For a wonderful movie experience, get a copy of “Dumbo,” the terrific animated film from the Walt Disney Studios. Today’s audiences don’t all think alike, but back in 1941 when Disney made this film, an almost universal feeling of uncertainty pervaded our country, with the prospects and reality of a war in Europe and in the Pacific. Darker elements in a film during wartime give a perception of a morass that threatens to engulf us unless we make significant changes. Maybe they didn’t feel that way in the animation room at Disney, but the level of illusion, shifting perception and strangeness in the pink elephant sequence left me feeling exposed to the elements of risk.
Dumbo concerns the problems of a baby elephant with gigantic ears, whose mother gets locked in a prison car, and whose fellow pachyderms shun him because of his ears. The circus ring leader forces Dumbo to perform with the clowns, which further alienates him from the other elephants. Suddenly, Timothy Q. Mouse appears and becomes Dumbo’s only friend. After hearing the matron elephants ridicule Dumbo’s ears, Timothy immediately endears himself to the audience by saying, “What’s the matter with his ears? I don’t see nothin’ wrong with ’em. I think they’re cute.” And so, with that, Dumbo gets a personal life coach who teaches him how to fly.
After Dumbo and Timothy get drunk on some leftover champagne, the pink elephant sequence becomes a trip of LSD proportions – with shape shifting, marching, and color changing elephants. The vignette causes a giddy uneasiness, and when the crow characters appear in the next scene, I get the sense that I’ve left the circus set forever. But Dumbo was meant to soar, and anyway, his mom is still in the circus prison. Timothy and the crows work everything out and at the end, and we see the circus train riding on to another town — with Dumbo, his Mom and Timothy now riding in first class.
Dumbo possesses little personality, especially compared with Timothy, who sports a ringleader’s uniform, complete with epaulettes and a tall red cap. Those rats in “Ratatouille” (2007) could learn a thing or two from this mouse – he’s kind, generous, sweet, and intelligent – and he understands the power of the unconscious mind and positive thinking. In this film, he’s an agent, happy to be himself, but waiting for a star to latch onto. One can learn a lot from a life in the circus.