Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Operation Dumbo Watch


I've been looking forward to the age where my son can consume and sort-of appreciate feature-length animated movies as my opportunity to reacquaint myself with mostly-forgotten classics. Since animation was dominated by Disney for five or six decades, I'm mostly talking about the classic Disney movies here.

But I wasn't going to start buying up old Disney movies on speculation. There was a good chance that neither of us were going to like them enough to be worth owning them, especially at the prices that are generally charged for such beloved films. (Even with Travis' Disney Bucks or Disney Dollars or whatever they're called.)

So it was with some joy that I learned of the deal Netflix recently struck with Disney. In addition to some rather significant long-term plans -- like, exclusive rights to Disney new releases starting in 2016 -- Netflix gets immediate access to movies like Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo, both of which I added to our queue soon after hearing about their availability. 

I haven't actually seen Alice in Wonderland, and since I'm aware of all the movie's hidden drug references, I hesitate a little bit about unleashing it on my son. Not that I think he would get those references, not before he was a late teenager anyway -- and he's only 2 and 1/2 now. It's irrational, but it feels like bad parenting to me.

Dumbo, on the other hand, was a perfect candidate. I'd seen it so long ago that the only thing I really remembered from it was the iconic shot of the baby elephant flying around the top of a circus tent. If pressed, I'd probably have been able to tell you about his mother nearly stampeding some folks and being branded as a "mad elephant."

Plus, it was only 64 minutes long.

But I didn't have my strategy right. I decided to show my son Dumbo at a time that I was not in a position to watch it with him. This was three or four weeks ago.

He loved it so much that he watched it again three or four times in the following days. And though I was undoubtedly chuffed (to use an Australian term) to see him taking to a classic movie -- thereby quelling my distant fear that today's kids are hard-wired to need modern animation -- I started to worry that he was going to burn out on it if I didn't get to watching it with him soon. Then I also worried about my own proper viewing being ruined by seeing five minutes of it here and five there.

About a week ago I noticed that he had stop requesting Dumbo. Uh oh.

So this weekend I determined to sit down with him for the movie, before he loses interest altogether. He shows a real ferocity about rejecting shows he no longer wants to see. Some of them make an eventual comeback, but some of them are gone forever. And though I could certainly sit down to watch Dumbo without him, that felt a little absurd to me, not to be killing two birds with one stone when it would be so easy to do so.

Saturday morning we were going to the park, so Sunday morning was the time. And I'm pleased to say that it went off effortlessly. Sometimes he practically wakes up saying the name of the program he wants to watch, but Sunday was not one of those mornings. So I slipped on Dumbo and met nary a moment of resistance from him. A couple times he wandered over to the door to our hallway to call for my wife, who was still sleeping, and with about 15 minutes left he lost interest in watching. I manged to contain him in the first instance, and he contained himself in the second by playing with his toys. So I did complete my Dumbo viewing -- even if some of his toys drowned out the dialogue toward the end.

My thoughts? It's a tight, though exceptionally dated, little movie. Here are some more specific thoughts:

1) It was more Fantasia than I thought it would be. I had certainly forgotten, perhaps because I was too young to understand it at the time, that Dumbo discovers he can fly as the result of accidentally getting drunk. One clown knocks over one bottle of champagne into one bucket of water, and upon drinking from that bucket of water, Dumbo and his mouse companion get so inebriated that they hallucinate a pink elephant parade that takes up five or six minutes of screen time. And here I thought I was saving my son from hidden drug references by not showing him Alice in Wonderland. The trippy sequence culminates with the pair lying in a tree, which is how they learn that Dumbo has the gift of flight.

2) Are the crows racist? It's something I'm seriously grappling with. Dumbo and the mouse meet a half-dozen crows in the aforementioned tree, all of whom have the thick accents of southern blacks. Clearly, this would never happen if the movie were made today -- but is it actually racist? The most negative trait the crows can be accused of is laughing too much at the plight of the hungover pair. Otherwise they're rather clever, and they do play a key role in helping Dumbo tap in to his ability to fly. So here's the question: Is it racist merely to try to authentically recreate the voices of southern blacks in any characters, maybe specifically crows? I'll have to think about that one some more. I did notice that every single human being who helps erect the circus tent has black skin -- which would also prompt a person to wonder whether the movie is racially profiling, or just admitting certain regrettable realities.

3) Not all elephants can talk. I did wonder as I was watching why the catty elephants can (and do) talk as much as they please, but Dumbo never talks, and his mother only talks long enough to provide the stork with the baby's name: "Jumbo Jr." I suppose this movie treats talking as a sign of a lack of enlightenment, as almost every character who opens his mouth has something unpleasant to say. The possible exception is the mouse, who has Dumbo's well-being in mind -- most of the time. If you were being cynical, you'd say he's just as interested in punching his own ticket to fame and wealth.

4) The stork. One of the things about this movie that I found quaint in a good way is the sequence where the stork delivers babies to all the animals in the circus. I'd say that I don't know if you'd see a stork make an appearance in any animated movie shot today, even though the story of the stork is certainly still told to children. But if I said that, I'd be forgetting the Pixar short Partly Cloudy, which played before Up and featured a stork as its main character.

5) Was Mel Brooks working back then? I don't know why, but I felt like all the characters (except the crows) sounded like they could have been voiced by Mel Brooks or Dom DeLuise. I guess that's more an indication of the tradition those two worked in, a vaudevillian tradition which is certainly present in Dumbo.

Although I think Dumbo is an odd movie at times, it's ultimately sweet, with special emphasis on the scenes with the mother animals nestling with their babies. There's the sucker parent in me coming out.

Now that my son has survived the pink elephant scene, I'll have to figure out if Operation Alice in Wonderland Watch might be around the corner.

1 comment:

Travis McClain said...

Disney Movie Rewards is Disney's rewards program. You get points for each movie you buy (or ticket stubs for Disney movies you see in a theater). They often offer coupons through DMR good toward new release Disney Blu-rays.

As for Dumbo, it's one of those movies that has cast a very long shadow for me since I first saw it as a child. I went many years without seeing it until a couple of years ago when I re-watched it on DVD. Then last year I bought the Blu-ray, which I watched in August. You can read my Letterboxd diary from that viewing for my thoughts on it then.

I will say, I began to laugh to myself when I saw your apprehensions about Alice in Wonderland, because there's nothing in that film half as freaky as Dumbo's drunk scene! That's one of the greatest WTF? scenes I've ever seen.

Alice in Wonderland is visually captivating but the story and its pacing may prove taxing for your son at this age. It requires a little bit more of an investment of attention than does Dumbo. Regardless of what he thinks of it, I look forward to your thoughts. It's another personal favorite of mine.