Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dumbo Part 25

This sequence shows the aftermath of Dumbo's flying.

The montage is a great snapshot of the public's preoccupations at the end of the 1930's. Dumbo setting an altitude record relates to the public's ongoing romance with aviation at the time. People like Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Wiley Post were all celebrated aviators of the period (the latter two dying in flight). "Dumbombers for defense" relates to the war in Europe, which the United States would join in 1941. The Hollywood contract had been sign of success at least since the 1910s, when performers started to make big money and in the '30s, movies and radio were the two major mass media. Dumbo's contract also explains Timothy's absence from the final scenes.

What follows the montage is the transformation of the circus. There have previously been scenes of Casey, Jr. in dark and stormy weather. He's now bedecked with flowers and chugging effortlessly in the bright sunlight. The elephant gossips are all smiles and celebrating the one they formerly ostracized. Dumbo's mother has gone from her depressing prison to a luxury car and now nothing stands in the way of her physical contact with her child. The crows have the vicarious pleasure of an outcast triumphing with their help.

The few animators credited here are effects animators, so we're completely without credits for the character animators.

Having watched this film over an extended period of time, the thing that strikes me most is how the main characters of the early Disney features are so passive and so victimized. Snow White does nothing on her own behalf except decide to become a housekeeper for the dwarfs. Pinocchio takes no positive action until he decides to save Gepetto. Dumbo's only positive action is to fly without the magic feather. Bambi goes with the flow until he fights another stag for Faline.

A character's arc implies growth towards a new viewpoint, but in the early Disney films it's like there's a binary switch that gets hit as the climax approaches. The characters don't grow towards maturity, they achieve it in an instant (and in Snow White's case, not at all). While heroes generally have mentors to guide them, in Dumbo the mentors are just about the whole show.

Dumbo's bath sequence isn't critical to the plot; it can be removed without changing the story. But it is crucial emotionally, as it is the only time we see Dumbo after his ears are revealed when he's not under attack of some sort. As a character, Dumbo is pretty much a cipher except for this sequence. There's nothing particularly individual about the way he panics when separated from his mother or the way he is scared when the elephant pyramid falls or when the clowns push him from the building.

This lack of personality, except in the most general terms, may be a reason for the film's success. Dumbo is a blank slate that the audience can write on with their own feelings of victimization. During the depression, there was no shortage of those feelings.

The recurrence of helpless heroes and savvy mentors may say something about Walt Disney himself and may mesh with the zeitgeist of the time. Walt had an older brother who looked out for him and stuck by him as he tried all sorts of questionable schemes and fell victim to a series of predatory businessmen like Charles Mintz, Pat Powers and Harry Cohen. That's practically a blueprint for Pinocchio, and Pinocchio taking responsibility for his actions may correlate to Disney taking ownership of his creations.

If Walt had Roy, America had President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1940, he was running for a third term, a first in American history, and he had shepherded the country through the Great Depression. The feelings of helplessness in the face of larger forces and the need for a saviour were reflected in Dumbo.

In a lot of ways, Disney and the zeitgeist separated in the post-war years. With America having won the war and become a world power, the idea of helplessness was only good for movies aimed at children. Films for adults became a lot more psychologically complex in the '50s and while there was still a lot to be afraid of (the burgeoning youth culture, the cold war and science run amok), the passivity of Disney's animated heroes was no longer mainstream. Even young Jim Hawkins gets to shoot somebody in Disney's live action Treasure Island.

Dumbo was the only Disney feature set in contemporary times until 101 Dalmatians and the only film to address racial issues until The Princess and the Frog. Racial and ethnic stereotypes show up in films like Lady and the Tramp and The Aristocats, but there is no attempt to get beyond stereotypes. If anything, the Disney films shunned present-day problems and were set in the past or in fantasy, where problems were straightforward and solutions were cut off from real-life complexity. The world of 1940 leaks into Dumbo and it's one of the things that makes the film so interesting. In several ways, the film is a precursor to Ralph Bakshi's work and it's a shame that in the intervening 30 years, neither Disney or anyone else was willing to pursue contemporary issues in the form of an animated feature.

Having completed this latest mosaic, I'd like to thank Hans Perk once again for the studio documents that make this (and the other) mosaics possible. I'd also like to thank everyone who took the time to comment.

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