After the towering, messianic, heralding-of-a-new-art-form success of Disney’s first feature-length animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the spectacularly egotistical businessman Walt Disney nearly destroyed, obliterated, and defaced his company’s livelihood with a duo of divine artistic achievements that were, in their individual ways, far too radical, even fanatical, for the box office mainstream. Pinocchio was an id-logic nightmare glimpsed through a murky ether, and Fantasia a resplendent rhapsody that owed more to avant-garde sound-and-space films like Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and flaunted its rejection of the reality principle at every turn. His company’s shining star had flared and glistened and tested its own mettle and might by flying to the sun in a matter of years, and it was about to implode and burn with Uncle Walt left with naught but a fiddle to wallow away his time watching the tattered rummage of his hopes and dreams.
And then fluttered along a silent little elephant carrying the fate of the company on his elephantine ears (all the better to truck along with decades of childhood dreams on them as well). Dumbo, so feather-light as to almost register as a phantom or figment version of a film rather than a complete package, was Disney’s fourth feature film, but only its second success. Although nominally more superficial and timid about its role in the animation landscape – “cute elephant” vs. the previous year’s “a study in often non-representational geometry and color rather than a story” – the film envelops itself in a gossamer fabric that is almost stylistically and tonally radical in the way it derails our assumptions about how monolithic and monumental an animated story is supposed to be. Bill Tytla’s cherub-like design for the unspeaking title character is cute, sure, but it’s also a provocative shift away from grand normality and into something so casual that you don’t even notice it until it sneaks up on you and steals your heart.
A diaphanous tone, this is, and one that is corroborated by a quasi-story with the episodic tendencies of a slice-of-life tale and the reticence of a fable. The watercolor backgrounds and the sketch-like characters deprived of lived-in detail – more like faint suggestions of a people, place, and story than a tendentious declamation of any of them – gift the film with the tempo of a tall tale carried in on the wind and just as likely to evaporate before our eyes, sidestepping or circumventing our minds if we don’t take care to grasp it. Of all the Disney films, Dumbo is the most silently evocative of children’s illustration. The structure is similarly pure; large-eared elephant Dumbo is gifted to his single mother Mrs. Jumbo (Verna Felton) by Mr. Stork (Winnie the Pooh himself, Sterling Holloway), the baby is roundly dismissed by the travelling Florida circus Mrs. Jumbo is a star attraction in, he is separated from his mother when she tries to defend him, and he loses himself to drink and wakes up with new friends who help him discover his true caliber. Yes, you read that part about the drink right.
Fittingly, although the film is sometimes non-threateningly, it is also spiked with childhood alienation and alarm as Dumbo – not even gifted with a voice to proclaim his worth – struggles to cope with the trepidation of social “othering”. Scuffles and diatribes about his unscrupulous disruption of the Elephant lifestyle weaken his hope well before he accidentally descends to the bottom of the barrel in a drunken stupor. The film is almost weary in its silent terror about circus life and the oppression inherent in a performative, public-oriented world (implicit questions about Disney’s own company ring out like tendrils), themes whispered in surprisingly matter-of-fact, unmelodramatic filigrees. The opening moments, a promise of cordial entertainment inscribed in circus flash cards disturbed by tempestuous storm itself interrupted by a life-bringing stork besting terror, prefigure the disarmingly blunt emotional fluctuations of a story that uses cartoon logic to dip us into mortal fear. A primal effusion of emotion – a paucity of prose transforming into a clenched-poetry critique of dismissive elitism and discrimination – invades the ostensibly congenial cartoon lifestyle of the murky ether of backstage life.
The fallout is an alcohol-ravaged, neon-throttled, proto-psychedelic Technicolor hallucination backed in charcoal-black; “Elephants on Parade” may be the crowning achievement of Disney animation, with Disney’s goons crossing the lot to investigate the subversive, surrealistic Fleischer studio style, perverting the cartoony fluidity of the Warner Bros. way to achieve a liquefaction of everyday sanity. The comic core of the squiggly form is distorted and reoriented toward a maniacal depiction of life without physical continuity or bodily fixity. An ever-malleable world of no-longer-bounded shapes, normally a wellspring of possibility in animation, becomes a fount of corrosive submission to one’s inability to grapple with, let alone control, a motile world that is literally – physically, visually – warping around you. The secret sauce of the scene is that Dumbo’s drunken binge is really just a manifestation of the panic that everyday society has already affronted him with.
Ultimately, however, the acrimony of life is a counterpoise for, and a catalyst of, a final fit of effervescent jubilance, a promotion – a vision – of rebelling with one’s difference intact and galvanized by self-pride and letting one’s freak flag (quite literally) fly. It isn’t until Dumbo escapes from the circus that the film sidewinds into a partially toxic layover, a hairpin turn if you will, into a suspect interpretation of shucking and jiving as a dialect for free-wheeling, free-spirited abolition of the status quo. The fruits of which are Disney’s first unquestionably racist characters and a problematic paean to personal expression as the lifeblood of human agency. Long dogged with a racist reputation (a not inapt one), Dumbo’s inclinations are mixed, compromised, disreputable, and even insurrectionist. While the elephants’ disdain for the outlaw ears of Dumbo is pitched with an undeniable tinge of WASPY, white elitism and segregationist racism, the crows that save Dumbo are themselves outsiders – racist stereotypes, but outsiders – who singularly understand Dumbo’s plight. They cotton to his turmoil and his cognitive dissonance about his people’s rejection of him; the crows’ affection and empathy is inscribed within their social ostracization. And while Timothy Mouse, Dumbo’s only true friend, merely provides comfort, it is the crows alone who actually exhibit the mental faculty to imagine new possibility for him, to see him as something different than just another misbegotten elephant.
Of course, the crows are also loose-lipped, free-wheeling, jazz-handed, cackling coon figures, with Disney’s racial representation issues knowing no bounds in the early ‘40s. Here, again, the film is on unstable, compromised ground with the deeply questionable stereotypes also registering as a tensile-strength force for liquid, rebellious lifestyles, unfettering charisma, and a live-for-the-moment insouciance rooted, problematically, in long-held stereotypes about African-Americans as rhythmically-inclined souls without much concern for their futures. The flip side is the subterranean connection to slave culture and centuries of black life in the US that relied on, subcutaneously at least, freedom-in-the-moment as a closet rejection of white value structures that flattened and disrupted black community and life altogether by forbidding minorities from engaging with the uninhibited moments of life around them. The crows’ endorsement, and celebration, of Dumbo – not in spite of his ears but because of his ears – is tantamount to asking him not only to be himself, but also to escape from the ascetic self-policing and timid assimilation of leading a mainstream, approved-by-the-masses lifestyle.
So Dumbo flies at the crows’ behest. And when he lets loose the dogs of personal liberation, he also slides into a commitment to difference and democratization, untethering himself from social propriety, letting loose in the moment, all as a lexicon for reinterpreting the philosophy of life itself. The crows are deeply problematic sketches, teetering between a crayon-drawing of racism and an embodiment of the human will to accept its own terms for life. Ultimately however, Disney’s acceptance of a murder of crows, a flock of anthropomorphized black men, as educators for Dumbo is also a bracing exclamation, a brushing-off of social abandonment through new, subaltern community, a plea for self-governing liberation from the norm.