Saturday, April 4, 2009

Disney Marathon: Dumbo

Dumbo (1941, Ben Sharpsteen et al.)

Following the box-office failures that were Pinocchio and Fantasia, it was high time Walt Disney and his gifted crew actually produce a profitable but high quality feature length film. Looking for inspiration in children’s stories yet again (as was the case with both Snow White and Pinocchio) Disney came across a relatively unknown tale about an elephant with oversized ears that could make him fly. Dumbo was written by Helen Amberson and illustrated by Harold Perl. The book only contained 8 illustrations and a handful of lines. With Disney clamouring for a quality but relatively inexpensive production, the fit seemed perfect.

A little bit like with Pinocchio, the production on Dumbo was not without its share of hiccups. The most notable of them was of course the animators strike. It lasted a good five weeks and apparently disrupted the previously harmonious atmosphere in the studio. As a little jab to those who participated in the lock-out, there is a scene in the film in which clowns working at Dumbo’s circus give praise to themselves while sharing some drinks and subsequently storm out of their tent to demand a pay raise. Water colour paint was the animators primary tool to render the backgrounds, which incidentally are not really as exquisite as those seen in some of the previous films in this marathon (hence the cost cutting.). The character of Dumbo was originally supposed to be featured on the cover of Time magazine, but shortly before the film’s release Japan and the United States entered war, and thus that idea was dropped.

Interesting notes: Dumbo is 1 of the only 2 pre-1943 Disney films to make a profit at the box-office. It cost $813,000, well below the cost of all the studio’s previous movies. Running at 64 minutes, the film is clearly one of the studio’s shortest efforts. Cliff Edwars, who famously voiced Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, returns here for a short cameo as a very awkwardly named crow, Jim Crow (he talks like a southern African American. Ouch).

The story here is really, really simple. One day, a stork, in classic fantasy fashion, delivers the newborns to all the female animals resting at the circus they work at. All except Mrs. Jumbo the elephant receive their children. Mrs. Jumbo is thankfully rewarded for her patience a few days later as the circus travels by train to their next destination. The stork finds their train and delivers a newborn elephant to mother Jumbo, whom she promptly names Jumbo Junior. She and her fellow female colleagues quickly discover that Jumbo Jr. has oversized ears. What a freak they all claim! All except, of course, for Mrs. Jumbo who, in excellent motherly fashion, gives him the love and tenderness that a baby deserves and needs. As one of the female elephants snorts, the child possesses ears that only a mother could love. Worst still, they tease the baby by calling him Dumbo instead of Jumbo. Humpf…bitches.

One day, as Dumbo is being mocked yet again by onlookers, Mrs. Jumbo rushes to her child’s defence. The animal trainers and circus owner rush to see what is going on, creating only more ruckus. It is deemed that mother Jumbo is clearly an animal too wild for the public and is imprisoned in solitary confinement. Separated from is mother and laughed at by spectators and even the freaking clowns, Dumbo is befriended by a mouse named Timothy, who makes it his own duty to help Dumbo rise to fame…

Dumbo was a strange viewing experience for me. Clocking in at a paltry 64 minutes, the filmmakers had put themselves in a strange predicament where they couldn’t stretch the scope of the story or the set pieces too much because they were not allotted the sufficient running time to do so, and yet they had to make a film that was sufficiently cinematic in terms of animation and tell a cohesive story in 1 hour. Treacherous territory I’d say, and by the end, I felt I had watched a film that would have been fine as a 1 hour television special. I think that if I had paid to see Dumbo on the big screen, especially after seeing Fantasia, I would have felt a bit ripped off. Now, I will concede that I look stupid typing such a complaint since Dumbo was one of the more financially and critically successful of the early Disney movies. An opinion is an opinion however and we all have them. I simply find the scope of this film really small, even after considering the constraints Disney put on his crew during the production. When the film ended, my initial reaction was: ‘That was it? The movie is over?’ I never had the feeling that a whole lot was happening, whether 5 minutes in, 20 minutes in or 30 minutes in. As I mentioned, as a tv special or as short at a film festival, I think the film would be fine, but as a major picture (which was how it was pitched and advertised by Walt Disney), I’m not so sure this one stacks up with the others that well.

But that can be considered a minor complaint, which is why I wanted to get it out of the way quickly. There is a fair amount of things I found rather enjoyable about this effort. For a cartoon that apparently put some limitations on the tools the animators had at their disposal (money and time), the film looks pretty decent I’d say. I have been really pleased to see how fluid much of the animation we have witnessed so far has been, and I thought that trend continued in Dumbo, budgetary restrictions or not. The three previous films viewed in this marathon displayed far greater detail and originality in design, granted, but I didn’t find Dumbo ever looked totally cheap. It looked good throughout. In fact, I thought the animators found fun and unique ways of providing a certain visual flair by depicting what could have been ordinary scenes with slight twists. The construction of the circus tent (after the train ride and once they have reached their destination) takes place at night, during a storm and has the participation of many of the circus animals. The animated lighting and shadowing looks very good in that sequence. Another moment features the circus clowns who gather in their tent for drinks after a successful show. The filmmakers have the viewer see the clowns take off their costumes and chat from outside the tent. With the light on inside, each clown becomes an easily discernable shadow moving along the tent’s walls. Those are two examples of scenes that took what could have been either boring (building a tent) or costly (tons of different clowns in a tent) scenes and make them work very well from both a visual and character development standpoint. The viewer understands how the clowns behave after the shows and what their aspirations are, and the dynamic involvement of the animals in the preparation of the circus is explored, as well as Dumbo’s clumsiness. Another sequence that I found hysterical was the clown show with a fake apartment on fire and the clowns playing the roles of goofy fire fighters. While it perhaps does not show off any stupendous animation quality and in fact looks a bit plain, I couldn’t stop laughing. The individual actions and jokes the clowns perform in that set pieces are so stupid, so moronic, yet I felt virtually every single one of them hysterical. The clowns even look dumber than regular clowns. It’s a ridiculous sequence but I felt the need to highlight it because I hadn’t laughed that hard since the beginning of the marathon. The Seven Dwafs may have been more interesting characters, I won’t deny that, but yes I found these clowns to be funnier.

Which brings me to Dumbo himself. I felt that the character of Dumbo suffered from the ‘Snow White effect’ (shotgun! copyright!whatever...), that is, a central figure whom the viewer knows little about, whether during the early stages, the middle, or even the end of the film. The most logical rebuttal against this argument would be that the elephant is a mere infant, incapable of speech at the moment and still learning his way in the world. This is a fair rebuttal, I won’t contest its validity, but that didn’t change the fact that I knew very little about this kid, which made him a difficult character to get involved in. Also as in Snow White, a sidekick, in my humble opinion, upstages the central character in the blink of an eye. Timothy the mouse has a cocky flair to him that I enjoyed witnessing. Not only did the filmmakers inject him with some attitude, but they balanced his character out with a kindness. He may have some quick one liners, but he’s a good guy basically who recognizes that Dumbo is a rejected member of his society and chooses to come to the elephant’s aid. Of course, Timothy also makes mention of earning fame and fortune, but I never had the impression that that was the main goal on Timothy’s mind. He really wanted to be friend’s with Dumbo and help him out.

The friendship between Dumbo and Timothy possesses some thematic value as well. Moments before Timothy meets Dumbo, he scares away all the female elephants who mocked the child. The running joke of course is that elephants are petrified of mice. The fear of what they don’t know. The elephants also mock Dumbo since they have chosen not to understand him, but rather judge him by his physical traits. Essentially the movie presents the viewer with a curious duo featuring a freakish looking elephant and a mouse, whom all elephants are supposed to be terrified of. In a sense, one could call Dumbo a very early anti-racism story. Whether or not Disney really had intended exactly that I don’t know, but their thematic intentions couldn’t have been far off.

The characters I enjoyed watching despite some ridiculous writing choices were the crows, which are accorded far too little screen time since they appear with perhaps only 10 minutes or so left at the end. They’re black, they talk like southern African Americans, they smoke, they’re cocky, they make fun of Dumbo and Timothy. For crying out loud, the leader of the group is called Jim Crow! For all those issues, I found them really fun. Is that the little racist in me wanting to be set free and rejoice in retarded stereotypes? Maybe, I don’t know, but holy cow those birds were fun to have around for the climax. At least they decide to help out in the end, so I imagine they were okay all along…

Speaking of climaxes, Dumbo is yet another film in this marathon that has a very rushed ending. Snow White (to a large degree) and Pinocchio (to a certain degree) suffered the same fates. Fantasia doesn’t really count since that was an entirely different beast, but I’m anticipating an ending one of these days that doesn’t feel as though it were constructed on the last day of production.

What am I missing? Oh yes, they hallucination sequence which occurs once both Dumbo and Timothy have inadvertently intoxicated themselves with alcohol. That is, as many viewers and critics have said over the years, the highlight of the film. I’d be foolish to even attempt to disagree. It is really well animated. The rainbow selection of colours set against the black backdrop, the shape shifting elephants dancing and prancing around, the quick pace of the sequence, etc. It’s undeniably a riské effort by the Disney studio. The Queen’s servant tried to kill Snow White, Pinocchio smoked a cigar and had a pint, but with Dumbo, the filmmakers really tried to push the envelope in terms of creativity and abstract animation in relation to its purpose in the narrative. Fantasia displayed the abstract for the sake of beauty and art. This is an actual psychedelic trip the main characters embark on when under the influence of intoxication. I’d wager that I would have made a fine addition to Fantasia itself. Who knows, maybe the sequence was concocted from some left over ideas on the previous production. Notwithstanding the shocking fact of Dumbo getting drunk, I sincerely believe the hallucination possesses some thematic resonance. The sequence features spooky, abnormal elephants performing strange acts accompanied by a strange song hinting at a definite fear of elephants. I think this worked very well in the context of the story. Dumbo, up until this point, has been shunned by his peers and mocked by almost all who have set their eyes upon him. He is the freak in everybody’s eyes (except his mother and Timothy), and I think the lad has gone into a certain depression. A lack of self confidence, a lack of friends, all this mental and emotional stress affecting the boy culminates in this bizarre sequence. He is a monster and that paranoia is unleashed once his faculties are no longer fully his own (aka, he’s drunk and not thinking straight). Of course, why the hell does Timothy experience the same visions then? I haven’t figured that one out yet, but I’m sticking with a half-baked theory.

Just like with the other entries, here are some small annoyances/questions I had during my viewing: 1-If Mrs. Jumbo is so insulted when her son is taunted with the name Dumbo at first, why does the name stick? Why does even Timothy call him that if they’re friends? 2-Why were the female elephants so insulted when the stork asks who was expecting baby upon delivering Jumbo, uh, I mean Dumbo? Moments later they claim this to be a grand occasion yet they didn’t want a baby? 3-Also, I never liked the story about storks delivering babies. Even as a kid I felt that was a stupid myth/fantasy. 4-I really, really like the hallucination sequence, but how exactly do Dumbo and Timothy start hallucinating? I mean, holy cow, what was that drink and where can I get some? Was there some LSD solution in that bottle or something? Absinthe? Really, it’s a fantastic sequence, but how in blazes does it take place if they only drank a bit of alcohol?

All in all, Dumbo is a fine effort in its own right. Moments of greatness with many okay-to-good moments surrounding them. When compared to the previous entries in this marathon, especially its immediate predecessor, Fantasia, I don’t think it’s that good however. It’s good, no doubt, but small fry Disney nonetheless.

Want more on Dumbo? Check out Bill's Movie Emporium review of the film.

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