by Stephen Russell-Gebbett
“Fixing a Hole” is a series whose sole purpose is to review films that have not yet been covered on Wonders in the Dark. The theme for November is “Animated Animals.”
While Joel has selected all the titles, certain films have been assigned to guest writers. This week Checking on My Sausages‘ Stephen, who conducted the Animation Countdown on Wonders in the Dark, takes a look at the pros and cons of Disney’s 1941 cartoon.
Dumbo (1941/United States/directed by Samuel Armstrong, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts, Ben Sharpsteen)
stars the voices of Edward Brophy, Sterling Holloway, Cliff Edwards, Herman Bing
written by Joe Grant, Dick Huemer, Otto Englander, Bill Peet, Aurelius Battaglia, Joe Rinaldi, Vernon Stallings, Webb Smith from the book by Helen Aberson, Harold Pearl • music by Frank Churchill, Oliver Wallace • animation department: Art Babbitt, James Bodrero, Ward Kimbell, John Lounesbury, John P. Miller, Maurice Noble, Elmer Plummer, Martin Provenson, Woolie Reitherman, Vladimir Tytla, John Walbridge, Frank Thomas, and others • produced by Walt Disney
The Story: Dumbo, an elephant with big ears, is born to a circus animal. Shunned by the rest of the herd (“his disgrace is our own shame”), he is mocked and ridiculed by man and beast alike. Mrs. Jumbo, his mother, is whipped and caged for trying to protect her child. Separated from her, a sad Dumbo tries, with the help of a mouse and a band of crows, to get by in the circus business and find a way to be reunited with his mother.
Maybe those ears, those very things that held him down, will carry him up and up…
The character of Dumbo, the elephant who can (spoilers ahead) fly, is said to have been inspired by a comic strip on the back of a cereal box. Dumbo the story is itself a brief and simple sketch, but one hour long. The style is simple too, recalling the animations of pioneer Winsor McCay (Gertie the Dinosaur) in both line and movement. After the flamboyant excesses, and financial losses, of Fantasia, Dumbo is Disney pared down and relatively unassuming.
The opening scene in which the animals board a (anthropomorphised) train, is as colourful as a nursery and has a curiosity and energy that is quite different from the sickly nannying charm offensive that afflicts many Disney films. It is during this journey a stork delivers a child to Mrs.Jumbo. The train choo choos through the landscape and as it grinds to a halt at its destination, the music too slows down to a stop. It’s fun.
Once the characters are properly introduced and the story gets going, this energy becomes trying when applied to every situation and almost every animal and person. It’s all big. There are quite a lot of children’s films that think that, to be enjoyed by children, everybody in them has to act like a child or a fool. It is like the adult who leans into the pram and goes “coochy-coo!”.
Stories for children have always been filled with caricature. Exaggerations of traits can be stereotyping. It applies to everything in the film, which is why I think the crows are not racist depictions as has been claimed – all are tarred with the same brush, inspected with the same crude magnifying glass. Many fictions are built and thrive on this. There is a difference, however, between a character being a caricature of himself (larger than life, distinctively drawn literally and figuratively) and being a rehash of the ways we’ve seen clowns, country hicks, lions, circus performers and fat cats depicted through the ages. There’s nothing wrong with it ‘morally’ (there’s no malicious intent) but it is a letdown in terms of narrative.
While the story is a bit of a bore (and by no means offering an inspirational moral to take home, as we shall see), the film occasionally gets off the ground in a few magical details, the red ribbon that wards off the evil eye: Dumbo’s bath-time frolics with his mother, a kangaroo cradling its young and creaking like a rocking chair, a clever song that plays on nouns and verbs (“I’ve seen a fireside chat, a baseball bat…”) and a drunken hallucination that includes a hideous monster made up of elephant heads and ends with floating pachyderms softly morphing into clouds in a dawn sky.
This dreamscape, created by a champagne-spiked bath-tub, leaves Dumbo with a hangover and stuck with his only friend Timothy Mouse up a tree. It dawns on the mouse that Dumbo has flown up there. Dumbo doesn’t believe it so Timothy gives him a feather that he says gives him the power to fly. And so he does!
Back at the circus, Dumbo has to perform a terrifying and dangerous act, jumping from a tall burning building. As he jumps, he drops the feather, and the fear and horror in his eyes as he plummets is genuinely disturbing. Depressed by loneliness and sucked of all self-confidence, the shy elephant must finally believe in himself : that he is capable of flying and of doing something extraordinary. Inches from the clowns ready to catch him he swoops up into the rafters of the big top. This an exciting moment of relief and glory.
He sucks up some peanuts and fires them at the elephants who demeaned him. That’ll show them, that’ll shown everybody! But wait. What has it shown them?
The final scene sees Dumbo flying over the train, into the ‘arms’ of his mother, now no longer imprisoned but lounging in her own private carriage. The other elephants look on with joy and awe, accepting him for as shallow a reason as the one for which they ostracised him. ‘We benefit from your freakishness’. This is something of a child’s point of view, a playground mentality. And don’t worry about being bullied, as long as you can fly.
I included Dumbo on a countdown of animated films I did last year on the strength of fusty old extra mature memories. I didn’t have time to revisit it. It turns out that my favourite memory of Dumbo actually comes from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Watching Dumbo again I was disappointed. There are good points: the animation is fine and better for being unspectacular. There are moments of real class and invention.
The best thing about it, though, was discovering afterwards that Dumbo does not utter a word throughout the whole film, not even a sound. I hadn’t even realised. That says something, despite all the cliches, the plasticine vulgarity and the overly silly attitude, for Disney’s abilities. Like Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, this is a great silent performance. Dignity in a world of nonsense.
Last week’s entry: The Story of the Fox