Tuesday, August 30, 2011

DATE Night: Dumbo

It's already our fourth DATE Night! Things are coming along swimmingly dontcha think? I think this may even turn into something long-term. Don't tell Tom, though. He gets jealous since he's wearing my ring and all. This time around I'm taking you to the circus for Dumbo

The Background:

Artwork from the original Roll-A-Book.
Pinocchio and Fantasia were mad expensive and took a very long time to make, y'all! Gorgeous as they may have been, those big gambles did not exactly pay off the way it had been hoped that they would. The studio needed a project to follow them up that they could make quickly and inexpensively. They found their solution in the slight story of Dumbo the flying elephant that had been created as a Roll-A-Book, which was a scrolling toy/book hybrid. They expanded the story into a full-length feature, though at just over an hour, it is one of their shortest.

Simplicity was the name of the game. They worked quickly and economically and after less than a year they had the final product- Dumbo. It was released in late 1941 and was warmly received by critics, who saw the film as a return to form for Disney. The film was the most financially successful release of the forties from the studio, aided, no doubt, by the fact that it cost half as much as Snow White had cost them to produce. It weathered an animator's strike and being famously knocked off the cover of Time Magazine by the attack on Pearl Harbor to become one of the most beloved of the Disney animated classics. 

The First Impression:

The Disney Project- Part 11: Dumbo. (Just came in at the library) Dumbo is precious. You can't help but love him and his mom and Timothy for protecting him. Though it almost feels more like a long short than a feature, it's quite sweet and nicely simple. "Baby Mine" is one of my favorite songs ever and so heartbreaking in context. And I want a sip of what made them see the pink elephants. What an amazing sequence!
February 6, 2010 at 7:23pm ·

The Art:

7/10. The art in Dumbo is a complete 180 from the style of their earlier films. It is less representational and more stylized, simpler and brighter. It almost feels like a feature film with the look of an exceptionally good short. That's not to say there aren't impressive effects or artistry, because there are. The watercolor backgrounds, the rain and cloud effects at the opening, the storm and lightning effects during the raising of the tents, and the stunning use of color throughout prove that this was crafted by skilled artists. Artwork this straightforward fits a story this uncomplicated.

I am terrified that they will eat me in my sleep.
Of course, no discussion of the art in Dumbo is complete without mentioning the "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence. It is so incredibly far ahead of its time that I still don't think we've caught up with it. The hallucinogenic quality makes for an unforgettable experience that's unlike anything else Disney had ever done before or since, no matter how hard those Heffalumps and Woozles may try. This is truly groundbreaking artwork. It is ingenious and sophisticated and a complete contrast to the rest of the film. It is creepy and mesmerizing in equal parts and even cleverly pokes fun at Fantasia in the ballet portions.

The Story:

Those eyes...sigh...
7/10. Simple. Exactly as it should be. The slight premise was expanded just enough without over bloating it. It feels less episodic than Pinocchio, moving swiftly along as the idea of Dumbo learning to excel by embracing his differences, despite the discouragement of others, takes center stage. Each experience that our little friend goes through helps support that thesis without indulging in superfluous tangents. The only exception is the "Pink Elephants" section, but if they were going to go off the beaten path, I'm glad they did it in such a bold, visually impressive way. They knew they needed a showpiece to lighten the mood a bit, and they got it and how. The movement is lean and muscular, following a path so familiar that it is actually archetypical. No bells and whistles, just necessities. This kind of back to basics storytelling was a breath of fresh air after the experimentation of the last two films. It was much needed.

The Characters:

8/10. This is the area where the movie really shines. We see from go that the animals are going to have more human characteristics and the humans are going to be vaguely sketched in, which immediately gives us permission to empathize with the animals and see things from their point of view. The humans are cartoonishly evil (the ringmaster and the boys that taunt Dumbo), completely faceless voids (the roustabouts), or seen in silhouette. The animals are shown as more like humans and the humans are shown as more like animals.

Even the clowns are less like humans in the ring than an alien species biologically created solely for hijinks in the ring. It's rather creepy, in fact. By the way, I don't know if I've mentioned it before, but clowns terrify me to no end. Mama says that when we went to the circus museum when I was a little nubbin, I was so horrified that I spent the entire trip going from trash can to trash can peering in to avoid having to look at anything else. Therefore I find it rather amusing that clowns seem to be the lowest life form imaginable in this film. The worst punishment that could possibly dealt to Dumbo is that he be forced to be a clown. Sounds about right to me. Shudder.

Even one of the Real Housewives' plastic
 surgeons couldn't fix that.
The character of Dumbo is so amazingly animated, you just want to scoop him into your arms and love him forever. The fact that he doesn't utter a word for the entire film means that not only does he seem more child-like, but you feel more protective. Not to mention it means that the animator, Bill Tytla, had a massive task ahead of him. He had to animate the central character of the movie, who was a pantomime elephant, and make us fall head over heel in love with him. The result is some of the most lovely character animation ever put on celluloid. From his very first appearance, Dumbo's sweetness is palpable, with his teardrop-shaped, crystal blue eyes and eager and loving nature. When he sneezes and his ears pop out, you can't help but adore him. At every turn, from being forced to perform tricks in the circus tent to getting drunk, he is a curious little nugget whose openness and curiosity are an audience's window into the world of the story.

Don't mess with his mama, yo. She'll school you.
Your heart breaks for Mrs. Jumbo, Dumbo's mother, when she doesn't get her package from the stork at the top of the film. Then the lovely moments between Dumbo and his mother are so exceptionally touching they are truly able to establish a very real, loving relationship between them. When she takes those huge ears and swaddles him in them, you know that she is a mother who will love her son because of and not despite his flaws. You can feel the warmth. When they touch trunks, it has the truthful spark of a real mother/son connection. You adore the mother for protecting her son at any cost. When she lashes out against the children teasing Dumbo, she gets so upset that the blue eyes she and her son have in common turn red with anger. The devastation of her being locked up as punishment makes your heart sink. During "Baby Mine", when she cradles Dumbo in her trunk, a simple gesture becomes the ultimate expression of motherly love.

Contemplating where he left his pants.
Timothy is a great sidekick for Dumbo. He is the more gentle Jiminy Cricket to Dumbo's more relatable Pinocchio. He advises him, brings him out of his shell, and supports him unwaveringly. There is a great moment when Timothy uses one of Dumbo's tears to lather him the soap to clean him off as if to tell him to use his sadness to propel him forward and not hold him back. He was charmingly voiced by actor Edward Brophy, whose work in gangster pictures gave Timothy the sound of a mob boss with a heart of gold.

The other supporting animal characters are also distinctively animated and voiced. The moments showing the other baby animals with their mamas work like a charm. Disney has a knack for making little ones in the animal kingdom so squishy that you want to just eat them up. The goofy stork who delivers Dumbo is portrayed by Sterling Holloway, who would later voice Winnie the Pooh and the Chesire Cat. Verna Felton, whose voice is familiar as the Queen of Hearts and the Fairy Godmother, made the leader of the cruel elephant ladies icily horrifying.

The one on the right looks like he has
the glasses bird from the Tulgey Wood in
Alice in Wonderland sitting on him.
One other familiar voice is that of the head crow, named Jim Crow (yikes), who was performed by Cliff Edwards, who also provided the voice for Jiminy Cricket. All of the other crows are voiced by African-Americans. They are clever with their words, playful, and turn out to be Dumbo's allies. This leads us to the sticky wicket of the crows and the accusation of racial stereotyping. I will say that I winced a bit, but I don't see them as any more or less offensive than Sunflower from Fantasia or Song of the South. I find it interesting what Disney censors and what they don't. Once again, I think it's important to keep characters like this intact. They tell us about our history and are opportunities to open up conversations about the portrayal of minorities in film. And that's something that is still a hot topic

The Music:

6/10. The score, by Frank Churchill, who also wrote effectively for Snow White, does wonderful work again here, winning the Oscar for best score. It does a fantastic job of evoking the circus atmosphere and guiding your emotional journey through the movie. It also wonderfully underscores the action in wordless scenes, like the first moments of bonding between Mrs. Jumbo and Dumbo.

I love the chick beneath the "B"
who's terrified of getting crushed.
Nice touch, poster artist.
The songs are half fantastic and half fine. Churchill wrote them with lyricist Oliver Wallace. "Baby Mine" is one of the most perfect lullabies ever written. It is still covered often be artists like Bette Midler (I'll admit it made me cry during Beaches, too) and Alison Krauss. "Casey Junior" is a fantastic theme which represents the anthropomorphized circus train. "Pink Elephants on Parade" is a vaguely sinister, completely weird ditty appropriate for a liquor-induced vision. "When I See an Elephant Fly" is jazzy tune of disbelief that turns into a triumphant blare at the very end. The rest of the songs, though not bad at all, fail to stand out or stand up to these fantastic numbers.

The Gay Scale:

Pride Parade float or Disney
Attraction? You decide. 
8/10. You have a youngster who is born different than all the other little ones. He is protected fiercely by a loving mother. He is torn away from his mother and finds an unlikely ally in another outsider, who unwaveringly stays on his side, reminding him that the things that hold him back will ultimately carry him up. He is judged by cruel grown-ups, who call him a freak that only a mother could love. They literally turn their backs on him, referring to him as their "shame" and saying that they wouldn't "eat at the same bail of hay with him". Finally, after he learns that his differences are what make him special, he finds his faith in himself. From there, what made him different makes him a star, which is the ultimate revenge for an outsider.

Any outsider narrative is bound to have an effect on a gay audience, and Dumbo is just that in it's purest, simplest form. It resonates deeply. It is very easy to read the movie as the story of a newly out young gay person into this film. All of these experiences are ones that we all go through at some point in the coming out process. What I love about Dumbo is how beautifully it reinforces that being unlike others is valuable and desirable. It also shows friends and family who are willing to fight to support Dumbo as he discovers his true self.

Pink elephant in drag. Still terrifying.
During the "Pink Elephants" sequence, Tom said "Those pink elephants are obviously gay. Wait...Now they're cars. I guess that has nothing to do with sexual orientation". He has a point. It really doesn't. But at the same time there is something indelibly queer about the sequence. It is over the top, proud of its freakiness, and pink as all get out. Oh. And they bellydance. Seems pretty gay to me.

The Bottom Line:

Best Dumbo Pin. EVER!
8/10. Dumbo is a movie that, though slight, is undoubtedly full of great characters and emotional impact. Add to that bright, colorful art, some fantastic songs, brisk pacing and humor in all the right places and you have a charmer without an ounce of fat on it. Just like Dumbo, who learned that what some considered a fault could be a major asset, Disney took a financial crunch and made it into an opportunity to focus on telling a simple story very well and creating outstanding characters. Instead of aiming for the clouds and falling short, it aims for your heart and hits a bullseye.

The Miscellanea:

Back in the early days of the Disney Channel, one of the flagship shows was Dumbo's Flying Circus. I have a vague recollection of the show and this theme song. Somehow it feels like I should be watching this with a big bowl of Fruit Loops in my lap while sitting way too close to the TV. Looking at it now, it amazes me what a different beast children's television programming is today. It also makes me appreciate how sophisticated Sesame Street always has been from day one and continues to be.

There was a sequel planned to Dumbo. A short trailer/making-of feature was on one of the DVD releases. The idea was abandoned and never came to be, and I must say I'm pretty happy with that decision. From the trailer it looks like it would have been another sequel by committee incorporating "important lessons that children should learn" and "characters designed to have specific characteristics that children can relate to". One day I'll give you an earful about how I feel about the direct-to-video sequels. Most of my opinions aren't terribly high. I'm grateful that Dumbo was spared this fate.

In Disneyland, they have a roaming Pearly Band, like the one that performs "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" with Mary Poppins. This is them performing "Pink Elephants on Parade". It is fully awesome.

It gets me all excited like because I am going to Disneyland with Tom in just two more weeks! Come to think of it, the last time that I went to Disneyland, also known as my first time, Tom and I went on Dumbo's Flying Elephants. I had never gone on it in my adult life. It always seemed like a long wait for a lame ride. Riding it in Disneyland was one of the coolest things we did that day. Just like the movie itself, sometimes the simplest things are the ones that will surprise you by being the most enjoyable. The sense of history riding the classic attraction and seeing all the little ones get so excited was magical. I can't wait to ride it again.

So, were you as charmed by Dumbo as I was or do you think that it's a little too lightweight? Do you miss the ambition of the past few films or did you appreciate that they dialed it back a little and simplified? Did you feel like you were tripping balls during the "Pink Elephants on Parade" section? Did you weep uncontrollably during "Baby Mine"? Come on, y'all. I know it's not just me!

I thought that next week maybe we could take a lovely walk in the forest with Bambi on our DATE Night. I'll pack the bug spray and if you come wearing cammo or bring a firearm with you, the date is officially canceled. Fair warning.

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