Thursday, June 12, 2014

Disney Films: Dumbo- Ummm, what?

*Fair warning. If you like this movie, then I'm about to trample all over your childhood nostalgia like a mad elephant.*

Dumbo. Dumbo, Dumbo, Dumbo. What can I possibly say about this movie? I think the title pretty much says it all:

This movie is dumb. And I mean that in more ways than one. In the traditional sense, Dumbo is dumb because the title character never says so much as a word. He's silent. He's mute, voiceless, dumb.

This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. I'm a huge fan of silent movies. I love Buster Keaton. I think if done right, it could be pulled off very well. Heck, Disney even made a semi-silent movie less than a decade ago via Pixar and it's one of the most artistically dramatic things I've ever seen.

But we'll talk about him later when he gets his own post.

But in this case, Dumbo's lack of speech is a hindrance. His face doesn't translate expression well and we're left struggling to figure out what he's feeling. Yeah, he's cute and all and that makes us sympathetic, but his lack of development doesn't leave us very empathetic, which I think is a more important attribute for a movie that's trying to touch hearts. If we can't identify with the character's emotions, we can't connect with them.

But my bigger problem is the fact that Dumbo is dumb in the more vulgar sense of the word. This movie makes no sense whatsoever. The plot line, the side characters, the conflict... it's completely illogical and just doesn't seem to fit together very well. At just a hair over an hour long, you'd think Disney's second shortest movie would be pretty simple. A cohesive plot that tells a memorable story. But it was not to be.

The movie starts out with storks delivering baby animals to mommy animals at the circus. Ok. Cute, I guess. One particular lady elephant, Mrs. Jumbo, is anxiously awaiting her own special delivery. (Odd that we're never shown a Mr. Jumbo, but that's just Disney sticking to their "Nuclear families don't create enough conflict" formula, I suppose.) Once the stork delivers the baby to her, the other elephant ladies are shocked to discover Jumbo Jr. has unusually large ears. One might even say freakishly large ears. (Which renders their shock somewhat odd. I thought freaks of nature were practically celebrities at the circus.) Mrs. Jumbo is understandably very protective of Jr., who has been rechristened Dumbo by the other ladies. And this is the last time this movie will ever make sense. The rest of the film basically makes me have this reaction:

When a boy at the circus begins taunting Dumbo for his ears and physically abusing him, Mrs. Jumbo picks the lad up and gives him a well-earned spanking with her trunk. A riot ensues, and Mrs. Jumbo is locked away in quarantine as a "mad elephant". Dumbo struggles with the loss of his mother, befriends a rodent named Timothy Q. Mouse (I guess Jiminy Cricket was busy elsewhere. It wouldn't have mattered. These two are virtually the same character.) and tries to prove himself in the circus during the elephant pyramid stunt. His ears get in the way, the stunt goes horribly wrong, and Dumbo is forced to become a clown. This is where they started to lose me. Elephant that a thing now? Wouldn't the circus try to cut their losses and sell him to a petting zoo or something more practical like that? Meh. Anyway. Dumbo achieves some moderate success as a clown, but he's unhappy because every show ends with him falling into a giant cream pie, which I guess is humiliating if you're an elephant. The clowns seem to have no problem with their jobs, though, so it's not as though the circus clowns are the scum of the earth or anything. 

In what may be the most touching scene in Disney history (for a lot of people anyway) Timothy takes Dumbo to visit his mother in quarantine, and a chorus sings a lullaby while Mrs. Jumbo rocks her baby on her trunk (the only part of her that's visible). It's pretty heart-wrenching, and I've no problems with the scene. It's what comes immediately after it. Dumbo cries over his mother and develops a case of hiccups. He drinks some water from a bucket to cure them, unaware that the bucket had a bottle of champagne knocked into it. This, for some unknown reason, allows Dumbo the ability to blow bubbles with his trunk, including, at one point, a cube-shaped bubble, which I think is a pretty marketable skill for a circus elephant, and why Timothy didn't think of going to the ringmaster with that little trick is beyond me. Both characters proceed to get completely wasted, and what follows is one of the most out-of-left-field, completely pointless, "what the actual heck?" moments in cinema history.

The infamous pink elephants sequence is loud, nonsensical, and wild. Since I've never done drugs, I can only imagine that this is something like an acid trip gone horribly, horribly wrong. Pink elephants ride trains, turn plaid, and merge and multiply. They dance around in psychedelic colors, stretch, grow, shrink, and run wild around your screen in a blur of unadulterated chaos. I hate this scene for two reasons. One: it cheapens everything lovely and memorable about the "Baby Mine" sequence by immediately following the extremely touching scene with drunken hallucinations. In a children's movie, no less! And two: it has absolutely nothing to do with anything. It doesn't advance the plot, it doesn't develop character, it doesn't provide any exposition. It's just there, then gone, and no one ever mentions it again for the rest of the movie.

What does this have to do with ANYTHING?!
During Dumbo's alcohol-fueled nightmare, our spunky hero apparently develops the ability to fly, as he wakes up the next morning in a very tall tree. (What he doesn't wake up with is a hangover, but suppose elephants don't get those.)There Dumbo meets some well-drawn 1940s racial stereotypes (who will probably get their own post at some point) in the form of a group of crows. (Technically, a group of crows is called a "murder" but to call them that outright would probably just confuse most people.) They give Dumbo a "magic feather" to give him the confidence he needs to flap his...erm...ears, and fly. This scene really only exists for the sole purpose of providing what I think is the best song in the movie. But that's my personal opinion and I'm biased because it's a song almost entirely made up of puns.

You know the rest. Blah, blah, Dumbo returns to circus, yadda, yadda, gains the confidence to fly without the feather, becomes famous, etc., etc. Somehow, I'm not entirely certain how, this results in Mrs. Jumbo getting out of... elephant jail... Wait... what? I don't... How does.... HUH?!

Even Jackie Chan doesn't understand this.
How does Dumbo becoming a famous circus performer convince people his mother isn't a mad elephant? It has nothing to do with anything! So he can fly, that doesn't make the riot his mother caused not happen. I'm not saying she should have been locked up. She was just protecting her child and the kid got what he deserved. But just because you're famous doesn't mean you don't serve jail time. Then again, this is the same studio responsible for Lindsay Lohan, so... yeah.

Look, I get it. Lots of people like Dumbo. They like the touching scenes, they like cheering for the little guy to come out on top, and they like...circuses, I guess. But if all of that isn't going to be part of a cohesive story, it's kind of pointless. I'm ok with suspension of disbelief, especially in a kids' film. I suspended my disbelief enough to accept the fact that Dumbo's large ears enable him to fly. But to suggest that fame and fortune can get your mother out of prison is pushing logic a bit too far. Those two notions aren't even remotely related. It's like saying if I climb a tree, I might get some toast for breakfast tomorrow. There's no logic connecting those two ideas. I'm not trying to be heartless and cynical. I'm just expecting a reasonable conclusion.

Besides, if this was a really true-to-life story, the circus would never have quarantined Mrs. Jumbo. They'd have put her down right off the bat because they can't make money off of her. In fact, they'd be losing money because they'd still have to feed her. Fortunately, Disney spared the delicate young psyches of children and didn't show the protagonist's mother getting shot dead. Nope. They saved that for their next movie.


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