27 January 2012

Disney Daze: Week 4: Dumbo

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

With the coffers dangerously low following the box office failures of Pinocchio and Fantasia, Walt Disney knew that his next feature had to be done quickly and inexpensively.  In January 1940, as laborious work continued on a naturalistic story about the life of a deer--a work the studio had been plugging away at since before Snow White's release--Walt optioned the rights to a children's book about an ostracized elephant with enormous ears named Dumbo.  Come summer the film was in storyboards and in the fall of 1941 Dumbo was playing in theatres across the country to enthusiastic audiences and rave reviews.  The film singlehandedly saved the studio from its perilously close brush with bankruptcy.  It was a triumph in every sense of the word, financially, publicly, and most importantly, artistically.

Dumbo, significantly smaller in scale than Pinocchio and less than half the length of Fantasia, is an economical marvel.  Walt trimmed what he could where he could without ever once sacrificing quality.  He passed all of these savings onto us, the audience.  Instead of intricately painted backgrounds with incredible depths of field, he had modest watercolored sets of simple yet effective design.  Unlike his three previous groundbreaking features, Dumbo did not introduce some new, virtuosic special effect.  Naturalism too was out the window, at least for the time being.  Dumbo is by far the most cartoonish picture of the studio's golden age and its magnificence is the ultimate proof that such aspirations can also attain cinematic transcendence.

Dumbo begins with a bang, its title card bursts off the screen before a series of fantastic credits designed like circus posters unfold before us.  The poster colors and typography are excellent examples of big top bombast and serve as a wonderful means of orientation into the film and its setting in lieu of a "traditional" Disney storybook opening, which both Snow White and Pinocchio possess (Fantasia in its roadshow format had no credits).  Dumbo sets the whiz-bang mood from the get-go.  We are then thrust incongruously into the chaos of a storm, thunder cracking and rain gushing down.  The sound of a plane buzzes by but all we see is grey tinged with lightning.  But before we know it the storm passes and the plane is nowhere to be seen.  Instead a flock of storks fill the screen, each carrying a bundle destined for the many animals employed by the circus.  The brief sequence of the mothers meeting their infants for the first time is a gem of pleasing gags.  That is until we stumble upon hopeful Mrs. Jumbo, one of the circus's many elephants, who looks longingly to the skies in anticipation for her expectant child.  

Unfortunately her bundle and carrier are lagging behind, slightly lost.  The stork, voiced by the great Sterling Holloway (Winnie-the-Pooh), is a charming minor character who shines in his brief delivery scene.  I love his obstinate professionalism, refusing to allow the eager Mrs. Jumbo (and the audience) to meet her baby before he recites the requisite poem that is included in the service.  Once the proper protocols are performed, the baby--our pachyderm protagonist---is unveiled.  The other elephants, all spineless gossiping spinsters, coo and coddle the child until it is discovered that he has disproportional ears and these harpies turn on a dime.  They gasp and whisper, shocked at the affront to their inherent dignity.  Amidst the protestations one crony gives little Jumbo Jr. his name, Dumbo. 

Through these first four Disney features, Vladimir "Bill" Tytla has quickly become my favorite character animator.  After giving life to the stubborn dwarf Grumpy, the bombastic Stromboli, and the fearsome Chernabog, Tytla was tasked here with animating our big-eared, mute protagonist, quite possibly the most adorable character in animation history (and the absolute antithesis of his predecessor, Fantasia's demon god).  From the onset Dumbo's innocence and eagerness to please beams from the screen.  Later, after his mother is taken away, the child's loneliness and uncertainty are handled with an intuitive gentleness that is unmatched in animation.  Sadly Dumbo would be Tytla's last major work for the studio.  Shortly after the film's completion, a bitter two-month strike forever changed the studio.  Tytla, one of the highest paid employees at the time, sympathized with the strikers, despite his misgivings with betraying Walt.  Following the standoff, the atmosphere at the studio changed dramatically.  Formerly home to a spirit of intense camaraderie, there was now a seeping, seething hostility.  Tytla managed to create some fine work on lesser films before finally leaving the company in 1943, a decision he would regret for the rest of his life.  And I regret it too, because we missed out on a few more decades of great animation.  Bill Tytla is one of the great unsung artists of the twentieth century.

Shortly after Dumbo's introduction, a scene of heartbreaking torment by local ruffians leads his mother into a raging rampage to protect her son.  Her violence results in a solitary confinement that might as well be death.  In fact, having not seen the film since childhood, my emotional memory was certain of Mrs. Jumbo's demise.  Her release and reunion at the end of the picture was no match in my mind for the trauma of her incarceration.  The scene of Dumbo visiting his mother in her cage, swinging on her trunk to the Oscar-winning "Baby Mine" is one of the most devastating in Disney history.

But Dumbo isn't all longing, mockery, and loneliness.  It also contains the most joyous, avant garde spectacle ever concocted by the studio.  After Dumbo and his wise-cracking Jiminy Cricket surrogate Timothy Q. Mouse accidentally become intoxicated (damn clowns), we are treated to the exquisite piece of pure animation, "Pink Elephants on Parade", a kaleidoscopic tour-de-force that manages to out-Fantasia Fantasia.  Perspectives skew, stretch and switch, forms explode themselves and dissolve into hallucinatory parts.  The vibrancy and audacity of this scene show a studio brash enough to try just about anything.  They were far from playing it safe.  There were plenty of trippy interludes to come from the Disney studio--from Heffalumps and Woozles to the whole of Alice in Wonderland--but none of them were as perfect as "Pink Elephants on Parade".  

Hungover the next morning, Timothy and Dumbo meet a ragtag group of wisecracking crows who ultimately allow Dumbo to realize his full potential.  Although there is a nothing in Dumbo as blatantly offensive as the character Sunflower in Fantasia, there are indeed some uncomfortable elements.  Most people harp on the characterization of the crows, which is understandable if blown a bit out of proportion.  While the characters are admittedly broad caricatures that reinforce black stereotypes, I don't actually find much to get upset about.  The crows are the coolest, most interesting and intelligent characters in the whole film.  They are the key to Dumbo's ultimate success, giving him the means to become something truly special.  Despite their initial mockery, they are sympathetic and compassionate, which no one else in the film is.  Besides Timothy, they are the only ones who give Dumbo a chance.  Their antics and appearance are outlandish but they're never treated demeaningly.   

Unfortunately that cannot be said for the black human characters in the film who are portrayed as faceless laborers with no intelligence and apparently less indignation.  As they hoist up the tents in a driving rain for the circus's next performance, the laborers sing a little ditty called "Song of the Roustabouts" that features such choice lines as "we work all day, we work all night / we never learned to read or write / we're happy hearted roustabouts."  These poor men toil away, or according to the lyric "slave till we're almost dead" with no interest in financial compensation.  No, in fact they throw their money away because the real pay comes with watching the children happy at the circus.  How quaint.  "Grab that rope, you hairy ape!" they shout to one another during the one serious blight in an otherwise flawless feature.   

After discovering that the hidden potential of his humungous ears is the ability to fly, Dumbo returns to the circus and his gig as a clown.  The film's penultimate scene mirrors Dumbo's inaugural appearance with the clowns, wherein he was put in peril only to be mocked and jeered for laughs.  This time though Dumbo turns the tables, flying by and wreaking havoc on the performers, finally asserting himself after a life of passive timidity.  The crowd loves the spectacle, anointing Dumbo a star, his newfound fame precipitating his mother's freedom.  The final moments of the film are of the Casey, Jr circus train chugging along into the sunset as Mrs. Jumbo watches her son and his friends Timothy and the crows fly beside her.

Dumbo is breathlessly paced but it's a confident rhythm that never once falters.  Both Snow White and Pinocchio start off leisurely, taking their sweet time establishing mood and relationships before jump-starting the story and ramping up to ultimately chaotic third acts.  If there is a fault with the pacing of those masterpieces it's that the endings arrive unexpectedly and are over far too soon.  While Dumbo's resolution too comes within the final five minutes of the film it goes down smoother because the whole film never slowed down.  Not that it's ever rushed, in fact quite the contrary.  Dumbo makes every minute count without ever stuffing itself or glossing things over.  It is a streamlined piece of artistic engineering, constructed with care and built to last.  

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