Thursday, August 16, 2012

Disney Canon: Dumbo

Dumbo is the first film on the Disney Canon that I remember watching repeatedly as child. Well, "more than once" would be a truer statement than "repeatedly". This is not to say that I liked this film more than the ones we've already covered, but that it was one that was more available to watch when I was growing up. I don't remember having a VHS copy of the movie, so I must have watched it on television airings, which is entirely possible, because Dumbo is only 60 minutes long making it a perfect time-filler for local tv.

After Pinocchio and Fantasia failed to make a profit on their initial release, the Disney studio was in a tight spot. Dumbo was assembled as a small, cheap film that would hopefully perform well at the box-office and bring money to the studio. And it did. It cost half as much as 'Snow White' and, thus, easily turned out a profit and let uncle Walt live another day at the top. It is certainly curious to note how after two incredibly ambitious films, it was the little film that ended up being the biggest success.

Now back to my memories of Dumbo. Surprisingly, I remembered a lot of it even though I hadn't seen it in at least eight years. Despite not being exactly innovative as far as the animation is concerned, it holds strong images that remained with me all these years. I could have probably recreated the movie in my head if I had made the effort to put the images I remembered in the correct order. I tell you this, because I realized Dumbo is one of the most effective Disney films.

First of all, the movie is very short; so the story is incredibly focused. As far as plot goes, there is little of it. It is a really simple story: Dumbo's quest is to survive life at the circus and hopefully be reunited with his mother once again. As for the storytelling, the whole film seems to be working towards this two goals constantly, on second viewing, even the sequences that seem like a departure from the main plot aren't. Sequences like the travelling train or the setting up of the tent under the pouring rain work as effective world-building for us to understand life at the circus and what this will mean for our hero (Even before we're told, we understand there's a certain hierarchy and the clows are probably at the bottom of it). And what is not adding to our perception of the film's world is adding to the relationship between Dumbo and his mother. One that remains pure throughout the film and that is separated precisely because of the profound love Mrs. Jumbo has for her child.

As I said before, this makes Dumbo an incredibly effective film. The message it is setting out to tell, as well as the primal relationship of mother and child, will resonate with every little movie-watcher. Despite being mocked for his gigantic ears and being separated from his mother, Dumbo becomes triumphant at the end, proving that you can turn your weaknesses into your biggest asset. That you too deserve to be accepted in your own unique way and have a loving family. That you have a place where you belong and you deserve to be loved. It is very powerful stuff, especially for a child, and it goes without saying that the scene in which Dumbo visits his mother in her isolation cell and gently curls up in her trunk still makes me sob like a baby all these years later.

Oh, and did I mention Dumbo doesn't even talk? This is a masterclass in storytelling. No doubt it's Pixar mastermind John Lasseter's favorite film of all-time.

Next Time: Bambi, the mother of all of our childhood's traumatic movie moments. For now, enjoy one of most surreal images of my childhood with the famous "Pink Elephants on Parade" (I wonder how this scene got to screens in 1941).


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