Saturday, March 12, 2016
Disney Watch: Dumbo (1941)
"Get ready to cry your eyes out" I said to Jamie as I was putting the BluRay in the player. The movies was Dumbo (1941), and, man, if you don't get a little choked up when Dumbo's mom picks him up in her trunk during the "Baby Mine" sequence, you may want to run a magnet over your skull and check to see if it attaches to your skull, in which case you are, in fact, a robot, you unfeeling monster.
As a kid, I had a fondness for Dumbo, but I couldn't tell you where or how I saw the movie. The sharpest memory of the character from my childhood is (a) riding the Dumbo ride at The Magic Kingdom in Florida with The Admiral and (b) taking home a Dumbo stuffed toy from The Magic Kingdom. So, I'm thinking, I had a pretty firm attachment to ol' Dumbo from back in the day.
Then, during my tenure at The Disney Store, we could borrow copies of the Disney movies from a lending closet (they wanted us to actually be familiar with the Disney cartoons. Good on them!), and at 19 or so I was reminded of how much I liked the movie as I cried my way through a cartoon.
Poor lil' Dumbo.
The animation is a step backward from Snow White and - due to production and budgetary concerns - isn't anywhere near where Disney would get with Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi, and yet the animation is highly effective in a kid's 20th Century storybook sort of way. The animators may have been working with less, but they still do a lot with it, and so much is made up for in the execution of story, music and character (and Timothy is a terrific guiding character in a much more blue-collar Jiminy Cricket sort of mode). And if you're watching, Pogo creator, Walt Kelly, is listed in the credits as an animator - still working at Disney at the time before he began his career in comics.
While much of the movie is deeply dated - from just about anything about a circus existing (and Ringling Bros. recently announced they're phasing out elephants altogether), to the deeply complicated conversation we could have about the crows in the film - it's hard to find themes more universal than the love between mother and child or alienation because of a difference from the standard. Or, getting accidentally drunk with work colleagues.
Dumbo, of course, never speaks. And Mrs. Jumbo only ever utters Dumbo's proper name, "Jumbo, Jr.", but as is the way - the jerks have their say and rename Mrs. Jumbo's own child and the hurtful name sticks. And it may be in the mimed performance of Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo, all action and expressions, that we get such a powerful relaying of the hurt they're both going through.
Mrs. Jumbo tries to protect her child, too young to understand how the old biddy elephants are treating him poorly and mocking him, and then from the cruelty of tween children visiting the circus, all of which hits home in a way you wish didn't feel so spot on. Mrs. Jumbo's anger gets her put in confinement, leaving poor Dumbo without his mother or a friend until Timothy the Mouse decides to stick up for the kid.
After a failed attempt to join the elephant show, Dumbo is relegated to work with the clowns, which - bizarrely and hilariously - in the context of the film are barely human, semi-insane characters, a danger to themselves and everyone around them. Likely, this was part of the case our subconsciousness built in the "clowns are scary" argument.
I'm not quite sure how to talk about the crows. It's not up to me to decide if this scene is racist or not, but in a movie that comes down squarely anti-clown, it does seem pro-crow and leverages the sympathy of fellow outsiders to the circus world to get Dumbo where he needs to be: up in the air.
Yes, of course Dumbo realizes the difference he wears is also a gift. Dumbo is the X-Man of Disney cartoons.
Once we hit the point where Dumbo takes to the air, that's really it. It's a happily ever-after scenario that doesn't complicate matters much with a rise, fall, rise storyline or extra baggage. Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo just get to be happy together and the circus carries on with its star attraction.
It's tough to say the characters here are three-dimensional, but the story works in the way of a children's book. The struggles of the story ring true (maybe too true by today's standards of avoiding any negative emotions), and you can't argue with the impact. What I think is most notable is how much more impact this movie has on you as you get older. It may be a kid-safe movie, but I think for adults who've passed this confusing point in their lives and for who may feel a little closer to Mrs. Jumbo and her concerns, it's a powerful movie.