The story so far: Snow White had made a truckload of cash, and established Disney's studio as a global player; but the two follow-up films, Pinocchio and Fantasia had both lost a great deal of money. The studio blamed World War 2 for this, because the conflict had cut-off most of the lucrative European market; but the fact is, even in the States audiences just didn't fall in love with the later two films the way they did with the first. Dumbo was made quickly and cheaply in order to balance the books; backgrounds were drawn swiftly in watercolour, not meticulously painted in with gouache; animators for the first time were allowed to animate directly without having to work through elaborate preliminary animation processes, such as filming sequences with live-action actors to pose as motion models, or producing pencil animations of whole sequences (you can see the results of this glorious fluidity in the Pink Elephants sequence).
It's also this peerless sequence that does the (very early, chronologically speaking) postmodern thing of breaking the fourth wall by emphasising the framing of the movie, when the elephants parade along and up the edges of the screen. I have lots of clever things to say about this marvelous moment, but like Fermat with his margin, I don't have leisure to jot them all down here at this time.
Anyway, back to the budget: designs were simplified, frames de-cluttered, a smaller team of animators was assigned. The script was not fine-tuned over years, as the had been the case with the previous movies; indeed, the story could have been a little better balanced -- it pays-off and ends rather too abruptly and hurriedly. At any rate, the result was a motion picture that cost $900,000 (Fantasia had cost $2.3 million in 1930s dollars: a fortune. Pinocchio had cost an equivalent sum). It lasts a mere 64 minutes: the shortest of all Disney features. It made $1.6 million on its initial release, and much more over the re-releases through the 1940s. Job done, financially. Better yet: it was a film that actually moved audiences, to both tears and laughter.
It is, of course, Pinocchio Redux: only child, separated from parent, guided by externalised conscience (who happens to be a small talking animal) eventually overcomes adversity to reveal his true worth. But there are two things in particular that interest me about this reworking. One is that this is the first feature-length Disney animation to be set not in an idealised Old World Europe, but in the New World. There's a lot one could say about Disney's fascination with the Old World, in part because it is a significant part of the larger Hollywood fascination with the Old World, or more particularly with England and Englishness. But Disney is American, not merely in terms of the nationality of its founder but in terms of its global cultural logic. It stands, like McDonalds and WalMart, as a sort of shorthand for American-ness. It might, I suppose, be that Disney leavens its Americanness with a more 'global' set of flavours (see also: Aladdin, Lion King, Mulan etc) in order more effectively to penetrate global markets. It might, on the other hand, be that the Old World provides an ersatz historical depth to an otherwise too-too bran new cultural productive idiom at odds with the necessary historical resonances of fairy tales et al. Not sure about all this.
Related to this is the question of race. Eleanor Byrne and Martin McQuillan's Deconstructing Disney (Pluto Press 1999) point to the paucity of African American representation in Disney's movies:
Not since James Baskett played Uncle Remus in the semi-animated film Song of the South in 1946 has a black man, that is an African-American male, been portrayed by Disney in an animated film in human form, and only in Hercules (1997) have African-American women appeared as black women. In fact the hybrid form of the semi-animated film cut with live action means that Disney has never figured an African-American man as an animated human in its entire history of feature-length films. This is an important point, and Byrne/McQuillan note the way Disney's Uncle Remus embodies a 'domestication of black representations that infantalise and emasculate the image of the black man through his elision with children, animals and entertaining cartoon capers, what James Snead calls "a rhetoric of harmlessness".' It wasn't until 2009 with The Princess and the Frog that Disney finally addressed this problem head-on; and although that was a perfectly nice movie, it was immediately followed by one of the Whitest movies in the entire Disney canon: Tangled. It may look like carping to mention the crows in Dumbo as a counter-example (not 'human', clearly; although I don't see by what codes of representation the 2D painted pot figures in Hercules count as 'human' either).
Still, race is present in the film in more complex and interesting ways than that. For one thing, the human circus workers, shown assembling the big top tent in the thunderstorm, are clearly African American, and although their appearance is marginal to the main line of the film they are neither infantalised nor domesticated. And Dumbo, despite his baby-blue eyes, is an African Elephant (check the ears!), the son of an literally enchained mother who learns to fly and astonish the world. As a fable for the African American inheritance in America it could hardly be more positive.
Well: I overstate things, I suppose. Perhaps there's a much less upbeat quality to this movie, and its representation of America. Because Dumbo is America through a double-code of representational simplification, two codes that tangle rather oddly with one another. It's animals as people: crows in little jackets, mice who can talk, mother elephants who gossip nastily like sour old middle-class matrons obsessed with respectability and so on. It's also 'the circus' as a symbolic apprehension of America itself. The tangle comes from the fact that one function of 'the circus' is precisely to present animals in non-functional, non-instrumental ways, as entertainers rather than livestock. Louis Marin (in On Representation) quotes Victor Witter Turner ‘in connection with ritual festivals’, and specifically his theory
that parades or corteges (like festivals) transform one or more real and specific social relations into communitas (both temporary and symbolic). Parades, corteges or processions represent this transformation, and by representing it they carry it out. [Marin, On Representation (1994), 52]Think of the circus's parade when it arrives in town. Or more to the point, think of the model of society the circus in Dumbo embodies: carceral and mocking and persecutory. Dumbo's mother locked up; the clowns whole show predicated upon bullying and mocking Dumbo himself. It is a circus of cruelty. Heirarchised and stratified and sadistic, its 'ruler' the circus master a mere shadow projected upon a screen. Turner posits two modes of ‘communitas’ ‘evoked’ by the parade, procession or festival: ‘the antagonistic communitas that symbolically “acts out” a real antagonism internal to society’ and the ‘communitas of the warlike type’. Dumbo is evidently the former, although the movie’s ending is tries to cloak the movie as a whole in the latter (Dumbo bombers and so on). And what is the real antagonism internal to society that the movie symbolically performs, if not race in America?