Many young adults have a complicated relationship with Disney. It’s ubiquitous in childhood; the animated Disney canon is the building block for many imaginations, and a trip to Disney World is the height of heaven on earth. But in adulthood, the company’s corporate story takes the spotlight, overshadowing the beloved films. It can feel like Disney has always been this way, where the films are a back seat to the theme parks, TV shows, and action figures. But it wasn’t the case; Disney was once a company near failure, and its meteoric rise to the top was sparked by seven dwarfs and a poisoned apple.
Walt Disney, a self-taught artist and passionate early film buff, had started an animation studio in Hollywood in the 1920s; he hoped to make it big by creating the cartoons he adored. But while he was a passionate producer, Disney was notorious for having no business sense; The introduction of Mickey Mouse and his Silly Symphonies shorts, were a godsend to him, because he had lost the rights (and had nearly crashed his company several times) to his first famous character Oswald.
In 1934 Disney decided to re-make the tale Snow White, by creating a full-length animated feature film of the story. It was a ridiculous notion; cartoons were shorts that played in theaters before the real movies began. An animated feature would be outrageously expensive, and cartoons just weren’t meant to be that long–producers didn’t think that audiences would bother with it. Disney’s business partners tried to talk him out of it, and most of Hollywood began calling the project “Walt’s Folly”; absolutely everyone was convinced that it would destroy the studio.
Unmoved, Disney set to work with his animation team in August of 1934. Story development took an unprecedented amount of time as the group pinned down every last detail–the personalities of each of the seven dwarfs, the gleam of the poisoned apple, the design of the witch’s facial warts. The story outline reached eighteen pages or more, as Walt struggled to find the right balance of plot elements and characterization. Experiments in creating fluid and distinctive effects were the playground for studio animators, while they also learned how to create realistic animated humans.
Disney ran out of money in 1937 and production ceased. The budget, which had originally been set at $250,000 (ten times the budget for a standard Silly Symphonies short), had ballooned way beyond that. A rough cut version of the film had to be shown to potential backers, in order for Disney to gain funding for the project. A gamble that had paid off, even though it had been risky: the audience erupted into a standing ovation. With the final financial push, the Disney studio released the finished Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in February of 1938. The tally for the cost of the project was at nearly $1.5 million–in 1930s dollars!
Fortunately, a major comeback was the result of his expensive gamble. Disney’s dictatorial attention to detail resulted in a gorgeously animated, well-written story that took the world by storm. The film was a massive hit, recouping its investment in no time and starting a brand new trend in film making. Snow White was the first ever full-length animated movie made and it became the benchmark for future work. When theater distribution rules changed, Animated shorts were now longer profitable; however, animated films are now a standard in every multiplex on the planet. While other animators may have done something similar, it was Disney’s folly that made the world realize what animation could do. It changed film making forever, and without Snow White, the world would be a very different place today.