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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

(1937) **** G
83 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Directors: David Hand, Perce Pearce (II), William Cottrell (II). Cast: Adriana Caselotti, Harry Stockwell, Lucille LaVerne, Billy Gilbert, Otis Harlan.

/content/films/3588/1.jpgOkay, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—Walt Disney's take on the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale—may not have much of a plot, what's there is corny, and the gender roles are indubitably regressive, with its heroine an airy Happy Homemaker content to clean and cook her way into men's hearts. But Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is also one of the most important films in the history of popular cinema, and film fans must never forget the incredible achievement it was in 1937. It was—and remains—an astonishingly beautiful work on an aesthetic level, with transcendent hand-drawn animation wiping away any narrative quibbles. It also works on another level, as a primal tale melding dream and nightmare visions that unsettle before reaching a reassuring resolution of order. To keep the dread at bay, Disney and his cohorts wove in music and comedy, delivering the now-classic tunes "Whistle While You Work," "Heigh-Ho," and "Some Day My Prince Will Come," among others. The result is a classic movie with an enduring ability to thrill and inspire.

In 1937, of course, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the opposite of a sure bet. The Hollywood trade papers called it "Disney's Folly," a mad idea to fix what wasn't broken (Disney's hugely popular animated short subjects, many starring Mickey Mouse) by offering the public something it didn't even know it wanted: the world's first full-length cel-animated feature. This nearly unprecedented notion required a huge leap of faith on Disney's part, but he pursued his vision relentlessly, overseeing the development of bold new technology (the multiplane camera adding depth of field), working his staff round the clock, and throwing nearly $1.5 million at the production over a period of three years. The completed film is full of wondrous paintings come to life in rich Technicolor, establishing a high water mark for animation that not even Disney would be able to replicate in full. The film's beauty and eye-popping novelty, its storybook simplicity of spirit, its intense dramatic flourishes, robust comedy and peppy music (seven songs mostly composed by Frank Churchill, with lyrics by Larry Morey) powered a runaway hit in theaters that has never stopped raking in profits for the house the Mouse built.

For its flaws, the story remains indelible, too. Snow White (Adriana Caselotti), a princess poorly hidden under rags, has recently blossomed into young adult beauty: now she's the fairest of them all. When a Magic Mirror (Moroni Olsen) brings this fact to light, the evil Queen (Lucille La Verne)—also Snow White's stepmother—orders a Huntsman (Stuart Buchanan) in her charge to kill the girl. At the moment of truth, the Huntsman cannot carry out his task; rather, he implores Snow White to run away into the Enchanted Forest. There, she charms seven short miners into allowing her to become their den mother, but she can't run from the Queen forever... Eight screenwriters elegantly boiled the Grimm Brothers tale to its dramatic essence and then teased out the potential for physical comedy in the seven dwarfs. In an ingenious stroke, Disney grafted distinct personality traits onto the untidy bachelor miners, making them Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey. Together they form a comic spectrum of qualities, from relatively smart to blissed-out innocence. In his mute mischief, Dopey resembles no one so much as Harpo Marx. The film also sets precedent for animated features with its coterie of woodland wildlife harmoniously sharing time with the human characters.

Snow White's piercing purity and sunny optimism beg to be branded naivete, except that she's always right. Through force of will, she always gets her happy ending in any situation, a promise culminating in the pre-feminist kicker of her long-dreamed-for princely rescue. Mitigating the film's emphasis on Snow White's beauty is her utter disinterest in it; annoyingly, she seems not even to notice it. Thus, the Queen's unhappy obsession with beauty betrays the wrongheadedness of superficiality. Admittedly, Snow White and her handsome Prince (Harry Stockwell) might as well be Barbie and Ken—with swift mutual affection based seemingly on genetic instinct—but the film's final image of the duo smiling and walking toward an unearthly, shining castle on a hill implies an overriding value of happiness, a spiritual reward rather than a basely sexual or financial one. The Queen torturously covets her desires; Snow White and her spiritual cousin Dopey serenely open themselves to every possibility. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs celebrates purity of essence, from the white noise that is the leading lady to Dopey's dopey love of life to that castle in the sky.

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Aspect ratios: 1.33:1

Number of discs: 3

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1; Dolby Digital Original Mo

Street date: 10/6/2009

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Gift sets aside, Disney's brand-new 2009 Diamond Edition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves comes in two basic packages, each containing the same three discs: two Blu-ray discs with a high-def presentation of the film and brand-new bonus content, and a DVD disc with upgraded picture quality—in a standard-definition transfer—and a few extras repeated in standard def (Blu-ray converts can choose the Blu-ray case version; those who still prefer DVD can choose the DVD-sized keepcase). A third 2-Disc DVD version comes out over a month later, and will presumably offer more of the new bonus content in standard definition for those without Blu-ray capability. The gift set variants include a hardcover book, plush dolls and the like.

So the question is whether or not to upgrade: as a Blu-ray convert, I say yes, but if you're a content DVD collector, your current Snow White discs will probably suffice despite the improvement in picture quality. That said, Disney's commitment to doubling up Blu-ray and DVD in fairly priced combo packs is a shrewd move to encourage upgrades and offer flexibility of playback.

Blu-ray Disc One offers two spectacular versions of the film in its high-def debut: the original 4:3 presentation or a DisneyView presentation that fills in widescreen HDTVs with custom paintings by Toby Bluth framing the original square-ish image. I still prefer the untouched 4:3 version, but the DisneyView take is very tasteful in its storybook style. The picture quality is outstanding: spotless and rich in color and detail. Black level and contrast are spot on, and the image looks natural and lovingly preserved. It's impossible for me to imagine the picture looking any better than it does in this marvelous transfer. Audio comes in two forms: a restored Original Mono Track (in Dolby Digital) and a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 that subtly lifts the original elements into state-of-the-art surround sound. I'm sure fans will be suitably impressed with the results, but kudos to Disney for providing the original mono soundtrack as an audio option.

The Diamond Edition retains the excellent audio commentary by film historian John Canemaker, whose scholarly observations share time with nicely contextualized interview clips of Walt Disney.

New to this edition is "The Princess and the Frog Sneak Peek" (7:45, HD), with the directing team of John Musker and Ron Clements giving a glimpse behind the scenes and introducing an excerpt of the film.

Backstage Disney: Diamond Edition kicks off with "Snow White Returns" (8:44, HD), in which Disney producer Don Hahn takes us into the Disney Animation Research Library to show us story sketches from a sequel considered not long after the original film.

Deleted Scenes include "Soup Eating Sequence" (4:07, HD) and "Bed Building Sequence" (6:28, HD), both presented in their original pencil-sketch animation.

Music & More features the music video "'Some Day My Prince Will Come' by Tiffany Thornton" (3:34, HD), while Family Play: Games & Activities lines up the kid-friendly features Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, What Do You See?, Jewel Jumble, and Scene Stealer (BD-Live).

Blu-ray Disc Two's Backstage Disney: Diamond Edition section features a fantastic new treasure trove from the Disney Archives. The Hyperion Studios (HD) feature begins with a faux newsreel constructed from vintage film footage of the premiere. That's chased by an intro from Pixar's Andrew Stanton, who explains the interactive tour of Disney's original Hyperion Studios: room-by-room access including rare vintage audio interviews with Disney employees and clickable objects that lead to classic Disney shorts and featurettes on historical aspects of production. Included in this tour are galleries of abandoned concepts, storyboards, visual development, character design, color tests, backgrounds, layout, animation art, live action reference, painted cells, publicity and production photos. The short films presented in HD include the original Silly Symphony "Skeleton Dance," the Silly Symphones "Babes in the Woods," "Music Land," "The Goddess of Spring," "Flowers and Trees," and "The Old Mill," and the shorts "Steamboat Willie" and "Playful Pluto." From Snow White, there's the "Deleted Bedroom Fight Scene" (2:26, HD). Also turning up on the tour: Musker, Clements, Disney supervising animator Andreas Deja, supervising animator Eric Goldberg, art director Michael Giaimo, and Disney historian Paula Sigman, among others. Those who find the interactive-tour navigation bothersome can instead use a handy index menu to access any of the galleries, featurettes, and films.

"The One That Started It All" (17:15, HD) is a "Doc" on the making of Snow White that likewise makes terrific use of archival photos and footage. Interviewees include film historian Brian Sibley, composer Michael Giacchino, author/animation historian John Canemaker, Goldberg, Musker, author Neal Gabler, Sigman, Clements, and Snow White talents including assistant animator Marc Davis, art director Ken Anderson, animator Ward Kimball, animator Woolie Reitherman, animator Frank Thomas, assistant animator Ollie Johnston, and animator Grim Natwick.

Original DVD features include "Animation Voice Talent" (6:21, SD), an overview of the cast; "Disney Through the Decades," a forty-minute historical overview of the Disney studio that also gathers trailers and reissue trailers (new HD footage with John Ratzenberger bookends the old DVD feature); Dopey's Wild Mine Ride game; and "Heigh-Ho" as a sing-along and a karaoke number.

The third disc is a DVD with the film in standard def, commentary, Tiffany Thornton music video, and Princess and the Frog sneak peek.

The set is BD-Live enabled for access to additional online content.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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