Friday, July 12, 2013

Re-imagining Snow White's Dwarfs

The "real" seven (hobbit-like) dwarfs by Jordy Lakiere

It almost goes without saying that Disney made a lot of changes when he retold the Grimm's Little Snow White as 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". One of the biggest changes, however, was in how he characterized the dwarfs.

Ironically, it was the fact that there were dwarfs in the tale to start with that essentially clinched the idea as it being a great story to go with for his big undertaking of creating the first full length color animated feature film (though he was clearly very impressed by seeing a 1916 version of Snow White that stayed with him for many years).

 Disney ultimately chose the fairytale of Snow White for his first animated feature because he recognized that the dwarfs would make great cartoon characters and that the forest setting would be a natural opportunity to animate a variety of "appealing little birds and animals." He also had vivid memories of the 1916 live-action silent version of "Snow White," one of the first movies he ever saw. (Source)
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In Little Snow White the dwarfs are hard workers but also clean and wise. In other versions of Snow White the men aren't even dwarfs (in some cultures they're thieves) but they're usually hard workers (or at least coordinated and savvy, even as thieves), connected with the land in some way and are both protective and wise in their caution and care of a seven year old girl. They are the adults caring for Snow White the child.

Disney, by making Snow White older and the dwarfs bad housekeepers, reversed this, and Snow White became the carer for these childish people.

That makes for a very dynamic shift in story from the fairy tale!

Unlike the responsible and venerable fairy tale dwarfs, Disney's dwarves were also styled to be stereotypes of one personality or another and the list of possibilities was long. There are 57 recorded name possibilities that weren't used for the film!

It's interesting, then, to see what happens when the cartoon dwarf versions are re-envisioned as real(ish) people. Jordy Lakiere did just that and he was possibly the most surprised of anyone when it went viral.

Although he specifically tweaked his designs toward a more hobbit-like look, the results are surprisingly make a big transformation back toward the respectable, capable individuals of the fairy tales. I think he might even take us halfway there.

Take a look at the rest:

(This, by the way, is in COMPLETE contrast to how Disney are re-envisioning their dwarfs for Disney Junior! Not only are the designs more cartoonish than ever, the characters are less like legitimate people as well.)

We have seen real life versions of Disney's dwarfs on ABCs Once Upon A Time too but these characters retain a lot of their infantilizing in many ways. One theory about the dwarves (for OUAT) is that they are the lost boys from Peter Pan - grown up but still rather lost and desperately in need of leadership.

This isn't how the "seven" are portrayed in any of the Snow White stories at all. She's the one that's lost, needs to grow up/mature and the dwarfs help ground her.

There has also been the dwarfs of Mirror Mirror & Snow White & the Huntsman, the latter film being a grittier vision than the humorous stereotypes retained in Mirror Mirror but neither seem to portray the dwarfs as masters of their realm, confident and in charge of their own fate. They're all sidekicks, accessories and comic relief.
Snow White & the Huntsman (with dwarfs)
Dwarfs from Mirror Mirror
Although there have been many (many!) illustrated versions of Snow White and therefore the dwarfs, one of my favorite versions comes from author (and artist) Ali Shaw (The Girl With Glass Feet, The Man Who Rained).
Dwarf with Snow White by Ali Shaw
He takes the earthiness of the dwarfs literally and portrays them as almost sentient lumps of clay - as if the land came to life and cared for the seven year old, little lost princess.

He talks briefly on his blog about what inspired him to draw them this way:
Dwarf as mini-mountain by Ali Shaw

The reason I wanted to post about Snow White was because of a single sentence I found in my copy of Vintage’s The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.  I suspect it’s the kind of 
Dwarf sketches by Ali Shaw
detail that owes more to translation than design, but this sentence explains how the evil queen – in her peddler-of-apples disguise – has to cross seven mountains to get to the household of the seven dwarfs.  I thought it would be fun to try to draw the dwarfs as if they and the mountains were one and the same.  Avatars of the mountains, if you will, operating at a more practical size.  It’s perhaps also worth noting that at the end of the Grimm version of the story the dwarfs place Snow White’s coffin on a mountain peak, where they can gather round and keep watch over it (along with, very specifically, a dove, an owl and a raven).
Dwarves watching over Snow White as part of the land by Ali Shaw
I find it magical.


  1. Have you read Mirror Mirror by Gregory McGuire? He has the dwarves begin as something very rock-like, non-human and earth spirity, and as Snow White defines them, they become more and more human, until they get jobs and have desires, and they long for they day they were rocks. Really interesting interpretation!

    1. That's one of my favorite novelizations of Snow White. (I have the audio book, which is excellent.) Really like the interweaving with the Countess of Bathory legend too but I'd forgotten about the dwarves. Maguire makes it work really well. (It might be my favorite Maguire book too.)