Saturday, January 28, 2012

1941 - Dumbo

So after Pinocchio and Fantasia underperformed at the box office, Disney was looking to recoup his losses. What he needed was - not a hit, exactly, but something that could be considered a success if it made the same amount of money as the last two. So they bought the 8-page story attached to an unproduced prototype toy and made a movie in a few months on a fraction of their previous budgets. Nervous? So am I. So pick up a cellophane pack of orange marshmallow peanuts, and let’s talk about Dumbo.
Even the poster looks half baked. Like those unlicensed pictures painted on the windows of preschools.

Okay, yikes. Before I go on, let me say some good things about this movie. The backgrounds look quite nice. The only three movies in the Disney canon with watercolor backgrounds are this, Snow White, and Lilo and Stitch. It looks great, and I don’t know why they don’t do it more often. This is also the first one with a straight-up celebrity voice in it. While Jiminy Cricket’s voice, Cliff Edwards, had a few novelty hits as “Ukulele Ike”, he wasn’t likely to be recognized. The first time someone that the audience would certainly know and recognize an actor’s voice is Sterling Holloway, a western-movie sidekick and comedic egghead who here plays Mr. Stork. Holloway would go on to a long and respectable Disney career, using his unique voice for everything from innocent simpletons to threatening lunatics. He never disappoints, and I’m glad to get him so early. Also, this ties with Alice in Wonderland as the first Disney movie released on home video, for some reason. So there’s that.

Okay, so the bad stuff. First some background. Pinocchio and Fantasia hadn’t recouped their budgets. This was not because of audience disinterest, at least not with Pinocchio, but because Word War II had cut off the European market, which had contributed to Snow White’s success. (Fun fact: Snow White was Hitler’s favorite movie.) So they wanted to make something cheaply that would turn a profit even at those disappointing numbers. Dumbo had less than half the budget of anything before, and it shows. Animation is shamelessly recycled, padding is frequent, and off model moments and animation errors are all over the place. In response to the demands placed on them, the animators unionized, which caused Disney to parody them in the script by having the clowns jockeying for an undeserved raise. I don’t know if it occurred to Walt that this would make him the fat, buffoonish ringmaster.
Oh, all right, that is pretty adorable.

So yeah, lots of petty backstage garbage. But how’s the movie? Well… It’s okay. Dumbo’s mouse friend Timothy is a blatant copy of Jiminy Cricket (except I like him better), the Ringmaster is an utterly forgettable villain, the songs are forgettable, the dialogue is… You know, I think that’s the issue here. This movie is just boring. It’s meandering and unfocused, and while the individual scenes are mostly acceptable, there’s only two that leave any impression. One of them is when Dumbo and Timothy get drunk (seriously) and hallucinate terrifying multicolored elephant men. Yes, this scared me as a child. It scared all of us, it’s still scary, and let’s speak no more of it. (It also taught us the word “pachyderm”.) The second memorable scene is far more interesting to me.
After Dumbo and Timothy pass out drunk, they wake up in a tree surrounded by crows. And the crows… well, they’re blackbirds. Black birds. As in they are deliberately modeled after cartoonish representations of then-contemporary African-American culture. This has caused some understandable controversy, because unlike the centaur from the last movie, these guys are plot-essential and remain in. But honestly, this isn’t so bad to me. Admittedly, I’m speaking from a white guy perspective, but when I look at the crows, I don’t see the ugly and insulting stereotype of Fantasia. Sure, they’re stereotypes, but they’re confident, outspoken, and take the dominant role in every scene they’re in. They’re also the only people in the movie who seem to like and support Dumbo, even if they are kind of jerks about it. So yeah, they’re not the most progressive of portrayals, but Disney’s left in worse things. (*coughpeterpancough*)  And their song, “When I See an Elephant Fly,” is the only one I really liked.
All colorful clothes and crazy hats, like some 1940s Junkyard Gang.

And yeah, that’s really all I’ve got to say. It was dull, but not terrible. Not very good, though. The animation is really terrible. Errors abound, the number of elephants from shot to shot keeps changing, voices come out of the wrong characters, All kinds of problems. And the thing is, it worked. It successfully made its money back, and freed them up to spend more money and tell a more ambitious story with their next movie… which flopped again. But we’ll get to that.


*The lead crow is the only one voiced by a white actor - Cliff Edwards, in fact - but I don’t have a problem with that, since he’s a supporting cartoon bird, and the voice doesn’t stand out poorly. Oh, and um… his name is “Jim Crow”. Yeah, there’s no getting around that one.

*This was the first Disney movie set in contemporary America and the first to feature legitimate crowd scenes. Sure it was in a circus, and those are very traditionalist in appearance, and sure, the animation wasn’t even close to handling the challenge of crowd scenes. But it’s nice that even when they’re not trying, they’re trying.

*No, I will not talk about the dang Pink Elephants! The scared me then, they scare me now, and I hate them I hate them I hate them.
What this movie needs is more Deems Taylor.

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