Friday, June 10, 2011

The Chronological Canon: Dumbo

Part of what's already proving interesting about watching every Disney animated feature in order is thinking about audience's experiencing these movies for the first time, and comparing and contrasting each movie with the ones that came before it. For example, it's through this process that I realized Disney's fourth animated feature, Dumbo, is the extreme opposite of its predecessor, Fantasia.

Fantasia was all grand ambition - pushing the envelope of what an audience might accept in an animated feature, reaching for high art, striving for technological innovation. For all that, though, sequences often seem overlong, and entertainment value is sometimes lost in the pursuit of those grand ambitions. Dumbo, on the other hand, has very simple ambitions: to tell a heartwarming tale in the most entertaining and compact form possible.

And by compact, I mean short. Dumbo clocks in at barely over an hour - 64 minutes (of the Disney animated features - only Saludos Amigos is shorter at 42 minutes, and that movie is really more a collection of shorts).

Dumbo is full of heart.

But that's not a bad thing. Dumbo is confidently short. Disney's storytellers tell the story that they want to tell, and then get out while the getting is good. The pacing is wonderful. They take their time at the opening, setting the scene with those delightful shots of the storks-eye view of the Earth in which the states are all different colors and labeled like a map, then seeing the delivery of all of those adorable baby animals. Try to imagine this scene playing out in a modern movie - could it be done without wisecracking babies and fart jokes (yes, but only by Pixar).

The council of elephants are just some of the forces against Dumbo.

We finally get to meet out protagonist, the baby elephant with the big ears. Aside from his loving mother, everyone is down on this guy - the gaggle of gossipy lady elephants, the jeering crowds, the blustering circus owner, and the reckless clowns. When mom gets overly defensive, even she's taken away, though Dumbo then earns his only friend: the tiny rodent with the big heart and big mouth: Timothy Q. Mouse. I'll tell you right here, Timothy ranks very high on my list of all-time favorite Disney characters, but the rest of that is for a different post.

I actually think Dumbo could benefit from just a few more minutes (but I'm certainly glad they didn't try to pad the thing out another 20 to 30). While I applaud the leisurely pace of the majority of the movie, I wish there was just a little bit more of the finale. If you haven't seen the movie in a while, I bet you'd be shocked of just how little flying there is in it. Dumbo gets the feather from the crows, learns to fly, then the FIRST time he flies with it in the circus, drops it and learns he can fly without it - boom, end of movie. I think the drama might've been heightened a smidge if he'd started to gain acclaim before losing the feather, then lost it at some key performance, something like that anyway. As it is, the ending is pretty abrupt.

That's really my only complaint about Dumbo, though, and it's a minor one.

Another way this movie is unlike Fantasia: Dumbo is appealing to kids. It's cute without being too saccharine sweet, and sentimental without ever being cloying. Those baby animals are all pretty darn adorable, but none more so than our pachyderm protagonist, Dumbo himself. What kid hasn't, at some point, felt a little like Dumbo: overwhelmed and outmatched by a world that moves to fast and forgives too little?

A few of the impressive images during "Pink Elephants on Parade."

But lest I give the impression that Dumbo plays it safe and steady at every turn, let's talk about "Pink Elephants on Parade." Dumbo and Timothy accidentally get a little tipsy, and their booze-induced hallucinations briefly take over the movie in an incredible, eye-popping sequence. Pink Elephants is pure pop art - the animation runs absolutely wild in a scene that is daring in its color choice, creatively inspired with its constant morphing images, full of frantic energy, funny as heck, and just a little bit creepy. One more comparison to Fantasia, for all of that movie's grand ambition or marrying art and animation, Pink Elephants on Parade does a better job at that than any sequence in Fantasia except Night on Bald Mountain. It elevates the whole endeavor.

Clever crooning crows.

The rest of the songs are all solid, though none of them have ever quite been let into the Disney Song Hall of Fame. Two contenders deserve the shot: "Baby Mine" is a perfect song of motherly devotion, and "When I See An Elephant Fly" is both catchy and funny.

Yes, Dumbo is short and sweet, but that's just the way I like it. Eight out of ten mice:

Little notes: Dumbo features the first Disney feature voice performances by Sterling Holloway as the stork. Sterling would go on to perform in many, many features over the next several decades, including the voice of Winnie the Pooh.

Casey Junior takes on a tough hill.

Dumbo includes a mini-adaptation right in the movie: the circus train Casey Junior, briefly acts out the story of The Little Engine That Could, complete with "I think I Can"s. A nifty little bonus.

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