Every story has a beginning and every empire has an origin. While some origin stories may be built on great romance and legends, others arise from the humblest of places. In the case of the massive pop cultural giant that is Walt Disney Studios, it all began not just with a mouse but a very special princess.
December 21st marks the 80th anniversary of the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), not only the first in the line of Disney’s animated films but a tremendously historically significant work of art. The first feature-length animated film ever made, Snow White launched the Magic Kingdom into a continued success that has seldom slowed down since.
Indeed for many of us, it would seem difficult to imagine a time when Disney was not at the forefront of great animated filmmaking, yet 80 years ago the future of animation was anything but certain. Walt Disney was truly one of the great visionaries of his time and though he was filled with innovative ideas, he knew very well the risks involved in creating art forms that had never been attempted.
Founded in 1923, The Walt Disney Studios was founded on the idea of creating animated features, a newly emerging style that yet to find widespread public approval. But as he was famous for, Walt Disney displayed great tenacity and with hard work the fledgling studio produced innovative and groundbreaking advancements in the animated medium.
Steamboat Willie (1928) (the first appearance of Mickey Mouse) was among the first animated shorts to have sound synchronized with the picture and was an immediate success, creating a significant cultural event in its own right. Together with the series of Silly Symphonies shorts (including 1929’s The Skeleton Dance and 1933’s Three Little Pigs) that featured brilliantly timed musical accompaniment to the images, Disney was establishing a name for his Studio as one of the leaders in animation.
But for all these early accomplishments, animation was still viewed as light entertainment that only children could enjoy and that could only hold one’s attention for a short period. Walt Disney wasn’t going to let naysayers define the potentials of animation for him, and by 1934 he knew the time was right to bring these animated shorts to the next inevitable level: a feature-length motion picture.
When he announced to his small group of employees that their next project would be a fully developed movie based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Snow White, the apprehension was evident. Never had this been attempted and the financial risk for the still young Studio was enormous; not only would this be feature-length, it would require nearly four times as many drawings as one short film needed, with painting needed for each film cell and a prolonged sound and in this case a full film score.
More artists would need to be hired to fulfill this monumental task, as well as writers, storyboarders, and composers. When the media caught wind of this project they naturally mocked Disney for his ‘ludicrous’ idea or “Disney’s Folly”. But Disney remained obstinate in his views, not only did he believe this film would succeed but that it would start a revolution.
Aside from the herculean work needed to make this film, another major challenge that even Disney had to admit was how would audiences respond to an 80-minute cartoon? Could he sustain attention to drawn figures for that long and would people accept the product as legitimate? And could he with this film transcend children and create a work that could delight adults just as much?
It took three years of tremendous work and love, but finally Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs had reached completion. On December 21, 1937, the premiere was held at Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles to much fanfare and was as Disney predicted a tremendous success. Produced on a budget of $1.5 million, it would go on to gross over $418 million. Immediately upon its end, the audience in the theatre erupted in a jubilant standing ovation.
What Snow White presented in a narrative sense too was unprecedented; unlike the cartoon shorts this film focused on several characters (not just one or two), had scenes filled to the brim with imagery (the forest, the castle, the dwarfs home etc.), and had a musical score that would greatly accentuate the story. When viewers actually had tears in their eyes at the sight of a presumed dead Snow White, it was the confirmation in the world that drawings could move us just as strongly.
All the sweat and tears put into this film were rightfully justified and just as Disney had stated, the animated revolution had begun. This wasn’t just “kids stuff” it was a visually sumptuous and emotionally rewarding art form that had never looked better then it did with Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs. With this success, there was no going back and other early classics would follow including Pinocchio (1940), Bambi (1942), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959). Now 80 years since Snow White, the Disney Studio has produced 56 animated feature films and counting!
Preserved in the United States Library of Congress for its lasting cultural significance, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is one of the greatest success stories in the history of cinema. Built on a vision and the prospect of tomorrow, Walt Disney, and his associates laid down the foundations for an art form and a cultural juggernaut. Without Snow White, there would be nothing and Disney knew its success could make or break him. Yet even in the face of seeming failure, the Studio made this film, in the hopes that at the very least it would spark off a greater discussion about the potential of animated movies.
And so on this 80th anniversary, let’s all salute the talented men and women who masterfully created this pioneering film and their boss Walt Disney who envisioned it all. A mouse may be its earliest creation, but a princess and her seven protectors began the charge of a pop culture revolution of a magical Studio.