Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Sometimes Cinematic Perfection is Boring: Pinocchio vs. Dumbo

Pinocchio: I remember nearly everything about the film -- as I was rewatching it for the first time in probably thirteen years, as each scene began, as each song started up, as each character arrived, it all came rushing back to me in an instant, and I remembered everything completely. It was like thirteen years had never happened, that's how clearly I remembered the film as I rewatched it. I'm convinced now that I must have watched Pinocchio A LOT as a child (though I don't remember watching it that much...) because the experience was so familiar. If nothing else, Pinocchio as a whole made a much stronger impression on me as a kid than Dumbo did. And yet, watching it now as an adult, I have to say, it's lost some of its impact. The Pleasure Island sequence in particular, a sequence that scared the pants off me as a child, doesn't seem to pack the same punch. I can certainly understand, watching the film as an adult, why and what it was about that sequence that so disturbed me as a child (I hated when people transformed into things), but now I find it doesn't even really give me a slight chill, not even in remembrance of past frights:

Dumbo, on the other hand, a film I remember finding immensely sad, almost unbearably sad, but not really remembering too much else about, is, upon rewatching, a kind of delightful discovery. I know Pinocchio was painstakingly crafted and Dumbo a slapdash product; I know Pinocchio has better songs, better animation, and a better narrative; I know Dumbo plays too easily and too readily on our heartstrings, while Pinocchio has sentimentality without being cloying. But, gosh darn it, I like Dumbo better. And this isn't a "when I was a child" reaction. I'm not sure which film I liked better as a child; in fact, I think I disliked both in a way, Pinocchio for being too scary, and Dumbo for being too sad (and also a little scary -- hello clowns and pink elephants -- for some reason, this image in particular used to scare me; I'm sure this is what prompted Dumbo's mind to invent the pink elephants):

But today, Pinocchio, though I still like it very much, comes off as a little too didactic and overly cute, while Dumbo seems almost experimental, like Merrie Melodies meets Expressionism meets Charlie Chaplin meets LSD. There's a part where Timothy the mouse tells Dumbo that there are plenty of famous guys with big ears, and he doesn't mention who, but it's obvious we're meant to think of Mickey. This kind of self-referential humor is something I'd expect more from a Warner Bros. cartoon than a Disney feature film. Coming after Snow White and Pinocchio, two features that practically define the detailed, pretty, and naturalistic style of Disney animation, Dumbo really feels like the animators were trying any new thing they could think of. Take a look at this shot:

Is this Disney or an impressionist?

And before that we got an anthropomorphic, cartoony train:

And the use of silhouette for shots of human characters, especially the clowns, somehow made them scarier and more menacing, at least when I was seven. It was also a nice device for separating the human world and the animal world, turning the human world into a strange, unwelcome, mysterious place, and giving the viewer a real sense of the animal point of view:

It's like the animators just stuck in a bunch of crazy art things that they wanted to experiment with. Nothing shows this clearer than the Pink Elephants sequence, which comes out of nowhere, means nothing to the overall story, and yet is totally unforgettable, and for some inexplicable reason, just totally right for this movie. This is some freaky stuff, yet perfectly suitable to a story about the circus, a relatively freaky place, especially for kids:

Fantasy turns back into reality but the line between them is blurred.

as a story, as a narrative film certainly doesn't stand up to Pinocchio, which has stronger themes and tells a more interesting story, but Dumbo is so freewheeling, and yet so basic and simple, that it has a freshness that Pinocchio, for all its true strengths as a film, can't seem to match. Pinocchio feels older, much older in fact, than Dumbo [though Dumbo is unfortunately very dated in its racist depiction of the minstrel show crows who help Dumbo learn to fly]. In that sense I'm drawn to Pinocchio because it's nostalgia in two respects: nostalgia for my own childhood, and nostalgia for a bygone era -- Pinocchio feels older than its 1940 date; it feels like something from the turn of the century was finally discovered in 1940:

And Pinocchio does have better songs.

Also, there's some scariness:

But Dumbo, for all its flaws is simply more interesting. I think my reaction to it has a lot to do with my affection for noble failures; I seem to fall in love with movies that have obvious flaws but also flashes of real brilliance. The whole is not as great as some of its parts, and yet those parts are so interesting, engaging, intriguing, whateveradjective, that I can't help but love the movie. Sometimes cinematic perfection is boring; sometimes a movie is so good that there's nothing to think about or muse over afterward. Dumbo is not like that; Dumbo is the kind of film that worms through my brain and I can't get it out. It's not so much the story or the songs but the images and essential emotions like fear, shame, sadness, and joy. Plus, who can resist this level of cuteness?

Who doesn't cry when they see this?

And who doesn't freak out over elephants in mind-bending Technicolor?

My reactions to these scenes are too strong to dismiss simply because the film is weak narratively. Pinnochio is Disney perfection, but Dumbo is Disney intoxication.


Anonymous said...

Nice little piece. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks

Evan said...

That shadow image of Pinocchio turned into the donkey still freaks me out, some 20+ years after seeing it for the first time. My dad took me to a theater to see it when I was little, and he had to get up to go to the bathroom. I told him I wanted to stay and watch the movie, and for whatever reason, he listened to me. Then that sequence came on, and I started shrieking.

I also didn't remember liking Dumbo all that much as a kid, but I watched it in the past few years. Such a great depiction of a mother/child relationship.

nicole. t said...

I really enjoyed reading your short article on Disney's Pinocchio and Dumbo. I too agree with your conclusion that Dumbo is better because it's fun, weird and artistic. Pinocchio was very scary and intense with the Monstro and donkey scenes. They both frighten me still now. Dumbo shows how cruel humans are in a circus and definitely made me more aware of animal cruelty and be against the use of animals at circuses.
The 'Baby Mine' scene is so touching and perfectly captures motherly love. I cry just hearing the music...

Anonymous said...

Dumbo makes me cry and cry and cry nonstop when I watch it. Even if I watch a clip of it when it was on tv for the DVD release it makes me cry. That movie is one of the most touching movies ever made.