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Reflection: 'Dumbo' is a short, sweet animated classic

Animated Pathos from Disney that's not really by Disney.
RKO Radio Pictures

The 1941 Disney film, "Dumbo," played on ABC Family on June 14th. Here is a film that is almost too brief, but what is in the sixty-four minute runtime is a lush story combining slapstick and pathos in a manner similar to the silent clowns like Chaplin and Lloyd. Dumbo, as a matter of fact, can be seen, almost literally, as a silent clown and it is the job of the animators to apply the pantomime approach towards the protagonist. This approach stems from the way in which the animators bring to life Dumbo's signature feature...not the big ears...close...but more crucially his trunk; it serves as the window to his soul. There is a moment so wholeheartedly amusing and tragic that is reminiscent to the poise and loopy stature of the Chaplin character in his 1925 film, "The Gold Rush." When Dumbo finishes ruining the painful-looking 'elephant pyramid' routine that destroys the big top, we see him covered in the big top tarp and, through a patch, Dumbo raises his trunk through the tarp and clumsily waves the flag that he was suppose to wave at the top of the pyramid, one of his eyes peers out maybe to check to see if there is still an audience for this sliver of a performance. It is a sad shot.

This scene embodies much of the film's tone and what makes it far more endearing to all audiences than just to kids. Between the animal cruelty exhibited by the humans and the ostracization from the rest of the animals, especially the elephants, Dumbo's trajectory through the film is mostly filled with depressing episodes of a child forcibly malnourished of any happiness. In the same vein as many of the scenes in a film like Chaplin's, "The Circus," some of the slapstick is suppose to be funny in that it is suppose to make the audience in the big top laugh but, to us, it is more melancholic since Dumbo is bearing all the costs. Indeed, the first time Dumbo makes the leap down the burning building, his sullen face is in stark contrast to the wildly jovial faces of the clowns who run amuck performing a series of gags; the rubbery animation adds to the absurdity and widens the contrast between comedy and tragedy all felt within the same circus ring. Scenes like this are perfectly executed and while the comedy comes at you with bombastic fury like most animated films, Dumbo's sullenness can only be seen in the eyes and trunk but this subtlety still carries just as much weight because of the precise construct of shots in the scene and in others like it.

In regards to this rubbery animation of the film: the process of creating this film and the look and feel it manifests was mainly influenced by the tight budget the production team was given. After a financial lost to the highly ambitious 'Fantasia,' Disney wanted a short and sweet feature that will rake in money. Much of the animation here is less complex and wholesome than Disney's previous installments but what is depicted is fruitful with amusing motion that intriguingly expresses the weight and mass of bodies, whether it is the ringmaster, Dumbo, the other elephants, or the hilariously sputtering train. Bodies seem to contort and stretch like goo and movement is based around such animated physics that seems to both compliment the humor but, at some points, compliments moments of ferocity or anxiety. There's not a better example of such a wide spectrum of results due to an otherwise simple animated approach than in the fascinatingly eerie dream sequence of Dumbo as he passes out intoxicated. This densely surreal scene is one bent on geometrical abstraction and color fragmentation and the tone here is confusion and dread. This is a well-paced sequence and still carries a potency that you rarely see in children films of today. It is also worth noting that this sequence involves one of the great crossfades where elephants morph into clouds.

"Dumbo" has an economic construction of narrative yet the end result is that scenes are laid out with a precision that never feels like anything is being drawn out or belabored. It actually still might feel too brief for some who become prominently involved with the story but the duration of scenes and the exactitude of the dialogue never feel shallow. Dumbo is a great character and the classic pantomime approach is displayed here with perfection that will captivated all ages. It's got heart and poignancy that seems both gentle and profound.

P.S. There is a moment in the film that has sparked controversy in the way in which the film might have stereotyped. The crows at the end of the film are subject to criticism that these are ignorant caricatures of blacks that go along with many of the stereotypical roles of blacks in classic Hollywood cinema. Here is a link which gives a thoughtful analysis of the crow characters. They are by no means derogatory unless sensitivity takes over perception. They are cultivated in the same way that the other elephants are cultivated to act like obnoxious white women of privilege a la "The Women." These characters are certainly racially identified but that does not equate to stereotyping or, more importantly, disparaging of the race itself. The author will say no more.

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