Sunday, February 1, 2015

Disney's Dumbo: Second thoughts

Sorry for not doing the usual follow-up routine, but I had kind of a hang-up with this one. Anyway, let's get into it.

So this was definitely a shorter movie than the others so far (way shorter than Fantasia) and I think from the comments I saw it had to do with World War II? Which makes sense. I never really thought much about what the war would do to movies besides influence the plots (Casablanca, Anchors Aweigh, Two Girls and a Sailor, Thousands Cheer, One of Our Aircraft is Missing, whole bunch of them). Animation in particular would have the issue that it's not famous faces you're carting off to join the battle. I'm surprised, thinking about it, that they got to make any films at all really.

I'm a bit ambivalent on some of this movie; Dumbo is damn cute and there's no arguing otherwise, but as a protagonist he has even less agency than Pinocchio did. Hell I'm pretty sure he has less agency than that molar that walks away from you in Fantasia. The movie obviously harkens back to the earlier picture with the roles of Timothy Mouse and Dumbo matching up with Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio, but where the first one is a sort of morality play about making your own decisions and not taking the easy path, Dumbo is a story that would be a tragicomedy at best if you reframed it with human characters. Think about it: A boy is born with an unconcealable deformity that makes his neighbors (and relations? I don't have context there) and his parents' friends shun and mock them. Effectively orphaned when his mother is jailed for trying to protect him, he survives by working at a circus, where his coworkers belittle him, put him in dangerous situations and burden him with responsibilities he can't fulfill. Eventually he finds success as a clown, but his life is lonely and deeply unsatisfying, for he lives to be laughed at and he never asked for any of it. It's only when he gets superpowers that anyone cares about him.

So yeah, it's... actually a real downer. It's not helped along much by the fact that the vast majority of the characters are unsupportive, exploitative or just plain complete bitches. I feel like those elephants are caricatures of people who I would want to punch in the face. The movie also has a strange aversion to names, which I guess is okay in the context that it's short and we hate almost anyone with a speaking part, but still surprisingly weird. Timothy only gets named right at the very end on the newspaper, Mrs. Jumbo isn't even her name, it's one of those Mrs. Frank MacDonald type constructions, and... well really that is it. There are three characters in the movie with names.

Let's keep up with the Pinocchio comparison because I like it and I want to. If Jiminy is supposed to be a conscience (and again I say he's total crap at it), Timothy is a living incarnation of Dumbo's missing assertiveness and self-worth. He's... not Dumbo's evil half, but his belligerent half. Picture the movie if Timothy was really just Dumbo with a switch flipped in his brain. Elephants are bitches? Run back in there and freak them all out with your freakishness, then go hide in a hay bale, scared of what you've done. Feeling down and out about your purpose in life? Tell the boss you'll be the next big thing if he gives you a chance, then freak out at your own boastfulness and trip over your own feet. Forced to become a clown? Remember that the audience ate it up and your coworkers think you made their act a big big hit, then shell up again as you realize you hate your job. I don't think it's a coincidence that they both get drunk at about the same time. You can smell when "water" isn't water, bud. Timothy is the loudmouthed, protective Hyde to Dumbo's meek and mute Jekyll.

Thinking about the crows... still kind of racist, honestly, but in an inoffensive way, if I can say that? It started when I looked back on all the other characters and quite frankly although they take the piss out of Timothy, they're the only other characters to offer support, advice or any sort of positive involvement in Dumbo's life. Barring Mrs. Jumbo, obviously. It helps too, I think, that they take a fairly assertive role, with the only nods to more racist depictions of black characters in stories being satirized in the way they mock Timothy. So... basically I'm going to acknowledge it happened and then give them a pass.

I don't like getting personal in these reviews, I said that a long time ago when I had to explain a really negative reaction I had to another movie. It's still true. Obviously there was one part here where I just had to set it down and walk away for a couple of hours. I don't really want to go into detail about this but just for the record, in case it might come up again and people can steer me away, I'll just let you know. My Mom is not mentally well. She's doing much better now, but back then after my father walked out and we had to move, that was probably her worst time My grandparents ended up raising me after she couldn't live with us anymor.

Okay, getting back on track now. Character designs keep getting stronger, although the animation for the bitchephants was kind of weak. They're pushing the boundaries on their humans which is excellent. In a couple of places there were some obviously cut corners which is too bad because when the animation was on, it was really on.

Songs, songs, songs. Quite a few in this one. So is it Disney that owns the Happy Birthday song rights, or did they have to pay to put it in this movie too? Or is that an urban legend? Otherwise, there were a couple of foolish songs, several completely forgettable (the worker one I couldn't even get lyrics out of, and while I know there was one about a stork it did not stick) and one of them the next entry in the proud tradition of repetitive jaunty catchy Disney melodies that don't really matter (Casey Junior). This movie actually has two standout songs in it, though. Baby Mine is a well-written and deeply affecting song as Disney tunes go, although I mean... obviously I have a bias with that whole scene just making me cry. That all said, if I were going to guess which song represents this movie in the big constellation of movie tunes, it would be a tough fight but I think it would lose to When I See An Elephant Fly. Disney's first sort of jazz number (of which I hope there are many more) dips into a gospel style in parts, funs around with wordplay, screws around with rhythms and is relentlessly wordy in a good way. Mind you it's not melodic. The chorus is, but the verses are atonal and there's little more than a rhythm section keeping things going there. Proof? The "choir" version in the ending has this flat attempt at a "melody" for the verse that just does not succeed.

I'm not going to not talk about the pink elephant in the room. THE FUCK? That's all.


Fine, that's not all. I mean, it's all kinds of imaginative but from whose LSD-soaked brain did they get those demonic eyeless "elephant" faces from? That song is verbose and complex to the point of mania WITHOUT The accompanying visuals, and the music that backs it is not particularly friendly either. The whole sequence is just absolutely bonkers and the complete lack of context (not to mention how relentlessly paced the switching is) makes every part of it a new and mind-bending kind of insanity. Kids, don't do drugs or Uncle Disney will animate your dreams. I admire its preposterousness, but holy smokes was it ever deranged.

Overall, getting over my personal biases, it's a cute little retread of earlier efforts that's short enough for people to enjoy. And it won't be on any rewatch list for me.


  1. "Pink elephants" are supposed to be a typical Delirium Tremens hallucination. I'm sure it knocked 'em dead in 1941.

    As to the Happy Birthday song, it's Warner Bros. that has the copyright in it. I think they didn't wrangle that until some time later, though, so at the time this would've been a kosher use of it.

  2. ...So yeah, thanks for reminding me that Disney was making Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer stories before Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

    Was Timothy really not named until the ending? I noticed a character who had that problem in Wreck-It Ralph. I guess some main character names they expect you to pick up ahead of time from the marketing, or they think that namelessness adds some "archetypal" weight to a "timeless" story or some hooey like that.

    And I think Timothy was the name of the cricket in that one Pinocchio anime dub I mentioned, so hey, there you go.

    1. Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun. Ralph only mentions the name "Calhoun" in the last scene, although you could read a text conversation with her name when Ralph first stares through the helmet from the inside if you know where to look in high definition.

  3. Yeah, so many "kids" movies have such horrible characters that we're apparently still supposed to like, like in Rudolph as Ryan mentioned.