James: As a kid I watched Dumbo, but it was never a favourite. It had some fun sequences in, sure (can anyone ever really forget Pink Elephants on Parade?), but it was never one that called out to me in the same way as, say, Aladdin or The Sword in the Stone. I can see why it didn’t click with me, although it has some fabulously fun sequences and one of the strongest elicitations of emotions in the entire Disney canon.
It’s an odd piece. Disney still haven’t at this point managed to carve together a full narrative that lasts the length of the film, and Dumbo (like its predecessors) is a succession of short sequences that occur to two elephants, but aren’t really linked. In isolation, almost any of the sequences would work, and almost all of them could be dropped without affecting the narrative. There’s several different storylines here which could have been a complete narrative, but none take up more than a few minutes of screentime. The longest story in the piece is Dumbo being separated from his mother and trying to get her freed, but the only real sequence detailing this is the (admittedly heartbreaking) “Baby Mine” scene, and then the plot is dropped for Dumbo to be a clown or get drunk or learn to fly. Timothy Q. Mouse suggests becoming famous to get her freed, but it never actually comes across as a motivator for Dumbo, partly because he never talks (a characteristic which makes him completely adorable but narratively impotent) and partly because all the events just sort of happen to him.
Maybe I’m being too harsh here, judging it by modern standards of filmmaking. We expect a narrative throughline in a film because that’s the way films are now, but perhaps this is not only what Disney were comfortable making, but what the 1941 audience were comfortable seeing: stories from a character’s life. But, much like Snow White, the central character of Dumbo is defined primarily by his physical attributes rather than his desires or actions, and the story comes from characters around him deciding what role he should be playing, and where the story should go.
Anne: Ooh, we are going to differ on this one. I think I loved Dumbo. Would I call it my favorite? Probably not. But what I loved about it was that it made me really feel something. I cried from the heart during “Baby Mine”–because let’s be real, there’s almost nothing sadder than a crying baby elephant and Betty Noyes.
And then I could not have been happier at the end when Dumbo flew and achieved success. I’ll give you that it’s not perfect, that the narrative is patchy and it’s missing a few crucial scenes–but so far, I haven’t had that kind of emotional reaction to any of the films we’ve watched, and looking ahead, I’m not sure when the next time will be (oh wait, Bambi is next, isn’t it…hmmm).
I think in the same way that Snow White was an experiment in animation and Pinocchio advanced the storytelling aspect of Disney films, Dumbo takes a step forward in emotional content. (Granted, there are some moments of Pinocchio that are very affecting, but not in the same way as “Baby Mine.”) Eventually, the Disney filmmakers will figure out how to combine gorgeous animation, storytelling worthy of a real Hollywood movie, and genuine emotion–but I don’t think they had quite hit upon the perfect combination by the time they made Dumbo.
I also want to touch on something that you pointed out when we were watching the movie yesterday, about the animation. You noted that Dumbo looks a lot more cartoonish than the previous films we’ve watched–more solid colors, less attention to visual realism. And it occurred to me that this is the first Disney film to be set in America–and the last for a long time, if I remember correctly. It’s an American story, about an American institution (the circus), and as Benjamin Franklin put it in 1776, Americans are “rougher, simpler, more violent, more enterprising, less refined” than Europeans or Englishmen. I’m not saying that I necessarily believe that, but it doesn’t surprise me in the least that the filmmakers would have made a conscious choice to simplify the animation, brighten the colors and aim for raw emotional payoffs for this purely American story.
Basically, I was always going to like Dumbo more than you did. It’s in my blood. 😉
James: I’m not sure if simplifying the design was deliberate or necessary. Dumbo was made at a troublesome time for the studio; the last two films had lost money, and don’t you know there’s a war going on? The budget was much lower than the previous films, and so simpler animation was needed to keep the costs down. However, it does work, thanks in part to the setting as you suggest, and in part to just how lovable the characters are. And, even with simpler animations and a smaller colour range, they still manage some damned impressive moments. The introduction of all the animals is simple but lovely, with them all getting a creature appropriate reaction. And, of course, there’s Pink Elephants on Parade.
This sequence is just beautifully choreographed, with the shapes seemlessly moving together in a wonderful, dizzying haze. Tapping into the surrealism of dreams and the eerie shape of the music, the artists here have managed to create something that maintains its own visual logic moment to moment but expands into something strange and amazing.
Pink Elephants on Parade? More like Pink ELEGANCE on parade! Chortle chortle chortle.
Anne: You are hilarious. Never change.
To be honest, Pink Elephants on Parade was my least favorite part of the movie–and something that I had completely forgotten about. The sequence started and I thought, wait…Heffalumps and Woozles?
(The Wikipedia page for Heffalumps and Woozles concludes with “See also: Pink Elephants on Parade.” I feel validated.)
Anyway, moving on, I thought I would talk about the music, because it is a bit unusual, and also because I want to shake the dust off some terms from that time I minored in musicology in college.
I would argue that the first diegetic song in Dumbo doesn’t occur until the last ten minutes of film: “When I See an Elephant Fly.” (Okay, okay, unless we’re counting the stork singing “Happy Birthday,” or the clowns drunkenly singing after their act.) Diegetic music is music that originates within the world of the film–in this case, sung by the band of crows that Dumbo and Timothy Mouse meet when they find themselves up a tree. But most of the songs in Dumbo are non-diegetic, meaning that the source of the song isn’t visible onscreen. The stork song, “Casey Junior,” the song that plays when they’re setting up the circus tents, and “Baby Mine” are non-diegetic. They are closely tied to the action but they don’t come from the characters themselves.
(NB: “Pink Elephants on Parade” is an unusual case, because there are moments where one of the elephants in Dumbo’s dream seems to be singing the song, but most of it is sung by the offstage chorus, so to speak.)
We’re in the era of Disney films when the songs were written for the film but expected to have a life outside the film as popular songs. But the songs in Dumbo, despite not actually being sung by the characters, are pretty film-specific; as far as I know, the only one that became popular afterwards was “Baby Mine.” (I have a recording of Marilyn Horne singing it, on her album of lullabies from around the world.)
One more word on the sounds of Dumbo–I was pretty pleased to have recognized the voices of both Verna Felton (as the meanest circus elephant, who goes on to voice the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella and Aunt Sarah in Lady and the Tramp) and Sterling Holloway (as the stork–in a hilarious coincidence, he later voiced both Winnie the Pooh and Kaa the snake in The Jungle Book). Soon we’re going to hit the series of films in which Eleanor Audley voices all of the villains!
James: The voice actors are all good in this film, although in my opinion the characters rarely shine. They’re all fairly gentle and inoffensive, but none have the depth of character that we’ve come to expect from Disney. Part of that is its place in the canon; they’re still very much in the early years. And yet Timothy Q. Mouse is in no way as strong a character as Jiminy Cricket a year and a half earlier, who has his place in the world very firmly established at the start, and his motivations to help Pinocchio (and earn his gold star) inform everything he does. Timothy is nice, and clearly cares for Dumbo… but why? He wants to help Dumbo get his mother freed, just because he’s nice? He’s wearing a ringmaster outfit to fit in the circus theme I presume, but is there a character or narrative reason why? Who is Timothy Q. Mouse, and what’s his place in the circus?
Dumbo is similarly comparable to Pinocchio, who is born and finds himself moved around by events beyond his control… except that Pinocchio very clearly has control; part of the message of that movie is that he’s choosing not to use it, and must take affirmative action at the end to save his father. Dumbo just gets pushed around by everyone, even his mousey friend, until the story is told. Still, there is a nice variety of characters. The elephants are all distinct, and the Ringmaster and the actors have little definitions that colour their screentime nicely. And although Dumbo’s mother’s story fades out to allow Dumbo to be the lead, she is well-established enough that “Baby Mine” is affecting and very, very real.
My favourite characters, though, are definitely the crows. Admittedly, they hold the potential for offence. Their language, their personalities… yeah. But that’s a question for someone else’s blog. I love the crows, they are fun, jovial and have a cracking song. What a pity they’re only in the last fifteen minutes, I could have spent at least twice that on those characters. But then, I’m strange. I like clowns too. I loved the movement of the clowns, but planned and when dealing with the flying elephant. They move so full of joy and silliness, and with their own special kind of logic guiding everything they do (much like Pink Elephants on Parade). I don’t ever remember finding them scary or creepy, so if I was supposed to dislike the clowns… I guess I was the wrong demographic.
Anne: See, I thought we were going to completely disagree about this movie, but I liked the crows and the clowns too! I think I remarked during the movie that I probably wasn’t supposed to find those crows so entertaining, but I really did; they add such a sense of fun and levity to the proceedings.
Slightly off-topic, but one of my favorite moments was when the elephants were discussing Dumbo after he ruined their balancing act, and the one with the Southern accent said, “They made him…a CLOWN!” And then they take a vow that Dumbo will never be an elephant again. I’m not entirely sure how that works, but he showed them, didn’t he?
Pick-a-little, talk-a-little, pick-a-little, talk-a-little…
You know, in writing the last couple of paragraphs it occurred to me that Dumbo, as a movie about not fitting in, is at its most engaging when it focuses on group culture. I love those catty elephants, each with her own personality and voice (“Put on a little weight, honey?” “You’re no cream puff yourself, dear!”), and the clowns, while less developed, are also distinctly animated and voiced. I think what I like best about the crows is that each one is a different type of character, and they interact in a realistic way with each other. The filmmakers create excellent group dynamics among the supporting characters in order to better isolate poor Dumbo and his mother–and Timothy, who does seem to be a bit of a lone circus groupie.
I give Dumbo an 8/10. Intellectually I know it’s flawed, but my heart, Anita, but my heart–!
James: Mine is a heart of massive rock unmoved by sentimental shock. 5/10. I love some parts of it, but it doesn’t hold together in the way I’d like it to.
You know what? 6/10. “Baby Mine” is too good.
Anne: You’re such a softie. *sniffles*