Release Date(s)1937 (October 10, 2023)
Studio(s)Walt Disney Productions/RKO Radio Pictures (Buena Vista Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B+
The character of Mickey Mouse may have helped to establish the Mouse House, but it was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that really laid the foundations for everything else that followed. Since animated feature films have had a ubiquitous presence for nearly a century now, it’s easy to forget just how far out on a limb that Walt Disney was going when he announced the production of Snow White in 1934. Prior to that point, the only previous feature-length animation had been Quirino Cristiani’s lost 1917 film El Apóstol, but that early effort used cardboard cutouts rather than the cel animation that would come to dominate the industry thanks to its greater flexibility and efficiency. Snow White was the first attempt at feature-length animation using this technique, and there was no guarantee that there would be a market for it at all.
Creating animation on this scale was also uncharted territory, so by the time that production finished in 1937, Walt’s estimated $250,000 budget had ballooned to $1.5 million. He had to take out loans and mortgage his house in order to cover all of the expenses, so if Snow White had failed at the box office, the history of animation might have looked quite different than it does today. Yet by the time that the dust had settled, Snow White was a massive hit, pulling in $4.2 million during its initial run, and many times over that when adding in all of the revenue from the multiple theatrical re-releases that would follow. (While adjusting for inflation is a dubious metric, Snow White currently sits at #10 on the all-time domestic box office chart when measured that way.) Disney was also granted a special honorary Oscar at the 11th Academy Awards ceremony in 1939—or rather eight of them, to be precise: one regular-sized statue accompanied by seven smaller ones. Walt’s big gamble paid off big time, and the rest was history.
Of course, Snow White wasn’t merely immensely profitable for Walt Disney Studios. It also helped to lay the template for future Disney animated feature productions, marked by the following elements: stories based on fairy tales or folklore; princesses (literal or otherwise) as protagonists; mixing realistic characters with broad caricatures; anthropomorphized animals; musical numbers; and physical transformations. Some of those elements are far more muted here than they would be in later offerings; for instance, there’s no one quite like Jaq and Gus from Cinderella among Snow White’s animal helpers in this film. The formula was still clear, and Disney would return to it over and over again throughout its history. It’s no accident that when the Disney Renaissance launched in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, it started by returning to all of these comfortable tropes. Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg decided to fix what had been broken by undoing all of the recent fixes for something that had never been broken in the first place.
Mind you, it’s not so much the formula that matters as much as it is the execution. In that regard, Snow White towers above all the rest. Snow White herself remains the ultimate in traditional Disney princesses, and the story that was borrowed from Tale 53 in Grimm’s Fairy Tales is as iconic as can be. Doc, Grumpy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, Happy, and Dopey speak for themselves (even when they can’t), and the Queen is memorably repugnant both before and after her transformation. And the songs from the team of Frank Churchill and Larry Morey? The Little Mermaid may have had catchy numbers like Under the Sea, but Snow White offers not just one but rather four stone-cold classics: I’m Wishing, Whistle While You Work, Heigh-Ho, and Some Day My Prince Will Come. Snow White established the Disney formula not just because it was in the right place at the right time (which it certainly was), but also because it worked that formula so well. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the pale princess is indeed the fairest of them all.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was produced via traditional cel animation and photographed in successive exposure Technicolor on 35 mm film, framed at the Academy Aperture of 1.37:1 for its theatrical release. (Rather than using three separate negatives, every frame was exposed three different times on the same negative with a red, green, and blue color filter applied to each.) Disney has had a troublesome history with bringing their animated classics into the world of High Definition, with many titles having been scrubbed free of any original film grain, and much of the fine detail also vanished during the same process. Their stunning 4K Ultra HD release of Cinderella was a step in the right direction, and I’m happy to report that Snow White continues this welcome trend of genuine respect for the original material. This presentation is sourced from a brand-new restoration utilizing a 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative. The entire process was overseen by Director of Restoration for Walt Disney Studios Kevin Schaeffer, with the final approval of animators Michael Giaimo and Eric Goldberg. High Dynamic Range is offered in HDR10 only on this disc, so if they did create a Dolby Vision grade as well, it will likely be confined to Disney+ (although as of this writing, the 4K version hasn’t yet shown up on the service).
Like Cinderella, the image is immaculately clean, without a trace of damage or any other artifacts aside from those that existed in the original animation—but it’s worth pointing out that those flaws are significant in this case. Snow White was the first and last animated feature film that Disney produced at its Hyperion Studio in Los Angeles, and that facility had climate control issues that resulted in some shrinkage and warping to the cels. It was also the first time that Disney used their relatively new multiplane camera on a production of this scale. As a result, there are focus issues throughout Snow White, as well as some shimmering and wobble between the elements. At times, it almost looks like motion blur was applied, but that’s not the case. It was just deficiencies in the original photography. Thankfully, the fact that Snow White was shot in SE Technicolor means that there aren’t any registration issues between the color separations, but the other flaws are unavoidable and they can’t be fixed without harming the underlying material. Disney has done the right thing here by reproducing all of the various defects accurately.
Photographic flaws or not, in some respects Snow White is an even better candidate for a 4K upgrade than Cinderella was. In both cases, the artwork itself doesn’t necessarily contain 4K worth of fine detail, but the materials that were used do, and that’s the real difference with Snow White. There’s even more texture to the watercolor background paintings here, and they have a lovely tactile quality in 4K. There’s also true detail in all of the brush strokes, as well as in the interaction between pencil and paper. A fine sheen of grain throughout adds to the texture, and while it’s possible that some light grain management was applied, the stock itself was likely as fine-grained as possible to begin with since there’s no need for fast film when shooting animation. There are no compression artifacts, and the bitrate stays between 80mpbs and 100mbps for most of the film.
The color grading on past masters for Snow White haven’t exhibited the same issues that older versions of Cinderella did, but there was still room for improvement, and the new HDR grade provides just that—and then some. Snow White has never been a bright film with vivid colors, but there’s an astonishing range of shades within its palette, and the Wide Color Gamut of HDR renders all of the most minute differences as precisely as possible. The bluebirds, squirrels, deer, and other animals could have all easily been painted with the same brush, but there are subtle differences in coloration to help distinguish them from each other. That’s equally true of the dwarfs. Dopey excepted, most of them wear clothing that mixes and matches similar shades in different combinations, but they’re still not identical colors. For example, watch for the subtle variations in the burgundy between Grumpy and Doc when they’re arguing right after the dwarfs have met Snow White for the first time. With hand-applied inks like these, there are also slight differences from frame to frame even for the same colors, and that effect is reproduced perfectly here instead of being smoothed over like it was on the previous Blu-rays. The production pipeline was greatly streamlined when Disney moved its studio to Burbank following the success of Snow White, but something may have been lost in the process. This is one of the most amazing ink & paint jobs in Disney’s history, and it’s rendered beautifully in 4K. It’s perfect artistry, produced with imperfect animation, all of it replicated perfectly here.
Primary audio is offered in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. The original theatrical mono hasn’t been included, nor has the 7.1 mix from the previous Blu-rays. The 7.1 isn’t much of a loss, since there was minimal surround presence in both 5.1 and 7.1 tracks anyway, but it’s definitely an oversight not to include the original mono. That said, this a restrained 5.1 remix of the original mono music, dialogue, and effects stems, and it retains the essential mono character throughout. Everything is still focused on the front channels in general and the center channel in particular, with the surrounds limited to light ambience and reverberant effects like thunder. There’s been a bit of bass sweetening, so the LFE channel engages during moments like when the Queen first summons the Magic Mirror. The biggest difference is that the remix gives the music more presence, and that’s not a bad thing, although your own mileage may vary. Everything sounds clean, with no noise or significant distortion, although the fidelity is naturally limited by the dated quality of the original recordings. Additional audio options include English 2.0 Descriptive Audio, French & German 5.1 DTS-HD HR, Spanish & Italian 5.1 Dolby Digital, and Japanese 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus. Subtitle options include English SDH, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Japanese.
Disney’s wide release Ultimate Collector’s Edition 4K Ultra HD of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a two-disc set that includes a remastered Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film and a Digital Code on a paper insert tucked inside. There’s also an embossed slipcover that duplicates the 100th anniversary artwork on the insert. (Disney is offering a 3-Disc version via their Disney Movie Club that includes a DVD, making it an honest-to-God quad format release, but it’s otherwise identical to this version.) The extras on the Blu-ray duplicate the package from the 2016 Signature Collection release, which was missing a few items from the preceding 2009 Diamond Edition (more on that later):
- Audio Commentary by Roy E. Disney and John Canemaker, with audio recordings by Walt Disney
- In Walt’s Words: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (HD – 4:22)
- Iconography (HD – 7:16)
- @DisneyAnimation: Designing Disney’s First Princess (HD – 5:16)
- The Fairest Facts of All: 7 Things You May Not Know About Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (HD – 4:37)
- Snow White in Seventy Seconds (HD – 1:12)
- Alternate Sequence: The Prince Meets Snow White (HD – 3:39)
- Disney’s First Feature: The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (HD – 33:15)
- Bringing Snow White to Life (HD – 11:35)
- Hyperion Studios Tour (HD – 30:36)
- Decoding the Exposure Sheet (HD – 6:49)
- Snow White Returns (HD – 8:44)
- Story Meetings: The Dwarfs (HD – 5:51)
- Story Meetings: The Huntsmen (HD – 3:35)
- Deleted Scene: Soup Eating Sequence (HD – 4:07)
- Deleted Scene: Bed Building Sequence (HD – 6:28)
- Animation Voice Talent (SD – 6:20)
- Info (HD – :08)
The commentary was originally recorded and compiled for the 2001 Platinum Edition DVD release of Snow White. It offers an introduction from Roy E. Disney, followed by analysis from animator and historian John Canemaker, interspersed with archival interviews with Walt Disney. It’s not really a scene-specific commentary, although it’s still curated to provide information that’s sometimes relevant to what’s occurring onscreen. Walt provides most of the practical and technical information, while Canemaker is more interested in breaking down the style and themes accompanied by some history. It’s actually a fine track, and a good reminder that having someone sit down and ad-lib while watching a film isn’t always the best approach.
After the commentary, the next six extras were new additions for the 2016 Signature Collection Blu-ray. Despite the similar sounding titles, In Walt’s Words: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs isn’t a picture-in-picture track like In Walt’s Words: The Envisioning of Cinderella. Instead, it’s a just a four-minute compilation of audio-only interviews with Walt Disney about the making of Snow White and its legacy. Alternate Sequence: The Prince Meets Snow White shows a discarded scene where Snow White meets the prince for the first time, using storyboard and other artwork with voice recreations from transcripts of the original story meetings.
The rest of the newer extras are all typical Disney Channel fluff. Iconography examines the way that imagery from Snow White has influenced popular culture (and not surprisingly since we’re talking about Disney here, merchandising as well). @DisneyAnimation: Designing Disney’s First Princess focuses on the design of Snow White herself. The Fairest Facts of All: 7 Things You May Not Know About Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs features Sofia Carson from the 2015 Disney Channel movie The Descendants offering some pretty standard IMDb-style bullet points. Snow White in Seventy Seconds has artist Baby Kaely rapping her way through the story of Snow White in, well, seventy seconds. Of all of these, @DisneyAnimation offers the most value, but even that’s pretty limited.
The remaining extras were all legacy content from the 2009 Diamond Edition Blu-ray (many of which were actually holdovers from the previous DVD releases). Disney’s First Feature: The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the centerpiece of the collection, a real making-of documentary that offers a broad look at the production and original release of the film in just 30 minutes. This is definitely the best starting point among all of the extras included in the set. Bringing Snow White to Life is about the men behind Disney’s famous Nine Old Men—the original animators who influenced the nine men who would go on to influence pretty much everything else at Walt Disney Studios. The Hyperion Studios Tour is a condensation of the comprehensive interactive supplement from the Diamond Collection Blu-ray. It’s a look at the Hyperion Studios phase of Disney’s history, hosted by Pixar’s Andrew Stanton. Decoding the Exposure Sheet features Don Hahn breaking down how the exposure sheets provided a blueprint to help the camera crew construct one scene from the film. Hahn also hosts Snow White Returns, a look at some recently-discovered artwork for a discarded sequel to Snow White (probably intended as a short subject rather than a feature).
Story Meetings: The Dwarfs and The Huntsmen are re-enactments from the transcripts of two different story meetings, accompanied by clips from the film and production artwork. Deleted Scene: Soup Eating Sequence and Bed Building Sequence offer unfinished pencil tests for the former and pencil tests/storyboards for the latter. (Completed deleted sequences from animated films are a rarity, since the final cut needs to be locked before committing the money and resources to the actual animation.) Finally, Animation Voice Talent is a tribute to the unsung heroes of Snow White: the voice cast. They were literally unsung in this case, since none of them were actually credited in the film. (Unsurprisingly, it glosses over one of Walt Disney’s many dark sides: he wanted to maintain the illusion that these were real characters, so he actively worked to block Snow White actress Adriana Caselotti from having much of a career elsewhere.) Oh, and for some unknown reason, there’s also in Info tab that just repeats the eight-second legal warning from the beginning of the disc. Thanks?
Missing from that Diamond Edition Blu-ray is the useless Disney View feature that added painted windowbox borders to placate anyone bothered by the black bars, as well as the full interactive Hyperion Studios Tour and the featurette The One That Started It All. There were also some interactive games, a music video, a sneak peak at The Princess and the Frog, and some miscellaneous legacy content from the DVD. As far as that 2001 Platinum Edition DVD goes, this set is also missing the Angela Lansbury-narrated documentary Still the Fairest of Them All: The Making of Snow White, the 1934 Disney short The Goddess of Spring, and more interactive materials. Of course, many of the extras from the 1994 Deluxe LaserDisc CAV Edition have never seen the light of day elsewhere, including yet another documentary The Making of a Masterpiece – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There were also audio-only radio broadcasts, song demos, commercials, and more, plus interactive storyboards and other materials.
To be fair, there have been so many releases of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with so much bonus content that it wouldn’t have been practical to include all of it, and some of it was no longer relevant anyway. As far as any new content goes, that’s just not the cut of Disney’s jib right now. Baby steps, because any way that you slice it, Disney’s pivot back to physical media is off to an auspicious start. Their 4K Ultra HD release of Cinderella was a hell of an opening salvo in that regard, and this new restoration of Snow White proves that it wasn’t just an anomaly. Yes, there’s still no excuse for not including the original mono track, but anyone who skips these releases just because of that fact is shooting themselves in the foot, cocking the shotgun, and taking out their other foot for good measure. Don’t be that person. By all means, contact Disney to let them know that they’re making a mistake, but don’t deprive yourself of this extraordinary release. There’s nothing wrong with the restrained 5.1 remix, and Snow White has never looked as beautiful as it does here. If you haven’t seen this 4K restoration, you haven’t really seen Snow White. It gets the highest possible recommendation—and then some!
- Stephen Bjork