American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
If Walt Disney's “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” had been primarily about Snow White, it might have been forgotten soon after its 1937 premiere, and treasured today only for historical reasons, as the first full-length animated feature in color. Snow White is, truth to tell, a bit of a bore, not a character who acts but one whose mere existence inspires others to act. The mistake of most of Disney's countless imitators over the years has been to confuse the titles of his movies with their subjects. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is not so much about Snow White or Prince Charming as about the Seven Dwarfs and the evil Queen--and the countless creatures of the forest and the skies, from a bluebird that blushes to a turtle who takes forever to climb up a flight of stairs.
Walt Disney's shorter cartoons all centered on one or a few central characters with strongly-defined personalities, starting with Mickey Mouse himself. They lived in simplified landscapes, and occupied stories in which clear objectives were boldly outlined. But when Disney decided in 1934 to make a full-length feature, he instinctively knew that the film would have to grow not only in length but in depth. The story of Snow White as told in his source, the Brothers Grimm, would scarcely occupy his running time, even at a brisk 83 minutes.
Disney's inspiration was not in creating Snow White but in creating her world. At a time when animation was a painstaking frame-by-frame activity and every additional moving detail took an artist days or weeks to draw, Disney imagined a film in which every corner and dimension would contain something that was alive and moving. From the top to the bottom, from the front to the back, he filled the frame (which is why Disney's decision in the 1980s to release a cropped “widescreen” version was so wrong-headed, and quickly retracted).
So complex were his frames, indeed, that Disney and his team of animators found that the cels they used for their short cartoons were not large enough to contain all the details he wanted, and larger cels were needed. The film's earliest audiences may not have known the technical reasons for the film's impact, but in the early scene where Snow White runs through the forest, they were thrilled by the way the branches reached out to snatch at her, and how the sinister eyes in the darkness were revealed to belong to friendly woodland animals. The trees didn't just sit there within the frame.