Disney Cartoon #41, Animated Sequence Analysis: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - The Queen's Transformation (December 21, 1937) - published October 15, 2011
by Albert Gutierrez
Author's Note: Last week, I intended for Saturday Matinee #40 to be another Animated Sequence Analysis as #30 was, thus creating a recurring series within Saturday Matinee that would occur every ten weeks. Instead, I decided to pay tribute to Steve Jobs with a look at Meet the Robinsons and Rob Thomas' "Little Wonders" music video. The "Animated Sequence Analysis" series continues this week, but will no longer be on the planned every-ten-weeks schedule. Look for the next one to be sometime in the new year. :-)
The word "transformation" brings to mind a variety of ideas and definitions, with the most common idea being the changing of physical appearance. Disney's films - both animated and live-action feature their fair share of transformations: Pinocchio into a real boy, Wilby Daniels into the shaggy dog, Cinderella's rags to riches, Beast returning to his human form. Plenty of these transformations are done through magic, but none of them truly really compare to the one that started it all. Queen Grimhilde's transformation is one of the highlights of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and of filmmaking in general. It is a chilling scene that serves as a turning point the film, as we see the true extent of Grimhilde's vanity. In addition, the special effects in this sequence is amazing, giving viewers a potentially traumatic sequence that shows just how far animation can go.
The heart of a pig! The blundering fool! I'll go myself to the dwarfs' cottage in a disguise so complete no one will ever suspect. 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.
Look, my hands!
My voice! My voice. A perfect disguise!
I've never been a big fan of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as a whole, but this week's Saturday Matinee is not the time or space to discuss why. However, I do admire the film for its technological marvels. It's quite a wunderkind and set the benchmark for what all future hand-drawn animated films could be. The sequence above shows just only how effective animation is in storytelling. The film makes a marvelous use of Technicolor, retaining a color palette that is both subdued and natural, while occasionally giving us bursts and shades that remind the audience what they're watching is larger than life. Just look at the glass with the Queen's potion, for example. It changes colors several times throughout, and shows the different stages of her disguise as well as provide a rich and deep vibrancy to the picture.
The potion begins as a simple clear liquid, indicative of the tabula rasa that the Queen starts with. Her first ingredient is mummy dust, after all, so it would not be seen. Then comes the black of night, which overtakes the clear glass and becomes very dark, creating a new emptiness. When the Queen adds the old hag's cackle, it's represented through a bubbling red, again overtaking the darkness. When we see the red droplets falling into the glass, it comes across as blood dripping from the end of a knife (the well-shaped glass tubing) onto the unforgiving void below. The red itself is also very powerful in the scene, as it would become a recurring color of anger and death. Grumpy's tunic is a deep red (he would later repent his ways), while the apple with Sleeping Death also retains that iconic red color. However, this red would be succeeded by another color in the potion. The scream of fright - tragically white beads of smoke - transforms the angry red into a jealous green. It brings the potion and queen to full circle, as her vanity and envy of Snow White's beauty causes her to seek ways to destroy her.
At this point, the ingredients are no longer physical, but symbolic. Blasts of wind and thunderbolts can't be literally added to the potion, and both ultimately end up foreshadowing the Queen's doom. They are used to mix the potion, and in the next shot, we see the glass with the Queen's reflection in it. She has become what she is about to despise the most: old and ugly, in order to ensure that she remain young and beautiful. As she drinks the potion, she clutches her throat, and a myriad of effects begin to take over the scene and her body. A blur of colors show the Queen struggling with her changes. Her hair wildly blows away, and her hands wither to nearly nothing. The spell is now complete, and as she turns back towards the audience, they no longer see beautiful Queen Grimhilde. An old hag emerges, even causing the crow to drop back in surprise. This is a vile and loathsome character that nobody can truly identify with - but if you can, my condolences - and her existence means that the Queen is now symbolically dead. It is only a matter of time before her physical self also meets that fate.
Watching this scene as a child, I was always terrified of the transforming hands. It was absolutely chilling to see hands age so quickly, especially when the thunder strikes and we see the bones in silhouette. But as I got older, I realized that the aging hands were not just another effect, it was another symbol of just how vain the Queen was. There was literally nothing left to her - no heart, no emotion, no common sense - except for the skin she was in. She held that above all else, creating a character who was so reliant on the physical life that she failed to see how ugly she was where it truly counted. Ironically, the Queen was always one of my favorite characters in the film, maybe because the animators did an excellent job in depicting how beauty could transform into ugliness so quickly. Her cold and calculating ways made her a very formidable villain, although I don't think the Old Hag version is very bright. Maybe the potion addled her already-unbalanced brain.