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Disney’s Fascination with the Evil Queen

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She is one of the most recognizable and dominant villains in the world of Disney. Joan Crawford cheekbones, an impeccable complexion, and a steadfast tendency to sink to the lowest depths of moral depravity. I am of course referring to the Evil Queen, a malevolent presence who has been the subject of folklore for several centuries.

The first published record of the Evil Queen appeared in Grimm’s’ Fairy Tales, specifically Little Snow White. A silent film version in 1916 helped serve as an inspiration for the first full-length animated feature, and one of the projects which propelled Disney into a fully accoutered Hollywood studio. This was, of course, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Evil Queen is arguably one of the most beloved Disney villains today and has been rated the tenth greatest villain of film by the American Film Institute. The jealous, conspiratorial character is a mainstay of Disney fandom, and shows no signs of being relegated to the back burner anytime soon.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were German brothers who collected and edited folktales from their homeland, largely from peoples they would have seen as peasants. The Brothers Grimm labored to compile stories they saw as an important part of their culture, which might be at risk of disappearing. Jacob and Wilhelm should not be seen so much as authors, but collectors and interpreters of tales which have stood the test of time, such as Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and of course, Little Snow White. The first edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales were released in 1812, and have gone through dozens of editions, hundreds of translations, and have experienced alterations based on the perceived sensibilities of the audience.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales are spellbinding tales of giants, common folk, kings, witches and much more. They are at times totally nonsensical, gruesome, revolting, and compulsive. Most are short, and several could be read in one sitting at a time. Due to extraordinarily graphic and gratuitous violence and other adult content, the Brothers Grimm heavily edited these stories prior to their initial publication and they have been ruthlessly amended over the past two hundred years.

As this collection is reissued and modern sensitivities change, much content has been restored. The characters in these stories do not cut corners in confronting issues such as mortality or dismemberment. In Cinderella, in order to fit into the glass slipper to be matched with the Prince, one Step-Sister cuts off a section of her heel. This is done with a seeming dismissiveness, and is tame compared to other stories.

Little Snow White (also known as Snow White), is one of the greatest tales in this collection. It can be read in about twenty minutes or less. For those familiar with the Disney feature, it more or less follows a similar track, with enough different details to still be interesting. As opposed to the dwarfs and Snow White’s infatuation with her Prince, the story focuses on the Evil Queen’s vanity, and her machinations in defeating her rival. The dwarfs are not named, and do not show much individual character; the Prince is only a protagonist at the end of the story. The Evil Queen is meant to serve as a symbol of runaway vanity and narcissism.

As any other Grimm Fairy Tale, various versions exist, as some aspects of the story may not be seen as suitable for children — or outright grisly. Many of these stories, Little Snow White included, had the character of a mother changed to Step-Mother, as it would be unconscionable for a mother to conduct herself in the manner which occurs. In some versions of this story, the Evil Queen insists the Huntsman return Snow White’s liver, heart, and lungs, which she consumes in a stew. Others, not believing this was child friendly, watered it down in some retellings.

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When one considers the above, it could be hard to see exactly what Walt Disney saw in this story. However, the 1916 film, Snow White, seen by a young Walt Disney in 1917 provided a template for a more palatable story. The film, which is available on YouTube, is about one hour in length. Walt Disney saw this film and cited it as a reason behind selecting the Snow White story for his first full-length animated feature. Although the 1916 version includes bizarre characters (even for silent film) and the plot diverges significantly from the Brothers Grimm retelling, it is certainly an interesting film to watch. As in the Fairy tale, the dwarf’s roles are somewhat minor; however, they are at least named — featuring the meddlesome Quee.

Like most films of the silent era, it was thought to be lost in a series of fires studios experienced in their vaults. It is important to emphasis how fortunate we are to have access to this film today. Marguerite Clark, who stars as Snow White, was one of the greatest box office draws of her time, and a serendipitous find in 1992 Amsterdam allowed viewers to enjoy the film once again. While it is perhaps not a masterpiece for the ages, it is an entertaining watch and a crucial part of Disney history.

How does one sufficiently articulate how important Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was to Walt Disney at the time of its 1937 release? Without it, in all likelihood, Walt Disney Productions would have folded as a commercial enterprise, and animation may not have taken the form of a full-length feature for decades, if ever.     

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The premiere of this film was viewed by some of the top celebrities of the time, such as Marlene Dietrich and Clark Gable, and was a financial and critical success. The success of the film allowed for the construction of the Burbank Studio which exists to this day. The production, premiere, and legacy of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is too lengthy to recount here, but its importance to Disney and animation as a craft is undeniable.

In the film, the Evil Queen (also known as Queen Grimhilde), was a later character designed with many inspirations — notably, Helen Gahagan Douglas’s  Queen Ayesha in the 1935 eccentric film, She. This was an ice queen who stood in contrast to a dowdier initial creation. A resemblance to screen goddesses of the thirties such as Greta Garbo were noted at the time. The Evil Queen was the first character to speak in an animated film, as well as the first to die in a Disney film. Magical powers were attributed to her, as opposed to the use of crude disguises, as occurs in the story.

Masterfully voiced by actress Lucille La Verne, a character actress of Pre-Code Hollywood, she was also an inspiration for refined animation, when her movements and comportment were observed during recording. While an interdisciplinary team was involved in her creation, Art Babbitt was the primary animator. Others involved in the Evil Queen’s creation and persona were Ward Kimball and Joe Grant. With a suave subtlety enviable to modern animators, this character was incredibly complicated to conceive and animate, and a large team had to toil endlessly to bring us the character we love today.

The Evil Queen has a respectable presence in the world of Disney all over the globe. This includes a spot in Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. In the form of a hag, she appears in the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, one of Magic Kingdom’s most popular attractions. A new character dining experience at Artist Point in Disney’s Wilderness Lodge will also feature the Evil Queen.

A popular meet and greet Character at Disneyland, this character often makes appearances in Fantasyland near the Snow White’s Scary Adventures attraction. This attraction, of which the Evil Queen is of course a focus, also exists in the Fantasylands of Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris.

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She has also intermittently made appearances in a variety of nighttime shows and parades around the world. This included Wishes (now Happily Ever After) in Magic Kingdom, Fanstasmic!, and Villains Night Out! in Hong Kong Disneyland .

The Evil Queen’s presence in Disney Parks tends to be as part of a cast of villains, or dependent on nighttime shows or parades. However, one place where the Evil Queen was front and center, was on the ABC smash hit Once Upon A Time.

Of note, Disney own’s ABC. The show aired for seven seasons, and while it was not the hit it once was in later seasons, was truly a masterpiece of television. The show takes place in settings both in our world, and a world of fantasy, including Storybrooke, Maine, Seattle, Washington, the Land of Oz, Neverland, and many more. Lana Parrilla provides an interpretation of this character which is emotionally complex and provides a substantial amount of depth and emotional venerability to this character. Viewers are also provided with a backstory beyond calculated use of black magic.

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In the world of movie villains, the Evil Queen beat out those such as the shark from Jaws and Cruella De Vil from One Hundred and One Dalmatians. An ability to glide with the utmost grace while complacently playing with life and death, she is part of one of the original coterie of Disney characters. With a lithe figure and refined deportment, the Evil Queen is at the pinnacle of loathsome villains.

While a presence in parks around the world has ebbed and flowed, this character shows no signs of being relegated to the dustbin of memory. Her written origins centuries ago by the Brothers Grimm simply amalgamated countless generations of folklore. The Evil Queen continues to thrive today in part due to the Snow White story — as well as Disney’s masterful adaption of her.

Spencer Wright is passionate about Walt Disney World, Disney Film, History, and Old Hollywood. He works in Center City Philadelphia and lives in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. He looks forward to writing articles for The Dis Unplugged; currently focusing on Animal Kingdom and the creatures that live there.


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