Dumbo (1941)

Directed by… [takes deep breath] …Samuel Armstrong, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts, Ben Sharpsteen, John Elliotte

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Dumbo was Disney’s fourth and shortest animated feature film, with a runtime of 64 minutes.  It’s a tender film, complete with an adorable protagonist and a Blackfish-like story of mom separated from child, and it’s aim is to make you feel awful, then make you feel all warm inside.

I don’t remember when I last saw this movie, but I’m guessing I was around six years old.  The story is simple, following the arc of many a movie.  We meet the main character, he is confronted with a challenge and subsequently a new status quo.  He meets the side character who aids this journey through the new normal, faces new challenges and eventually discovers something about himself before the happy ending.  It’s a coming of age story in which a young character learns to embrace what society deems a flaw.

Dumbo’s a he, right?  I’m a guy, so maybe I just grew up thinking he was a ‘he.’  You’re supposed to identify with Dumbo, who’s name is really Jumbo Jr., and as a child it’s hard not to see yourself as the young, doe-eyed main character.  Hell, when I was six or four or whenever I saw this, I’m sure I looked at the world with the same curiosity and fear as Dumbo.  All he had was his adoring, protective mother, and just about everyone else, save for the mouse and the possibly offensive depiction of crows, is out to get him in someway or another.

It’s all a bit cheap, don’t you think?  I mean it’s sweet, really sweet, and it’s pretty affecting.  You give us this damn adorable baby elephant with big ears then let the side characters bully him until his mother, out of concern, lashes out, gets herself chained up, and then you have a scared baby elephant all alone in the world.  Not only that, but the elephant works in the circus (animal child labor laws were more lax then) and is soon forced to become a clown, reluctantly putting on the makeup only to be tormented by the other clowns.  It’s kind of horrifying.

This is eventually a happy story, and we know it will end as such, but when you’re a kid you don’t have that kind of foresight.  That’s why I really think many old children’s stories and cartoons were quite terrifying.  We’re given a situation in which the hero is down and out, but children accept that as the character’s reality before the happy ending.  These sad moments are much more poignant and disturbing, I have to imagine, when you don’t realize it’s going to get better.

I have plenty of memories from old children’s movies, and many of them seem burned into my mind even all these years later.  From movies like Dumbo or James and the Giant Peach, all I have are vague images, stripped of context.  They’re more like paintings that move ever so slightly in my head, and particularly in the case of Giant Peach, many of those images are haunting, like the image of an undead sailor (I think) suffering as he’s stretched to the point where he might tear in half.

There isn’t anything quite so dark in Dumbo, but the sad moments remain very striking.  The most famous one might be when Dumbo visits his caged elephant of a mother, and she extends her trunk through the bars to hold him only for a few moments.  A tear slides down his cheek, and she sings him a song.  It’s the closest he can possibly get to her, but soon he has to leave, and she waves goodbye with her lonely trunk.

I mean, f*ck, that’s tough to watch, even now as a 26 year old man, or boy, but it’s definitely tough to bear as a four year old.  There are no rules in that damn world where the only person/animal close to you can be taken away at a moment’s notice.

I’m sure this is all meant to be a lesson for young children, because the obstacles Dumbo faces are only there, of course, to be overcome.  They must appear daunting, and the hero must seem to give up only to gather the strength in the end.  It’s all there to demonstrate to its young audience what it means to stand back up after you’ve been knocked down.  Some people learned on the streets, I learned by watching Dumbo.

Anyways, Dumbo is a baby elephant delivered by a stork to its mother.  Oh yeah, that part is immensely sad too.  All the storks deliver their baby animals to their mothers, and we saw all the different animals happy as can be while Dumbo’s mother sits there expectantly and gets nothing.  Remember that extremely sad montage at the beginning of Up?  It’s like that.

Eventually the stork, who I guess got lost, shows up with Dumbo.  She’s unveiled like a new marketing slogan, and the other elephants are horrified and amused by his giant ears.  They’re large enough to be stepped on while Dumbo stumbles around, and eventually they will make him able to fly.

When irritating kids attending the circus torment Dumbo, his mother shields him and enacts revenge on the children.  As a result she is banished to solitary confinement, and Dumbo is left all alone.  He soon meets a friendly mouse who gives him courage and who whispers suggestions to the owner and operator of the circus for act ideas involving our young hero.

At first he fails, of course, but eventually he succeeds, following a long conversation with a group of crows which follows a long acid trip brought on by champagne.  Yeah, Dumbo got drunk on watered down champagne and hallucinated colorful elephants.

It’s great.  Dumbo flies, and everyone loves him, and it’s swell because we love Dumbo.  He’s an adorable baby elephant who is finally embraced by a world that once scorned him.

So it’s all good, the movie was a success, and it’s famous.  I mean, it’s Dumbo, you know who it is.

At the same time some of the visuals are a little disturbing.  Dumbo’s eyes, for one (or two), are quite creepy up close, and there’s something haunting about all of the elephants.  They resemble some kind of animal version of Miss Havisham.  Maybe it’s just because this movie is about seventy years old or maybe it’s because Walt Disney wanted this movie produced quickly and cheaply in order to make up for the financial losses of his previous two films (thanks to the economic hit of the second world war).

Up Next: Beaver Trilogy Part IV (2015), The Day of the Jackal (1973), Game Night (2018)

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