An elephant, two mice and a puppet walk into a bar…

The current cinematic and DVD re-release of The Lion King has classic Disney films back in the public consciousness a bit more (not that they are ever that far from it). And a recent rampage through a DVD store by my partner have Disney DVDs weighing down the shelf at home. Well at least with those currently available (seriously what the hell is the deal with Disney’s DVD release strategy? Do they withhold titles from release so they become more ‘sought after’ or is it something more nuanced than that?). I digress. These purchases gave me the perfect chance to relive a couple of old school Disney classics, and bring you my thoughts on them.

First up is Dumbo (1941), the tale of the baby circus elephant with ginourmous ears. The film opens with a great opening sequence showing storks making deliveries to the zoo. This sets up nicely the vein of humour that runs through the film (best exemplified a little later on by the circus train), along with establishing the family values that are such a key part of it. The images of the mothers connecting with their adorable new babies are … adorable. The plot of the film concerns Dumbo, the baby elephant who is teased for the size of his ears, but eventually learns to harness the power of them for his own benefit. It also explores his relationship with the other circus animals, and the human players of the travelling big top as well. Despite some lashings of mean spiritedness and some definite heart wrenching turns – both necessary to give the plot at least some impetus – Dumbo proves that you do not have to create something overflowing with darkness to create something brilliant. The film contains a number of scenes of the simplest beauty which are just so fulfilling to watch. The one where Timothy Q. Mouse sits atop a bar of soap and scrubs Dumbo with a toothbrush, whilst giving him a pep talk, as the young elephant gently weeps springs to mind. Then of course there is the ‘Pink Elephants’ sequence, which is definitely not what I would call simple. Wow. I hated this bit when I was a kid. The scene is essentially a drunken hallucination, featuring pink elephants dancing and much more strangeness. Good luck getting this into a family film these days. Despite the fact that it does not exactly fit with the rest of the film, the sequence is unabashed brilliance and the artistic highpoint of the film. Weird as shit though.

Even in this day and age of incredible film technological advance, there is still little more visually arresting than classic Disney animation. The film is beautifully rendered and so much care has gone into the look of the film. The depictions of the animals perfectly capture the spirit of the real things, and the baby animals are cute beyond belief. Along with the film’s striking animation, its other technical strength is undoubtedly the soundtrack. This is not like many other Disney films which are musicals in the sense that they build to a number of big musical numbers, delivered by main characters at key points in the film. Rather, the music in this is for the most part what you would consider a more traditional soundtrack. I think this is better in some ways, and is unsurprising that this aspect of the film was lauded, with it winning the Academy Award for ‘scoring of a motion picture.’ The film is very short by today’s standards, which is a good thing. It clocks in at a shade over an hour, and this actually works in the film’s favour. It leaves you wishing there was more, rather than most contemporary films which leave you wishing they finished half an hour ago. There is something to be said for knowing exactly how much is the right amount of a good thing.

Animal circuses are a bit of a taboo in contemporary society, and something that personally I definitely do not agree with. And I think that in its own small way the film deals with these issues. There are a number of scenes of abject cruelty toward animals that are a little hard to swallow, but are put in there because these sort of things do occur. There is also a nice, humorous touch on the unnaturalness of animals in the circus. During the circus parade, a gorilla is hamming it up for the audience, bellowing and rattling the bars. When he finally breaks a bar, he does not know what to do with it and meekly puts it back in its place.

Thematically, this story filled with all kinds of wonderful animals, expresses itself through two very human relationships – that of a mother and son, and that of friendship. The first half or so of the film is a tale of a mother’s love for her child. From the first moment she sets eyes on the baby Dumbo, Mrs Jumbo is taken totally with her new child. She defends him against the taunts of the other elephants about his oversized ears. This defence also leads to the film’s emotional highpoint. In an exhilarating scene, when Dumbo is mercilessly teased by a gang of buck-toothed youths, Mrs Jumbo springs into action. And this really is an action piece as she flings aside circus workers who try to contain her rage as she defends her son to the last. The result of this is that when she is finally brought under control, Mrs Jumbo is placed in a small caravan plastered with signs reading ‘Mad Elephant’. The downcast Dumbo sheds a forlorn tear as he mourns being separated from his mother. After these events Dumbo is cast out by the other elephants which leads directly to the films other great relationship, the one between our elephant protagonist and Timothy Q. Mouse. Timothy immediately goes out of his way to help Dumbo. It is one of the purest depictions of friendship put to film I think. The mouse has nothing to gain from creating and maintaining a friendship with Dumbo, but he in an instant becomes his greatest advocate. Just a bloke, helping out another bloke through the goodness of his heart. The appearance of Timothy Q. Mouse brings with it the film’s greatest vocal performance by Edward Brophy who is intensely endearing. In fact the voice acting is all really good, pleasantly lacking the grandstanding celebrities which plague contemporary releases.

In many ways this film is close to perfect. I don’t know that it was my favourite Disney film growing up, but it has rocketed to the top of that list now. And it has really inspired me to go back and watch all of the Disney films, including the ones I have missed. If I can find anything close to this in terms of emotive and technically astute filmmaking I will be happy. This is a film for everyone.

Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter

Preceding Dumbo by just a year, Pinocchio (1940) belongs to that distinctly Disney rare breed, a ‘kids’ film based on a classic piece of literature which is far removed from its source. A tale of a wooden puppet with a lonely, single male creator. The puppet is given life, and told essentially that if he proves himself to be brave and true, he will be imbued with real life.

There is so much to love in the wondrous design of all of these old Disney films, and it starts from the opening credits. They are simply and elegantly designed but immediately tell you that you are watching a Disney film, and are in for a treat. The sound design in the film reminds me of these opening credits as well, such good, beautiful work. And such effort is taken with the details, like all the various clocks in Geppetto’s workshop which go off in synch, dazzling with their variety. The backgrounds are stunning in this film, looking like masterful paintings, perfectly complementing the sharply focused action going on in front. A technological breakthrough allowed sweeping pans and shifts of camera to be made over these delightful backdrops, meaning action was not restricted to a single frame. Just as the film starts with some of this wondrous design I am referring to, it also finishes up with it too. The whale that dominates the last section of the film is beautifully and awesomely animated, showing the size and power of the animal. The whale and the water look almost hand painted such is the beauty. For me, I don’t think the animation of water (such a difficult thing to render in an interesting way) would be done better til Finding Nemo (2003) some 60+ years later.

The very sweet story in some ways feels like three or four short films joined together. The second one following Pinocchio’s creation sees him abducted by the villainous Stromboli so he can be used in show business. Stromboli is a wonderfully terrible and horrifying presence, separating Pinocchio from Geppetto and threatening to turn the young puppet into firewood. This mean streak is perfectly rendered in his physicality, a giant of a man with a massive black beard. This sequence of events leaves Geppetto heartbroken at the loss of his son that he has only just received. The old man toils in the pouring rain searching forlornly for his son. The next subplot concerningly involves the kidnapping of young boys and taking them to a place called “Pleasure Island”. This is a place where the kids are encouraged to smoke cigars and wantonly destroy property. In the end though it is all a front for an operation that turns kids into donkeys – of course. This sequence sees one of the most intense scenes where Pinocchio’s new young friend graphically turns into a donkey. The episodic narrative comes through tonally with the film being pretty uneven throughout. But the last section is the most assured. It shows Pinocchio in a traditional, heroic light as he bravely hunts down the whale that has swallowed his father Geppetto. It also benefits from having all the major characters on screen for most of the time, which makes the interactions more interesting.

Character wise Jiminy Cricket is one of Disney’s most iconic, and he certainly has an incredibly iconic look with his smooth green head and snazzy getup that he is so proud of. In some ways the cricket is an extremely human character. In his role as conscience he tries his best to keep his young charge on the straight and narrow. Despite numerous setbacks and at times a lack of encouragement from Pinocchio, he never gives up, always coming back again and again to help him out. Pinocchio’s father Geppetto is also a really original character. It is beautiful to see a single father figure such as him contain not one semblance of a mean streak. He is a simple, lonely man. Early on in the film he dances with the toys he makes, and his only meaningful relationships are with his cat and fish. His one true heartfelt yearning is to have a son to call his own.

The film is exceptionally rich from a thematic perspective, in some ways overburdened with themes, making it difficult to engage with the story stuck below. From the moment he is given life, Pinocchio is told that he can have true life, if he proves himself. This is a moral tale, showing the trials that one must pass on the journey to manhood. Showing what it takes to be a “real boy”. And it renders this journey in a very conventional way. There is a clear focus on resisting temptations and listening to your (always faltering) conscience. These themes are clearly aimed at children – the physical manifestation of lying in Pinocchio’s nose growing for example. There is also a focus on the pressures on a child to satisfy their parents. In many ways the one true fear that the young Pinocchio has is that his father will be disappointed in him. And this is hard to reconcile with the fact that we all make mistakes, especially the youthful. It is also about innocence being led astray. It seems like this is turning into a long list of pretty heavy themes, and it can feel like that at times as more and more life lessons are thrown into the mix. There is such a thing as being too laden with ideas and teachings

I think for me, in some ways, this film suffered because I watched it so soon after watching Dumbo, and I think it is slower, and not as enjoyable or iconic as that film. But that is not to disparage the film. It is a wondrous achievement, and the core message of what it takes to be a real boy (girl/man/woman) is a timeless one.

Verdict: Stubby of Reschs

Progress: 42/1001

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