It’s starting to feel like Snow White and the Seven Debacles.
From racist backlash over a Latina Snow White to the usual, tired complaints of “wokeness” to major changes to traditional canon (no more Seven Dwarfs) to heavily scrutinized comments by the film’s fledgling star, Rachel Zegler, Disney’s upcoming live-action Snow White reboot seems to have a controversy for everyone.
The sense of growing resentment towards 2024’s Snow White got even louder late last week when David Hand, the 91-year-old son of one of the directors of the 1937 animated classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, blasted the Mouse House’s latest reimagining for its contemporary updates, saying his late father and Walt Disney himself would be “turning in their graves.”
Let us unpack all the reasons (so far) people are mad at a movie about a fictional princess who flees an evil queen’s wrath and talks to animals.
The racist trolls
Star Wars. The Lord of the Rings. The Little Mermaid. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. But virtually any time people of color are cast in Hollywood’s top franchises, there’s some level of racist backlash. Repulsive tweets are circulated. Actors are harassed and sent horrific messages on social media. Conservative pundits call the projects “woke.” Aggregation sites are review-bombed.
Zegler, the 22-year-old New Jersey native who shot to fame in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated remake West Side Story, was named the new Snow White in June 2021. Because Zegler is of mixed ethnicity (her mother is Colombian and her father is Polish), her casting was apparently triggering for some fans of Disney’s original pale-faced princess.
“When it got announced, it was a huge thing that was trending on Twitter for days, because all of the people were angry,” Zegler, a frequent user of the social media platform since renamed X, told Andrew Garfield during an “Actors on Actors” interview in Variety.
"Never in a million years did I imagine that this would be a possibility for me," she said. "You don't normally see Snow Whites that are of Latin descent. Even though Snow White is really a big deal in Spanish-speaking countries."
As for the trolls? “Ah, those people,” Zegler sighed. “The people that we need to educate. The people that we need to love into awareness."
Zegler’s own comments about the 1937 original
Beyond her ethnicity, Zegler has also been targeted by fans for her critical comments about the 86-year-old original film and why she is excited to bring “a modern edge” to the new version.
“I just mean that it’s no longer 1937,” Zegler told Variety at Disney’s D23 Expo in September 2022. “We absolutely wrote a Snow White that ... she’s not going to be saved by the prince, and she’s not going to be dreaming about true love; she’s going to be dreaming about becoming the leader she knows she can be and that her late father told her that she could be if she was fearless, fair, brave and true.”
Zegler echoed those sentiments in an interview with Yahoo Entertainment at the same event as she was joined by co-star Gal Gadot. “In 1937, the cartoon was so focused on her finding true love, and it’s not even in her mind at all in this film,” Zegler told us. “She’s so focused in becoming the leader that her father tells her that she can be. And she’s really trying to find the courage to stand up to the Evil Queen [Gadot] and how to find her own agency and rule a kingdom. And she meets so many incredible people along the way. And maybe she finds love. Maybe she finds friendship. But what’s really important is that she finds her own voice.”
There will still be a Prince Charming-type in the Marc Webb-directed film, played by Tony-winning actor Andrew Burnap. Instead of Charming, he has been renamed Jonathan.
But Zegler says the dynamic between the characters will be different this time, and her resurfaced comments from D23 in another interview with Extra TV also drew scrutiny when she labeled the original Prince Charming “a guy who literally stalks” Snow White.
Zegler has also been criticized for apparently not being a superfan of the original cartoon.
“I think I watched it once and never picked it up again,” she told Entertainment Weekly in September, noting she didn’t revisit the film until her casting in the remake. “I’m being so serious.”
The dwarf dilemma
It was right there in the title: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And indeed, the band of little people — Doc, Grumpy, Sleepy, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy and Dopey — who help Snow White survive her exodus into the woods following a death sentence from the Evil Queen have always been an integral part of the heroine’s story.
But how Disney would handle these characters in a new age — an evolved age in which we’re far more sensitive to how we portray people with dwarfism — has become a major touchpoint in discourse around the movie.
In February 2022, Emmy-winning Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinkage railed against the remake for what he perceived as an antiquated project that would further perpetuate outdated stereotypes of little people. “I was sort of taken aback,” he said on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. “They were very proud to cast a Latino actress as Snow White, but you’re still telling the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Take a step back and look at what you’re doing there. It makes no sense to me. You’re progressive in one way, but you’re still making that f****** backward story about seven dwarfs living in a cave together. Have I done nothing to advance the cause from my soapbox? I guess I’m not loud enough.”
Disney heard Dinklage, and the studio responded within a day that filmmakers wanted to listen to members of the dwarfism community; 24 hours later Disney announced that the seven supporting characters would be changed to “magical creatures” designed by CGI. Yet, according to a report from Indiewire, several people in the little people community interviewed by the outlet were less than thrilled that Dinklage wielded so much power in his comments, and that Disney suddenly backpedaled following his remarks.
The studio later said in a statement, “To avoid reinforcing stereotypes from the original animated film, we are taking a different approach with these seven characters and have been consulting with members of the dwarfism community. We look forward to sharing more as the film heads into production after a lengthy development period.”
In July, a leaked photo from the set of Snow White showed what appeared to be a stand-in for Snow White along with a crew of seven co-stars of diverse ethnicity, gender and height — and was quickly lambasted by conservative media. “Snow White and the Seven… Politically Correct Companions?,” The Daily Mail captioned its exclusive paparazzi pic.
— Daily Mail US (@DailyMail) July 14, 2023
A Disney spokesperson initially told The Daily Beast that the photos “are fake and not from our production,” but the studio later changed its tune and noted the shots were actually from set, but “unofficial” because they included stand-ins for Zegler and Burnap.
Soon after, the editorial board of the New York Post weighed in: “Disney’s live-action Snow White takes wokeness to an absurd new low.”
Others, meanwhile, complained that Disney’s shift was taking away jobs from actors with dwarfism.
The co-director’s son speaks out
Then last week came the comments from Hand, whose father (also named David Hand) was one of six directors credited on the 1937 animated film.
"They change the stories, they change the thought processes of the characters, they just aren't the original stories anymore. They're making up new woke things and I'm just not into any of that," Hand, who once worked as a designer for Disney, told The Telegraph.
"I mean, it's a whole different concept, and I just totally disagree with it, and I know my dad and Walt would also very much disagree with it," Hand said. "There's no respect for what Disney did and what my dad did. ... I think Walt and he would be turning in their graves."
Snow White is set for release on March 22, 2024.