Walt Disney’s 1937 masterpiece of animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was the first truly successful Anglophone animated feature—the first to be filmed in technicolor and the first full-length cel animation film. It’s the earliest of the Walt Disney animated classics, and it ushered in an era of Disney princesses and Disney villains.
The film tells the familiar tale of Snow White, an old folk tale published in the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale collections. The tale was revised by the Brothers Grimm for the collection, and it has be re-revised again and again since then. The story generally centers around the jealousy of the Evil Queen and Snow White’s attempts to void being quashed as the Queen realizes that she is no longer the fairest and brightest in her land.
Of course, it is doubtful whether the Evil Queen was ever the “fairest” in the land, and the use of the word plays on both its virtually archaic meaning of “beautiful” and the modern use of the word as a synonym for “just.” The Evil Queen is beautiful in a hard, cold way—and her quest to kill Snow White, her stepdaughter, is a merciless articulation of sexual jealousy and the fear of being replaced.
The design of the Evil Queen’s garments, lair, and her overall appearance are calculated to highlight both her age and her evil qualities. She is not a cartoon-ish villain, even if she is a cartoon character. Inspiration for the character design came from the character
Kriemhild in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen and Queen Ayesha from the film She. The result is a tall, cold woman with steely expression, a fearsome villain who has terrified children for almost 100 years now.
Reportedly, Walt Disney himself thought of the Evil Queen as a mixture of Lady Macbeth and the Big Bad Wolf. And when the Evil Queen turn herself into a hag, she is most fearsome. Voice actress Lucille La Verne famously removed her false teeth to make her voice sound older, and the results of the transformation, both in voice and in appearance, are startling.
As a child, I was terrified of the Evil Queen as the Hag. She was ugly, menacing, and trying to kill the beautiful heroine. And she was so vastly different from the beautiful version of the Queen–where the Evil Queen was majestic and cold, the hag was overly-friendly and horribly ugly. My siblings swear that I would skip any pictures of the Hag in storybooks, and when we went to Disneyworld, I was terrified by her appearance in Snow White’s Scary Adventures.
Recent adaptations of the Snow White story have explored new ways that the Evil Queen is a victim of her circumstances, trapped in a patriarchal society that demands she be a beautiful ruler and prepares to usurp her once a younger, more beautiful woman comes of age. Lana Parilla’s Evil Queen in ABC’s Once Upon a Time and Neil Gaiman’s narrated “Snow, Glass, Apples” suggest growing sympathy for the Evil Queen, depicting Snow White as less-than-pristine (Gaiman writes her as vampiric, OUAT depicts her as the destroyer—albeit accidentally–of the Queen’s happiness).
But in the original Disney film, there’s no doubt she’s a villain—and an absolutely fabulous one, at that.