Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Review: Dumbo



Dumbo, the fourth film on my Disney Animated Film Adventure, which at one time vied with Robin Hood and Aladdin as my favorite of the Disney animated films, is a dramatically different kind of film than its three predecessors. Where Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia are visually complex, Dumbo is simple. Simple, too, is the storyline. Like Fantasia, this film is not based on a fairy tale as the first two films were, but of course Fantasia had rich source material from which to work, namely the pieces of music which were used. Dumbo is based on a rather simplistic prototype for a new toy called a "Roll-A-Book." The toy was developed using eight drawings and a few short lines of text describing what was happening in the book, when Disney writers took it and fleshed the story out. It's simple, basic and charming, without the heavily terrifying elements we've seen in the previous films.

The film starts with a lightning bolt and thunder and a voice crying "Through the snow, and sleet, and hail / Through the blizzard, through the gale / Through the wind and through the rain / Over mountain, over plain / Through the blinding lightning flash / And the mighty thunder crash / Ever faithful, ever true / Nothing stops him, he'll get through!" And then we find out he's talking about a Stork. Many storks, in fact, deliver a bunch of baby animals to a circus in Florida in what is one of the most cutest ever animated segments ever ever. Really.

The action starts when an elephant does not get a baby, and she's sad. She doesn't say she's sad, you just see it. In fact, there's very little dialog through the first part of this film. Finally, while the circus is packed onto the train, a stork shows up with a baby elephant. This baby elephant is our hero, though we don't know that until he gets dropped into his mother's trunk and his ears flap out in an explosive sneeze. Yup, those ears.

The poor guy is ridiculed something fierce for these big floppy ears, so much so that his protective mother (who loves him completely and unconditionally, something I totally understand) kind of freaks out on some boys and gets locked up, leaving Dumbo an outcast.

Enter Timothy Q. Mouse, Dumbo's only friend in the world. He tries to build up Dumbo's self-confidence by tricking the ringmaster into making Dumbo the climax of the "Pyramid of Pachyderms" circus attraction. But, as with all things, Dumbo's ears get in the way, creating havoc. The other circus elephants, already shunning Dumbo for his big ears and his crazy mother, completely disavow any knowledge of Dumbo, and he gets turned into a clown and has to jump off a burning tower into a vat of cream pie filling. Which, actually, is something I would totally enjoy, minus the burning part.

Timothy, always the good friend, tries to cheer Dumbo up by taking him to see his mother. This is one of the most beautiful moments in the film, with Mrs. Jumbo cradling Dumbo in her trunk through the bars of the elephant prison trailer (which, I guess, is a thing?) while the film's most beautiful song "Baby Mine" plays. Side note: my wife sings this song to my daughter every day, and it never fails to bring a smile to either of their faces.

After this, I guess the Fantasia animators wanted to get a little more bizzaro out of their systems, or maybe somebody was trying to point out how drinking is a bad thing, because Dumbo and Timothy accidentally drink some champagne, get totally wasted, and Dumbo blows a bubble out of his trunk. The bubble turns into a shared hallucination between the two; it turns into a pink elephant and we get a Technicolor Elephant Nightmare.

They let it into Disney Land at night to eat stragglers.

Actually, let me say at this point that although many of my friends would get creeped out by this part of the film, when I was a child this was my favorite part. I would often rewind and watch this part again and again while my friends waited nervously around the corner, behind the couch, or in the kitchen. Yeah, I was a little...different. But the colors! The song! The bizarre creatures created out of elephants! Elephant cars and trains! A Camel-Elephant hybrid which I call a Camelphant! What imaginations these animators had! What exquisite drugs they must have been taking!

So when Dumbo and Timothy wake up all hungover, they're in a tree. And a murder of crows sees them and wonders how they got up there while they smoke cigars, talk jive and get interpreted as a racial stereotype. Since you brought up the stereotype thing, let me just say this: these crows are incredibly smart. They're tough, sure, and they look rag-tag based on their clothes, but, um...they're crows. How did they even get clothes? I guess this is a universe of anthropomorphic animals but they still live in zoos and are attractions at circuses...but still. And when I say they're smart, I mean it. Listen to their song, which is full of clever wordplay and is meant not to mock Dumbo as EVERY OTHER CHARACTER BESIDES TIMOTHY AND MRS. JUMBO HAVE DONE but they do it to mock Timothy's insistence that Dumbo flew. But they help, and Dumbo gets off the ground. He returns to the circus and jumps off his burning tower. On the way down, he loses the feather. Timothy, who was riding in his hat, explains that the feather wasn't really magic, and that Dumbo can fly without it. Which, of course, he does, exacting revenge on the clowns, the ringmaster, and the elephants who shunned him. And then, I guess, he does the classic meteoric rise to fame thing, in which he gets super famous and makes a lot of money and yet somehow ends up right where he started? Well, not entirely. He uses his celebrity to get his mother released and to procure a fancy modern private car for the two of them (plus Timothy I would guess) on the train. But still...he's still in the circus? I guess if that's where the money is...

Because of the financial failures of the previous two films, Disney wanted a simple story that was easy to animate, and that's exactly what they got. At just over one hour, it's one of the shortest of the Disney animated features. In fact, RKO Pictures, the distributor of Disney's films, refused to release Dumbo at first, stating that it was too short and would either have to be lengthened, billed as a short subject or listed as B-movie (which, at the time, just meant the second/lesser known film of a double feature). But Disney held fast, and RKO finally agreed to distribute the film as a feature. Despite the war in Europe and the attack on Pearl Harbor just two months after this film's release, it still turned a profit and received critical success. Many saw it as a return to the roots of Disney with a simple, character driven animated story. Compared to Pinocchio and Fantasia, which many critics said were too ambitious or complex for the medium, Dumbo was easy to watch and joyful with great music. With this film, many of the Disney themes were established. While both Snow White and Pinocchio had original songs composed for the films, the Dumbo soundtrack contained seven original songs (Snow White had three and while Pinocchio had six, remember that this film is a full twenty minutes shorter). This is also the first Disney feature to have anthropomorphic animals as the main characters, something which became almost requisite thereafter.

One of the things I missed in my youth, and which I took special notice of upon this watching, is that the crows are incredibly smart and helpful. I already mentioned the word play, but when they help Dumbo fly, they give him a "magic feather." When I was a kid, I always thought that the feather really did have some magic in it, and that Dumbo needed it to fly at first but that the magic somehow passed into him so he didn't need it anymore after he dropped it. Of course now I know that's bogus; the crows used the feather as a mind-trick. And Timothy is in on it. When I realized that in my young-adulthood (when I was watching old Disney movies "ironically" except not ironically, more in an attempt to recapture my simpler youth because I was all angsty over some girl or something else that teenagers needlessly worry about OH GOD WHY DIDN'T SHE WANT TO GO TO THE DANCE WITH ME AND WHY CAN'T I BE POPULAR LIKE THE POPULAR KIDS WHY whoa...that was weird) it changed my whole perception of the crows. At first I was like, "Oh, so Dumbo didn't even need to meet the crows" and then later I realized, "Wait, yes he did." See, Timothy was a good friend, and a big dreamer, but he needed to know how to help Dumbo out. The crows saw an opportunity, and when they realized that Dumbo was too downtrodden to believe in himself, they gave Timothy the gift of the "magic" feather. It's just a feather, but to tell Dumbo it's magic, it gave him hope that it would make him fly. So, basically, the crows are doctors and they just prescribe Dumbo a placebo. And it works! It's all mind over matter. The whole film, for being only an hour long and such a simple story, is chock full of great story. And sure, stories with a moral are often times annoying. Moral stories can be really heavy-handed and over the top and so eye-rolling, head banging, groaningly sigh-inducing at times, but this one's better because the story is so simple. Be yourself, and believe in yourself, and you will accomplish something. It may not be what you set out to do, but take stock of your assets, your liabilities, and play to your strengths. And above all, listen to those who are trying to help, and ignore those who don't help. Chances are, you'll be able to dive bomb them and spit peanuts out of your trunk when you prevail, those bastards.

Once again, Wikipedia helped out. Revisions were most recently made by me so that what I tell you here matches what you read there.

1 comment:

ebretzel said...

I always liked the elephant/camelphant hallucination part as a kid too. It was the most fun part of the movie! It wasn't until I got older that I thought it was actually creepy.

The crows and their "punny" song about an elephant flying was another fave of mine. Although, one could argue that the crow characters were depicted a bit racistly... as a kid I just thought they were silly.