Thursday, August 21, 2008

My Big-Ass DVD Project: Dumbo

I'm back to watching all my movies in chronological order. I know, I tried this last summer and it didn't last long. I have no idea why I stopped, because it's damn fun.

My most recent viewing was 1941's Dumbo. Released the month before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dumbo was Disney's cheap and quick attempt to turn a profit after both Pinnochio and Fantasia underperformed at the box office. Trimmed to a brisk 64 minutes, the movie is pure Disney: talking animals, cute sidekicks, beautiful animation and memorable songs.

It's also incredibly mean-spirited to its main character. A few examples of what happens to Dumbo during the first 45 minutes of the film:

* His big ears earn him nothing but scorn and contempt for everyone, exluding his mother and a mouse.

* His mom is chained in a lonely boxcar after protecting her child, leaving him - an infant - to fend for himself.

* He is given a prominent spot in an elephant routine, but he trips over his big ears and ruins everything. In the process, he injures all the other elephants and is kicked out of their circle.

* He is rerouted to the clown department of the circus and is forced to perform a humiliating routine.

* He visits his mother but can't actually see her because her chains don't reach far enough. He has to settle for her trunk, which she uses to cradle and comfort him.

* He gets drunk and hallucinates. Granted, the drinking is a mistake, but still. He's a baby.

After the drunken escapades of a baby elephant, he wakes up in a tree and the whole "When I See an Elephant Fly" stuff begins. At that point the film stops beating up on Dumbo and starts beating up on all the other assholes that populate his world. Clowns, old lady elephants, ringmasters, and mean audience members all get their comeuppance for the way they treated a small elephant with large ears. And it's enjoyable to watch them squirm.

But, you know, the movie works despite the fact that for nearly the entire runtime it emotionally beats up a child. Dumbo is an incredibly realized character and is animated so brilliantly that you fall in love with him the first moment he appears on screen. There's a reason people flocked to this film in 1941, both before and after a national tragedy: Even though he goes through a lot of shit, Dumbo remains optimistic. That probably resonated with audience members dealing with Pearl Harbor and the imminent threat of WWII at the time. Plus you'd have to have a heart of stone to not melt at the sight of Dumbo. I mean, look how cute he is:

I must comment on three sequences in the film. The first is the "Baby Mine" sequence, or, as I like to call it, "The Most Depressing Scene in Cinema, Ever." This is when Dumbo goes to visit his imprisoned mother. I can't see this film without bawling. Just thinking about it chokes me up.

Then there's the trippy "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence. The Disney animators must have gotten ahold of some acid 25 years before anyone else, because I can't think of any other explanation for this sequence. Two words can only be used to describe it: Fucked. Up.

Finally, the famous "When I See an Elephant Fly" number has been wrongly labeled as racist. Yes, it skirts the edges of being politically incorrect, but there's really nothing to it. Yes, the black crowes do say things like, "I be done seen jus' 'bout anything," but it's not insulting at all.

The reason for this chronological film project is two-fold: to see everything in my collection again and to weed out the titles that I don't like/need anymore. Dumbo, even though it's probably scarred a lot of children over its 67 years of existence, is rightly considered an animation classic and will remain in my collection. I'll just prepare myself to be bummed out whenever I decide to watch it.

Plus it's only 64 minutes long. Not many movies have that short of a run time.