Disney storytelling is timeless and renowned. Just about everyone alive on the planet at this point has lived in an era of Disney’s brand of imagination and innovation. Their stories are immortal, surviving the generations and eras of change and progress. Part of that is due to their simplicity and accessibility through themes and characters that transcend time, and part of it is due to the formulaic nature of their creation. Most present in Disney’s library of narratives are their animated feature films, which began in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The picture would serve as the first use of technical innovations that became standard Disney practice moving forward, but the film’s story and characters also established a framework for Disney pictures of the future.
Disney animated films of today still work on the basic approach established in Snow White. Roger Ebert writes, “The most important continuing element is the use of satellite and sidekick characters, minor and major, serious and comic. A frame is not allowed for long to contain only a single character, long speeches are rare, musical and dance numbers are frequent, and the central action is underlined by the bit characters, who mirror it or react to it.”
He notes that Snow White isn’t so much a story about Snow White, but about those seven dwarfs she lives with and that evil queen who complicates everyone’s lives. Snow White herself is fairly dull. The folks around her bring the story to life.
Think to future Disney films and the mandatory role supplemental players have on the stories. What would Aladdin (1992) be without The Genie or Abu? Or The Lion King (1994) without Timon & Pumbaa? The Little Mermaid (1989) without Sebastien and Flounder? Frozen (2013) without Olaf? Beauty and the Beast (1991) without Lumière, Cogsworth, or Mrs. Potts? Toy Story (1995) without… everyone other than Buzz and Woody? Many of these characters are the first ones that come to mind when we think of these films, even before the characters the stories are actually about. Nowhere is that truer than Snow White, the film which started the tradition of necessary second players.
Disney characters also embody their personalities. They aren’t just visually comic goofs—they have a distinct way of physically and emotionally expressing who they are. Snow White’s dwarfs embody their names, which is the most conceivably direct introduction of such a concept. Sneezy sneezes, Bashful is bashful. But each garners their own sympathy and appeal with the viewer, rendering them as true characters and not just sidekicks or props for the material. They aren’t just there, they are there. They do something for the story and for the hero.
Snow White also establishes Disney’s fascination with animals, and their frequent ability to transcend the limitations of their species. Disney films show an endless appreciation for animals—after all, the company’s entire legacy was founded on the back of a charming bipedal mouse. Snow White finds friends in chipmunks and critters. Later, Sleeping Beauty feels most at home in the forest. Cinderella has birds who help her get dressed. And entire films, like The Lion King, The Rescuers (1977), and Lady and the Tramp (1955), star animals that are more than their species. Some Disney animals even have other animals as pets, like Mickey and Pluto.
All these characters help lighten the mood in what can be pretty dark material churning through the core of Disney narratives.
Overall, Snow White changed everything for animated pictures. It was a technological marvel that revolutionized the way animated films were made, and it started the time-proven construction of Disney animated narratives that is still in use today. There is a reason Disney has a trademark on storytelling that has been a part of decades of people’s lives, and it all started with Snow White.