Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Diamond Edition (US - BD RA)
Gabe enjoys the DVD and the two bonus Blu-ray discs. Wait, that's not right...
Hershel Gordon Lewis, the innovator behind the first splatter movies, was once quoted as saying: ‘I've often referred to Blood Feast as a Walt Whitman poem. It's no good, but it was the first of its type.’ So often this statement holds true in cases of art and entertainment. The rule is largely broken by Walt Disney’s first feature length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which is easily recognizable as a successful work of entertainment art. However, Snow White definitely does not have the makings of true timelessness in its technical execution. It looks like a stepping stone, and anyone that tells you otherwise is blinded by their love for the film. If I were to be humourlessly critical of the film I’d point out the film’s total lack of narrative involvement, or character roundness...
You know what, this is boring. I could lavish Snow White with praise, or dissect it into oblivion in some kind of misguided attempt to garner attention as an internet critic, but we’re talking about one of the most enduringly popular films of all time. There’s nothing I can bring to the table in this regard. I rather briefly continue the thread I started with my Pinocchio Blu-ray review, that of the often overlooked straight horror elements of the film. After decades of service Disney’s product has been distilled to relative family friendliness, but throughout the studio’s history many of the best of these animated films have featured genuinely diabolical, macabre, and occasionally downright perverse elements. Starting with the first of the studio’s Silly Symphony shorts, The Skeleton Dance, Disney animators took many cues from German expressionist filmmakers, and embraced the frightful delights of Universal’s Monsters. Snow White is much more expressionistically frightening than Pinocchio, which embraces horrifying ideas as much as images, but features plenty of healthy nightmare fuel.
The film’s second scene in which Snow White is set loose into the woods by her would be assassin is the best example of Disney’s ability to encapsulate the genuine terror that devolves the best of us into sniveling babies, and is generally speaking the film’s best moment from a pure artistic standpoint. The scene is a blur of obvious reality and obvious fantasy, as mundane branches become grasping fingers, and leafless trees sport gaping maws and piercing eyes. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the scene is the total confusion of natural geography. In a matter of seconds Snow White, and in turn the audience, becomes entirely lost in the nightmarish woods. In one shot she drops through the floor of the forest, as if descending into hell itself. The backgrounds cut from warm to black as the descent continues, and only returns to light after Snow White has collapsed in utter exhaustion. Despite the stylistic flourishes, the scene largely encapsulates the actual experience of becoming lost through a child’s eyes, and the scene has been indelibly burned into the minds of many a youthful, first time viewer.
Following this the film is pretty much a light hearted lark, concerning itself with Snow White’s house cleaning, the dwarfs introduction, and the dwarfs dinner preparation (not exactly riveting drama), but eventually the wicked Queen is reintroduced, and quickly transforms into the evil witch. Any scene featuring the Witch begs comparison with James Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein stylistically, and the Witch herself occasionally directly apes Béla Lugosi’s Dracula. The commentary track that comes with this new release verifies that the artists and animators were, in fact, inspired by Whale, Tod Browning, F.W. Murnau, and Robert Wiene when creating the film’s more frightening sequences. Disney had two clear advantages over horror’s expressionistic and gothic forefathers, those of colour and the purity of physically drawn shadows and characters. Colour wouldn’t be used regularly in straight horror filmmaking for decades (the genre was seen as unworthy by most studios), and more animation doesn’t require special effects. Thus Snow White was able to show a bubbling vat of unspecified evil brew engulf an apple, then drip off in a skull shape. One assumes that if he had the ability Murnau would’ve preferred this kind of control over his cinematography and optical effects. The commentary also verifies that the British censors found the film too frightening. In the UK the film was cut, and apparently given a somewhat restrictive rating.
I should be more surprised by this new 1080p transfer considering Snow White’s vintage. It’s a really damn old movie, it should probably look like one. But this is Disney we’re talking about, and Snow White is the studio’s flagship title. If history has taught me anything it’s that I can count on Disney to take care of their most popular films, and to continuously change copyright law. Anyway, the film, which is presented in it’s original 1.33:1 framing (remember, widescreen wasn’t used at the time), looks just about perfect, even more than expected. The Sleeping Beauty disc looks better overall, but the comparable shortcomings are almost all specific to that film’s use of colour and straight lines. This transfer is more easily compared to the recent Pinocchio Blu-ray release. Both discs look as good as physically possible, outside of digitally repainting every frame, which would suck.
The detail levels here are so perfect we can make out the pen scratches, the brush strokes, and the dirt on the cells. We can make out the differences between cells and background. We can tell the difference between stacked cells and single cells, and even tell which cells are set atop the stack. This level of detail could be seen as a disaster for those that require perfection in their animation, but those of us that respect elbow grease should be happy. Colours are vibrant and incredibly pure. The backgrounds feature deep blacks that aren’t found on the moving parts, but the straight hues of the cells are breathtaking, and the total lack of bleeding or perversion is incredible. The magic mirror effect is the only noticeable sample of possible digital noise. I thought I was catching minor compression blocking in some of the solid colours, but I quickly realized that I was seeing brush strokes and cell dirt. The occasional flutters of non-perfection appear to have everything to do with minor errors made during the original cell photography. The details aren’t entirely consistent throughout the print, and the problem doesn’t look like it’s related to specific print damage, as the inconsistency reoccurs when specific angles are reiterated. Usually these brief shots feature slight issues with edge doubling or focus inconsistencies.
The Disney studio’s audio engineers usually have an uncanny ability to mix the oldest mono-mixes into effective, modern surround mixes. This new DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track is not the studio’s strongest hi-def surround remix. Unlike the impeccable Sleeping Beauty DTS-HD mix the surround and stereo elements don’t blend into the otherwise centric mix as smoothly. The music is the most aggressive surround and stereo element, and when the centric dialogue and effects come back into the mix the otherwise well spaced music somewhat awkwardly smoothes back into the middle. Some of the sound effects seem to have been updated, which sounds slightly off if you’re aiming to hear the difference, and the added LFE is a little silly at points. This is a case of the studio lining up impossible expectations, even with their Pinocchio mix, which was also taken from a mono original track. The original dialogue elements sound their age for the most part. There’s a little bit of high end distortion, and the overall clarity is a bit muffled. Usually the vocal performances during the singing bits are noticeably clearer, likely due to better upkeep, as the film’s musical soundtrack has been sold and resold for generations now. Music is the most important element, and despite some awkward cuts, the score has been perfectly preserved. The musical clarity is almost life like, as if the symphony has been shrunk and crammed into the player.
A friend suggested I watch the film in Spanish, so I took a few samples throughout the film. Besides the fact that I’m impressed with the new 5.1 Spanish mix, I’m impressed with the naturalism of the vocals, which are actually a bit clearer than the English track.
Snow White is being offered in a veritable cornucopia of styles. The copy I got was somewhat misleadingly labeled as a DVD version with a ‘bonus’ Blu-ray. It comes in a standard DVD box. I’ve seen cover art offered in a Blu-ray box that refers to the DVD as the bonus disc. The Blu-ray on this release cannot be counted as the bonus because the new extras, and original featurettes are almost all exclusively found on the set’s second Blu-ray disc. The DVD features no exclusive content.
The first Blu-ray, which features an occasionally amusing, deadpan mirror host, starts with a commentary track made up of various audio interviews Walt Disney himself, with animation expert John Canemaker acting as a moderator. The audio quality of the interviews is occasionally pretty muddy, but a surprising number of Walt’s stories aren’t reiterated elsewhere on the jam-packed collection. From a completests’ point of view the track is valuable. Canemaker’s commentary is rarely even a little spontaneous, but the obviously edited information comes hard and fast between Disney’s more rambling bits, and the moderator’s foundation filling is equally valuable.
Under the ‘Backstage Disney’ tab starts with ‘ Snow White Returns’ (8:45, HD). Apparently while culling the archives for Blu-ray extras someone happened upon a series of images and notes that seemed to reveal the intent for a Snow White sequel. This is a reconstruction of storyboards, mixed with parts of scenes deleted from the original film, which were possibly going to be used for the proposed sequel (more likely someone was trying to find a way to use the deleted footage). The two deleted scenes, ‘Soup Eating’ (4:00, HD) and ‘Bed Building’ (6:30, HD), presented as rough pencil animation follow, and close out the section. This is followed by a pop music video for ‘Someday My Prince will Come’ by Tiffany Thornton, and a collection of interactive games – ‘Mirror Mirror on the Wall’ (apparently my inner princess is Snow White), ‘What Do You See?’, ‘Jewel Jumble’ and ‘Scene Stealer’.
The first disc also features a few Disney trailers, and a special sneak peek at The Princess and the Frog (all in HD). The sneak peek features the first eight minutes of the film, some of it in final colour, and some of it in unfinished black and white. I’m rooting for the film as the studio’s first 2D animation in a very long time, and it appears that the writers aren’t afraid to push into some socially uncomfortable areas.
Disc two features all the additional Blu-ray extras. The bulk of the disc is devoted to an interactive look at Disney’s original Hyperion Studios, hosted by various modern studio personalities, and film historians. There’s a whole freakin’ lot of stuff here, including featurettes, sound clips and images found in various sub-menus (the story room, the music room, the art department, character design, background and layout, the animation department, live action reference, the sweatbox, ink and paint, the camera department, the sound stage, and Walt’s office). Despite the pretty, hi-def menus I recommend going to the index section, which allow the viewer to cut straight to the meat without the need to hunt and peck for the clips, all of which are presented in high definition video and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. It’s probably important to note that this is the first home video high definition availability of some of the Silly Symphony shorts – including Babes in the Woods, The Skeleton Dance, Music Land, Goddess of Spring, Playful Pluto, Flowers and Trees, The Old Mill, and the one that really started it all, Steamboat Willie.
There are dozens of brief featurettes (begging for a ‘play all’ option), and even a deleted scene presented in pencil sketch mode, but the chunkiest bits of info-meat include:
- ‘How it all Began’ (12:00, HD), a brief documentary look at Hyperion’s history, and the studio’s technological advances (sound, colour, multi-plain camera, etc).
- ‘The One That Started it All’ (17:00, HD), a brief look at the historical significance of Snow White as the first feature length animated film.
- A series of story meeting audio reenactments including ‘In Walt’s Words: The Huntsman’ (3:20, HD), ‘Walt’s Words: Cleaning the House’ (7:00, HD), ‘In Walt’s Words: The Dwarfs’ (6:00, HD).
- ‘The Music of Snow White’ (6:20, HD), a look at the Silly Symphony shorts, and their lead up to Disney’s first feature.
- ‘Creating the World of Snow White’ (7:00, HD), a look at the production and art design, and the main artistic influences.
- ‘Setting the Stage’ (4:00, HD), a technical look at the layout process.
- ‘Bringing Snow White to Life’ (11:30, HD), a look at the intricacies of the film’s animation as it pertains to each lead animator.
- ‘Decoding the Exposure Sheets’ (6:50, HD), an exploration of the technical camera work.
The disc also features a number of the original DVD release’s extras. ‘Animation Voice Talents’ (6:20, SD) explores the film’s vocal cast, and includes a few photos and video interviews with the cast members. ‘Disney Through the Decades’ (SD/HD) is brief, but it traces the success of the studio throughout the ages quite efficiently, and features the various Snow White trailers. The featurette has been altered to include the latest decade. The disc is completed with ‘Dopey’s Wild Mine Ride Game’ and a karaoke version of ‘Heigh-Ho’.
To sum up my insistence on placing emphasis on the more macabre elements of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, I direct your attention to the dwarfs’ reaction to Snow White’s death. They don’t even go home to check on the poor girl, instead they thunder off to capture the Witch at the behest of the forest animals. One can only assume what they would’ve done had they got their hands on her before God himself knocked her off a cliff with a well placed lightning bolt. I won’t go in to the grotesque implications of the glass coffin Snow White is placed in since the original story features the same element. It’s also probably interesting to note that Dario Argento has regularly cited Snow White as a major influence on Suspiria.
This new Blu-ray collection features a bevy of new and exciting behind the scenes extras, all presented in glorious high definition video, and the video quality is a definitive upgrade over the already fine looking DVD release. The audio isn’t perfect, but is solid enough to not garner any real complaints. Consumers should take care to not be tricked by the various packaging. Those looking only to purchase a DVD copy should really avoid the package marked as featuring a ‘bonus’ Blu-ray, as almost all the new extras are devoted to the second Blu-ray disc, not the DVD.
Review by Gabriel Powers
All ages admitted
Release Date: 6th October 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, DTS 5.1 Spanish, DTS 5.1 French, Dolby Mono English
Subtitles: English SDH, French and Spanish
Extras: Walt Disney Commentary, Music Video, Games, Snow White Returns, Hyperion Studios Featurettes, Image Galleries, Disney Through the Decades, Sing-Along, Princess and the Frog Sneak Peek, Trailers, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: David Hand, Walt Disney
Cast: Adriana Caselotti, Roy Atwell, Lucille LaVerne
Length: 84 minutes