“Magic Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”
Years ago a news magazine, I don’t remember which, conducted a survey. They discovered that more adults knew the names of the 7 Dwarfs than could name 7 figures in the federal government, including President, Vice-President, Senate, House of Representatives, and The Supreme Court. They say our educations begin very young. Well, since 1937 our youths have been entertained by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Uncle Walt knew he had an artistic talent early in his life. He was originally determined to become a commercial artist. But one fateful day he saw a newspaper ad in a Kansas City paper for a company then called The Kansas City Slide Company. Walt got the job. The marketing firm was making theater ads that consisted mostly of stop motion films. It was there, at just 18 years old, that Walt Disney heard his true calling. He soon formed his own company which was called Laugh-O-Grams. It was there that he developed his first fairy tale short on Cinderella. By 1923 Walt had developed a method of combining live action shots with his animation. This first effort, Alice’s Fishy Story would be a breakthrough release. Later a character called Oswald The Lucky Rabbit would lead to the creation of an American icon… Mickey Mouse. The mouse would appear in the very first film ever to feature fully synchronized sound, Steamboat Willie. From that point on, Walt and his stable of elite animators and technicians would revolutionize animation and the motion picture industry time and time again for decades, until his death. The studio that bears his name continues the tradition today. Now let’s go back to some of those roots.
“Over the seven jeweled hills, beyond the seventh fall, in the cottage of the Seven Dwarfs, dwells Snow White, fairest of them all.”
The legacy of Walt Disney and the studio he created requires little explanation. The studio invented the idea of a feature length cartoon and has been on the cutting edge of animation since the 1930’s. No other studio can claim ownership of as many animated classics as Disney. From Mickey Mouse to Pixar, the studio has churned out one masterpiece after another for over 60 years. What tends to get lost in this great body of feature length classics is that the studio was also producing some very high quality shorts over these years. Whether it’s Disney favorites like Mickey, Donald, Minnie, or Goofy or it’s strictly one-off characters gathered to tell a wonderfully animated story, Disney has a record that simply hasn’t and likely will never be matched.
Over the last year or so it has been my pleasure to revisit so many of the Disney classics as they make their way to high definition and Blu-ray releases. I’ll admit that Snow White has not been one of my favorites of the Disney classics. It’s a romantic story at its core and much more suited for the young girls than the young boys. As a child I can’t recall being all that entertained by the story. But isn’t it funny that even though I never much cared for and certainly couldn’t relate to the story, there is so much of the film that is as much a part of my memory as it is ingrained in our pop culture. Everything from the dwarfs themselves to the poisoned apple and the phrase recounted above has its roots deeply imbedded in our collective consciousness. Not a bad trick for what many critics at the time thought would be a boondoggle and nothing more than an over ambitious children’s cartoon. Of course, not many people were saying that once the film was released.
“Now, a formula to transform my beauty into ugliness. Change my queenly raiment to a peddler’s cloak. Mummy dust, to make me old. To shroud my clothes, the black of night. To age my voice, an old hag’s cackle. To whiten my hair, a scream of fright. A blast of wind to fan my hate. A thunderbolt to mix it well. Now, begin thy magic spell.”
When you think about it, Uncle Walt put the world under a spell with his own concoction of celluloid, ink, and pixie dust. Snow White was the very first full length animated feature to hit the theaters. It was a risky move for a young fledging studio. Still, Walt Disney believed he was on to something. Today we take such releases for granted, and some have gone on to became major blockbuster successes. Consider the world of the time:
There were no animated movies. Cartoons were the silly little diversions intended mostly for children and social commentary. The world was slowly recovering from the worst economic depression in modern times. Europe was reeling from the war machine that was Nazi Germany. And Uncle Walt decided the time was ripe for a full length animated feature. He knew that the film had to have a familiarity right from the start, and so the Disney tradition of using well known tales had begun. The project that was in circles dubbed “Walt’s Gamble” paid off big time. It was the highest grossing film of the year. It pulled in an astonishing $66 million, which was the most any film had made in a year to that date. The profits were enough alone for Disney to build the current Disney Studios in Burbank. There can be little doubt that Snow White is one of the industry’s most important films of all time. It was also the first film to release a separate soundtrack recording.
I feel like I would be insulting your intelligence to recount the tale. Truth be told, I couldn’t do it any better than Uncle Walt did it 70 years ago. Whether you know the story or not, whether you like the story or not, it is part of the modern human experience to see it at least once. Now Disney has given you no more excuses. In just one release you can own the film in either DVD or Blu-ray. I highly recommend the Blu-ray, but whatever technology your home currently possesses, let Snow White and her musical 7 Dwarfs possess your home’s technology … at least once (upon a time).
Snow White is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio of 1.33:1. On the surface it might be hard for you to accept a high definition release in full frame. Disney has anticipated your reluctance. Some of you don’t like the black bars on the sides. Some of you have monitors that are susceptible to screen burn, so you don’t like having them there. You now have something called Disney View, which fills that space with paintings that perfectly frame the center action. I thought they would be distracting, and in a couple of rare occasions they were. Once or twice center movement pointed out the obviously stationary side panels. Most of the time they were invisible as I watched the film. Once in a while they actually enhanced the experience. Some reviewers might wish to cast insult upon you for using them. I say use them, if you wish. I did. As for the picture itself: You’re going to be amazed at the quality of this 70 year old image. It’s presented in full 1080p through a solid AVC/MPEG-4 codec. I was astonished at the depth and brilliance of this picture. Colors are simply outstanding and bright. Detail is at a level I still find hard to believe when you consider the age, because you don’t have to consider the age. This stands up to modern image specs completely. You will be hard pressed to find a flaw in the print or the transfer.
The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track does everything you could ask it to do. If you’re a purist, the original Mono track is available here as well. I loved the Master Audio track, however. While it doesn’t provide a ton of surrounds, because it shouldn’t, the film feels bigger than it used to. I could sense a great response from my subs. The crew here managed to bring in a fullness without screwing around with the audio placement. Dialog is very clear at all times. Thunderous sounds exist without covering up other important elements. It’s a perfect balance of maintaining the original experience and making it feel bigger. Job well done.
As I’ve already mentioned, you get both the single DVD and the 2-disc Blu-ray with this release.
Disc 1 contains the film and the audio commentary. You’ll also find the following:
Snow White Returns: (8:44) HD Take a trip to the Disney archives where you never know what you’ll turn up. This time you’ll find evidence that Uncle Walt was considering a Snow White sequel entitled Snow White Returns. The feature shows you storyboards and a title card. There is also evidence that two deleted sequences from the original film were planned for the follow-up project. Pretty cool stuff.
Deleted Scenes: There are two scenes cut from the original film. One involved a musical number while the dwarfs ate their soup. The second involved a bed making project. The first scene is fully animated, but only through crude sketches. The second incorporates storyboards.
Disc 2 contains a very complicated series of features under the heading Hyperion Studios. The name is derived from the first Disney Studio location on Hyperion Drive. This is where Snow White was created.
I have good news and bad news to report here:
First the good news:
There are nearly 50 separate features here that explore everything from the early days working with Walt and the original “Old Men” to the production of this first animated feature. The vintage footage and interviews alone make this one of the most valuable features I’ve ever encountered in 10 years of doing reviews. You will really get an up-close view of Uncle Walt himself. It’s a very intimate and educational collection of features. If you’re a Disney fan, this is like hitting the mother lode. Participants range from those involved in the early days of Disney to the current generation of animators at Pixar who talk about this history with the reverence and respect it so richly deserves. There is literally hours of wonderful things here for a lifetime of enjoyment.
Now the bad news:
In all of my years I have never encountered a more complicated and convoluted system of presenting these extras. Disney has always had a knack for overcomplicating these menus, but they’ve developed a system that Indiana Jones wouldn’t easily unlock.
First of all the pieces are too numerous. There are no play all functions, and it takes a ton of navigating to watch it all.
Second of all, the system is not very intuitive. Yes, a cheat sheet is provided, but the master menu does not immediately become available and honestly, I’m still not sure how I ever found it.
Third of all, you must watch a series of “news reels” before you even get to make a choice. That may be fine the first time, but it gets old pretty quick with multiple viewings.
Fourth of all, the features have no time code, so it’s impossible to judge where you are for reference or even managing your watching time. That also means that for those of you with players that have location memories, they won’t work during these features.
Fifth of all, I could not use fast foreward or more importantly rewind during many of the features without getting kicked back to a menu. That means there’s no going back if you missed a comment.
Sixth of all, you can’t turn off the closed captions on many features. That’s fine if you need them, but a nuisance if you don’t.
Plea to Disney: This stuff is too precious to be missed. It deserves to be seen. You really need to find an easier way to do this. There is absolutely no reason at all to be this complex. There is no need to be so clever. You ended up outsmarting yourself. I love you guys to death, but please take a step backwards.
Final note: This release is intended to get the average consumer into the Blu-ray market. All you’re going to do is scare them away when they find out how complex your system is. Most discs aren’t near that complicated, folks. So, do stick with the format.
To help you check out the extras, here are a few cool links to the material:
Blu-ray and high definition has done more than just deliver quality films in much better detail. Walt Disney has taken the next logical step in the evolution of home entertainment. They are using the releases as a way to build a common archive system that allows the average person to watch their childhood memories like they’ve never been able to before. But you also get to have that precious piece of Disney history to keep as well. Just think of all of the innovations that came out of such a small studio at the time. Soundtrack recordings, feature animation, storyboard process, traveling mattes, and the integration of live action and animation which was the first step toward sophisticated special f/x processes. And it’s all yours to own and access at any time, if you have the PhD education required to crack the menu code, that is. This is a very important release and should be required for anyone who claims to be a videophile. Let’s just hope Disney fixes the menu problem and we’ll all “live happily ever after”.