Steve Daly
November 04, 1994 AT 05:00 AM EST

Everybody knows a female character can’t pull in a mass movie or video audience these days unless she’s got an action skill like piloting a river raft, driving a runaway bus, blowing away cyborgs, or whipping caped crusaders. Right? Well, yes, that’s right — unless of course the woman in question happens to be a ‘toon. Wielding nothing more lethal than a broom and dustpan, that all-time queen of the shrinking violets, old homebody Snow White, is at this moment the babe to beat as an entertainment draw, thanks to the ultra-hyped video debut of Disney’s first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The tunes that drive her story along (”I’m Wishing,” ”Someday My Prince Will Come,” ”Whistle While You Work,” ”Heigh-Ho”) remain eternally appealing, especially to kids. But make no mistake: If you pass up that copy of the fall’s other big video title, Jurassic Park, to bring home the more comforting (and, by all predictions, far better-selling) Snow, you’ve still bought a date with a dinosaur. The movie now scores fewer bull’s-eyes as a romantic fantasy than as fantastical nostalgia. Here’s a no-career gal who’s darn proud of her genius for mothering, who lives to nurse seven utterly different little psyches, and who still says her prayers on her knees before bedtime.

That’s not all that dates the lady. The movie may have had a dazzling, state-of-the-art digital face-lift that heightens the bloom in Snow’s immaculate cheeks, erases torrents of dust specks in the original photography, brings out worlds of detail in the dwarfs’ dimly lit cottage, and turns the evil queen’s cape a mesmerizing cobalt blue — but no amount of restoration can smooth away its most glaring age spot: The heroine’s trilly, icky-sweet voice, provided by Adriana Caselotti. It hasn’t been in tune with the times since Jeanette MacDonald was hot. At least watching at home you won’t feel embarrassed for Snow, the way I did when, during last summer’s theatrical re-release, I saw a packed house burst out giggling at her first warble into the wishing well.

Knowing it’s got a borderline museum piece on its hands, Disney has shrewdly embraced the facts in promoting Snow. Every ad reiterates the movie’s place in history as the great-grandmom of all Disney cartoon romances, from Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty in the ’50s (recognize those same supporting casts of chirpy birds?) to The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. It’s a family-tree strategy that actually has some emotional resonance.

The Disney archivists have also turned Snow‘s scrapbooks into a vast, juicy historical banquet in two deluxe Snow White video editions, by far the fairest such collectibles Disney has put together. It’s not exactly an objective study worthy of Ken Burns, but The Making of a Masterpiece, a 40-minute documentary that’s the centerpiece of the VHS Deluxe Collector’s Edition, does a terrific job of dramatizing Walt Disney’s mid-’30s push to turn his operation from a short-cartoon factory into a feature-film power. The finished movie feels vitally innovative when you see what Walt’s big gamble might have looked like if he hadn’t quadrupled the budget to a then-astronomical $2 million while inspiring, cajoling, and browbeating his staff of 750 into creating something less derivative and two-dimensional. Best factoid nugget: Among the dwarf personalities who didn’t make the cut were Deafy, Dirty, Awful, and Biggo Ego.

If you really want an inside glimpse of what went into making Snow right, though, you’ll find the ultimate guided tour in the Deluxe CAV Laserdisc Edition. In addition to letting you freeze or slo-mo with utter clarity whatever scene strikes your fancy, this set has the documentary plus a giant still-frame archive of storyboards, concept sketches, story- conference transcripts, production timelines, and newspaper clippings. It beats any book on the subject through sheer volume, especially in the chapters where each character gets his or her own little gallery of developmental material.

Still, it’s in the audio department that the CAV Snow ascends to the revelatory. In place of the movie’s finished soundtrack (selectable either in re-engineered stereo or the original mono), you can listen to an alternate track that features an infinitely cleaner mix of the instrumentals alone. The incessant underscoring, often obliterated by the dialogue in the final version, breathes free here, transforming Snow White into the perfect silent movie, in which it isn’t necessary to hear a word to follow the ingeniously expressive action. With every instrument actually discernible for the first time, the aural sweep and sheer tunefulness of Disney’s brave experiment make it something you’d never expect: a beautiful newborn. Tape editions: A; CLV laserdisc edition: A; CAV laserdisc edition: A+

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