What’s the message in Disney’s classic 1937 film Snow White?
Could it be that good always triumphs? That love conquers all? That we shouldn’t judge by appearances?
Yes to all three – but I’d like to suggest another, perhaps less obvious message at play
And it’s this – that intelligence is bad, stupidity is good.
Woah, hold the horses there, lil’ Disney fan. I know you’re upset with my cynical tone, but bear with me and I’ll see if I can’t convert you to my point of view.
Let’s start with the villain of the piece – the Evil Queen (or just The Queen).
She’s easily the most intelligent character in the film, with the possible exception of her Magic Mirror (which, being inanimate, doesn’t really count).
Vain and cruel she may be, but she is clearly no fool, being learned and well-versed in the black arts (as her collection of spell books and alchemical devices attests).
She has a dungeon-cum-laboratory filled with all manner of arcane devices which might even be viewed as proto-scientific (the bubbling retorts for instance). In a film populated by dimwits, this makes her stand out from the pack.
Alas, she uses her knowledge for evil, brewing up a potion to disguise herself as a hideous old crone before creating a poison with which to bump off her offending step-daughter.
This is in keeping with the film’s vaguely medieval setting since we all know what generally happened to those who dabbled in book-lurnin’ back in the old times. At best, they’d be viewed as eccentrics, at worst they’d end up on a one-way trip to the stake.
Elizabeth I’s astrologer John Dee famously had his house set on fire by superstitious peasants in 1583, having amassed one of the largest collections of scientific books in the country. Centuries earlier, the scholarly pope Sylvester II was reputed to traffic with the devil and supposedly had a magical brazen head which would answer his questions. So much for the clever ‘uns, who rarely it seems, produce anything but ill-will and suspicion.
Snow White on the other hand is portrayed as a charming but rather empty-headed young woman who is far too naïve and trusting for her own good.
Despite the evil Queen’s attempts on her life, she spends most of the film dancing about singing songs with a cohort of absurdly cute-looking woodland animals. While anyone else would probably, y’know, run for their lives and not stop until they’d reach the next kingdom or something.
In fact, her dippy nature is toned down in the film from the earlier fairy tales in which the Queen makes several attempts to kill her, using a poisoned comb, then a strangulating corset before striking it third time lucky with the poisoned apple.
Presumably, Disney realised how idiotic Snow White would look if she kept falling for such trickery and had her fooled on the first attempt.
Likewise, her dwarfish companions are essentially a group of good-natured dolts with only the most cantankerous among them (Grumpy, obviously), displaying any realisation of the potential danger she is in. He is, after all, the only one who warns Snow White to be on her guard – a warning she promptly ignores.
The remaining characters in this sparsely-populated fable are nonentities.
The kindly huntsman who spares Snow White’s life tries to trick the Queen (offscreen) into thinking his job is done with a pig’s heart. This is after he’s come up with the brilliant idea of sending a young (and fairly dim) woman with no survival skills into the forest to fend for herself. Good job, hero.
Given his mistress is a sorceress with a magic mirror that can answer her every question, it seems unlikely the Queen would be fooled by this muddle-headed scheme and sure enough, she isn’t.. One can only assume her majesty rewarded Mr Huntsman by blasting him to atoms or something.Come to think of it, maybe that’s where all the piles of bones in her dungeon came from.
The handsome prince is a dutiful cardboard cut-out whose only function is to set Snow’s heart a-flutterin’ when he turns up singing his song at the start and then reappear on cue at the end to deliver the kiss to wake her up. We never even learn his name. Prince McGuffin? Prince Plotdevice? I’d vote for Prince Generic, since that’s essentially what he is.
So we have our characters and we have our message. Intelligent characters are mean, cruel, shifty and not to be trusted while goodness is to be found among the good-natured fools of the world.
Interestingly, this is a trope which continues in many later Disney films.
Let’s look at the charge sheet shall we? Who are the smartest characters in the following Disney films? In Sleeping Beauty we Malificent, an evil witch. Undoubtedly smart (she can turn into a dragon after all – no mean feat), but needless to say, cruel, selfish and, yes, thoroughly evil. The Little Mermaid has Ursula as its villain, the sea-witch. Ditto. The Lion King has Scar (a smart and evil lion), the Hunchback of Notre Dame has Frollo, an evil nobleman.
There are admittedly others where this is not the case. Sword in the Stone features a benevolent magician in the shape of Merlin and his talking owl Archimedes.
There are also rarer examples of idiotic villains so useless one ends up feeling sorry for them – the bungling butler who pursues the Arisocats for instance.
But on the whole, it would seem, smartness corrupts and genius corrupts absolutely.
As for Snow White, all’s well that ends well as we surely know before we even start watching. The Queen dies, dropped from a great height by her own vaulting ambition leaving Snow White is free to marry Prince Generic. We are told they ‘live happily ever after’ – but doing what exactly?
One hopes the neighbouring kingdoms are friendly and if not, that the prince has some skill on the battlefield. Otherwise, dear old Snow White would no doubt be booted out the castle for a second time by an invading army.
Either that or her own people would stage an uprising, fed up with ruler who did nothing but frolic in the forest with a head full of jolly robins.