Monday, January 18, 2010

#4: Dumbo (1941)

After the not-so rousing success of his last two pictures, Disney decided to go economically safe with its next feature 'Dumbo.' The name of the game was to keep the film simple and inexpensive. As a result, it might not appear as lush and detailed as the previous movies, but allowed the film to be more cartoonishly stylized and focus more on the acting, almost like a elongated Silly Symphonies short. Speaking of short, this is one of the studio's shorter pictures, at barely an hour long.

The story begins as a stork delivers a bundle of joy to one of the many elephants riding the Casey, Jr. train in a traveling circus. Things go south once the baby elephant is revealed to have humongous ears, and is quickly shunned by everyone but his mother. Unfortunately, she's later locked up for trying to protect her baby from some snot-nosed kid. Dumbo eventually finds a friend in Timothy J. Mouse, a fast-talking vermin who keeps trying to come up with ways to get the elephant a name for himself. By the end, thanks to some assistance by some heckling crows, they find that Dumbo's big ears make him rather aerodynamic, making him the world's first flying elephant.

As I said before, this film was made on the cheap, but I thought the simpler, more caricatured style to be more interesting and entertaining. The humans, particularly the clowns, felt much more loosely animated, and their one scene during the firemen act is so frantic and insane. Another act featuring the elephants getting on top of each other to form a pyramid is an absolute marvel: seeing these fully fleshed out creatures with such understanding of mass try to get on top of one another is a wonder to behold. And when Dumbo accidentally f's it all up, it's an animation tour de force as it all comes tumbling down.

Now Timothy Mouse is a bit reminiscent of Jiminy Cricket, but Timothy is a lot more hands-on with his friendship with Dumbo, and is a vastly more interesting character. He almost seems like a smarmy, selfish character, but does seem to genuinely care about this elephant. As for the story, there isn't much of one, other than Timothy's scheming to launch Dumbo to super stardom. That seems to be enough though, with the addition of the relationship between Dumbo and his mother. That doesn't stop the film for having what might be the most psychotic act of padding in any film I've seen. Dumbo and Timothy become drunk (by accident, of course) and lead into the infamous pink elephant sequence, which is more crazy than I'd imagine it to be, but also an amazing piece of animation. It has no bearing or relevance to the film at all, but it's so damn awesome that I didn't seem to mind.

Also amusing are the crow characters that show up near the end of the film, who initially deride Dumbo, but ultimately help him to fly. They're animated so well and have a great music number... but there's no real denying that they're dated black caricatures (the leader is named Jim. That's Jim Crow in full). Some have cried foul about the alleged racism, but I don't really see it that way. The characters are shown as witty, independent and eventually helpful to our hero. They're quite jovial, really. And if you look at the black caricatures we still have today, I'd hang out with these crows any time.

Verdict? Disney's cheapest flick ends out to be my favorite so far. Its simplified style leads for greater attention to wacky, loose acting, complimented with a sweet story and entertaining characters. Sometimes simple really is best.

This actually got me thinking about how this story would be handled today, especially the all-around "message." The crows team with Timothy in getting Dumbo to believe holding a magic feather will make him fly, and of course during the big circus act as he plummets to the earth, he loses the feather. Timothy pleads with Dumbo that the feather was all a big goof and to open his ears, which he does, and they fly off. Now today, where it seems every animated movie needs to have a moral, what would this be like now? Well Dumbo would talk, first off, and there'd be this big moral center, openly explained by Timothy, on how everyone has something special to offer and that he could do anything if he believed in himself. You know, all that horseshit. Thankfully this film was made seventy years ago, where cartoon characters were free to get drunk and not be looked upon as moral guardians. Sheesh.

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