn’t be able to sit through a 90-minute cartoon or that they would get headaches from all the colors on screen. In one of the bonus features, the late great Frank Thomas admits that even he was rather skeptical at the time. Still, it seems that those naysayers could at least claim ignorance more credibly than the modern day analysts and executives that believe there is no audience for hand-drawn animation today. Luckily, Snow White continues to prove itself a most elegant counter-argument to the negativists, past and present, and Disney has done a stellar job of repackaging this classic for a new generation to fall in love with its charms.
All images © Disney. All rights reserved. Images may not accurately reflect high-definition presentation on the Blu-ray disc.