The classic Disney style is sometimes dismissed as cutesy-poo. That wasn’t the reaction when Walt Disney released this, his first feature, following a decade of cartoon shorts that pioneered the imaginative use and sound and color. As they watched Snow White succumb to the poison apple proffered by the witch who was also her stepmother, children literally wet the seats of movie palaces, such was the primal anguish that stabbed their young years. Disney features were often the first films kids saw — and the first that forced them to confront the loss of home, parent, life. (Bambi’s mother is what?) These were horror movies with songs, Greek tragedies with a hummable chorus. They offered shock therapy to 4-year-olds, and that psychic jolt could last a lifetime.
Making an animated feature might have been the next logical step after the studio’s Oscar-winning shorts Flowers and Trees, The Three Little Pigs and The Tortoise and the Hare. But in 1934, when the project took real shape, Snow White was called “Walt’s folly”: a gamble of $1.5 million, one of the highest production budgets of the ’30s. The movie took three years to make, with David Hand as supervising director and Perce Pearce, Larry Morey, William Cottrell, Wilfred Jackson and Ben Sharpsteen in charge of individual sequences. When Walt’s wife Lillian Disney saw it, she told him, “No one’s ever gonna pay a dime to see a dwarf picture.” She underestimated the universal yearning for a fairy tale that was both grim and grand, not to mention the appeal of the Frank Churchill–Leigh Harline songs (“Some Day My Prince Will Come,” “Heigh-Ho,” “Whistle While You Work”) that would crawl into 100 million memories and stay there as the best of friends.
The movie was a smash: the top-grossing film of 1938 and, in real dollars, the 10th biggest money earner of all time. Much of that loot was earned in reissues, every seven years for the next half-century, with zillions more in home-video revenue. Parents don’t buy Snow White as a relic of antique animation; they want their kids to experience the wonder and terror they once felt — the elemental emotions that all movies should aspire to evoke.
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