Dumbo - good old fashioned movie storytelling
We watched the movie “Dumbo” as a group of family and friends on the occasion of our oldest daughter’s 18th birthday. It was her choice of film, about which she was quite resolute, despite doubts we expressed that it might be aimed at younger children, and also the lukewarm online reviews it had received. But we found those doubts to have been wholly misplaced, and enjoyed one of the most thoroughly uplifting and delightful family movie nights in recent memory. A night that confirmed however our doubts about the reliability of the elite cadre of film reviewers and our suspicions about the true rottenness of the “Rotten Tomatoes” brand of political proselytism dressed up as film review.
Film-craft was different in the early decades of cinema and Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” is a remake of a movie first made in 1941 in which he captures some of the spirit and subtle depth of that early era of film. Film makers at that time had not yet lost the art of storytelling itself, and knew how to use moving pictures and sound as tools to enhance that ancient art. They avoided falling into the trap of later generations of relying on just cinematic effects – high kinetic audio-visual violence to force shock and awe in the viewer, in the place of an actual story. And stories were allowed to draw from eternal spiritual, psychological and moral themes, unencumbered by the “prima noche” obligation to submit to a contemporary prudish social justice agenda. (Every time Rotten Tomatoes shows a big difference between the critics’ and the viewers’ scores for a movie - in either direction - you know that the reason is pure politics, and that the critics‘ reviews are obeisant trash.)
In Dumbo’s opening scenes a few very economic cinematic brush-strokes set the scene unmistakably in the somber period just following WW1 and the devastating Spanish flu epidemic (viewer and reviewers ignorant of this history will have missed these important references, but audiences were better educated in the mid 20th century). The male lead Holt was a veteran of the ghastly Argonne forest battleground and had lost an arm. His wife had died of Spanish flu, as had many other family and colleagues – true to history, more had been lost to that epidemic than to the war. Their two children now had a single parent, and they lived in a cramped tent compartment in the decimated and demoralised travelling circus of Mr Medici. The horses their father had ridden as a former star attraction had been sold. Even then a fire burned in the spirits of the children and their father in defiance of the drab and ominous mood.
Into this scenario the film’s left field element, or magical visitor, arrives – a mutant baby born to a recently purchased mother elephant, with abnormally large ears reaching to the ground. At first this is taken as yet another dispiriting blow to the circus troupe, nature adding insult to injury. The baby elephant’s life is spared and it is lovingly looked after by the children, with whom it forms an immediate and close bond. The graphic creation of Dumbo the elephant is astonishing in vivid textural life-likeness, and engagingly cute while not gratuitously so. It’s movements are perfectly realistic and powerfully evocative and we quickly get to know the youngster’s character, a wordless compulsive communicator who comes to dominate many scenes with movements of eyes, trunk, ears and limbs. While playing with the creature, the children are astonished to observe that it can fly up in the air by flapping its oversized ears like wings. However at first they keep this a secret and the infant anomaly is relegated to the clowns, painted as an object of ridicule. But during a performance a clown act mishap strands the young elephant – now disparagingly named “Dumbo” – on a high ledge and the creature amazes the crowd by flying to safety and circling the tent a few times for good measure.
The stunning fact of a flying elephant and the inevitable avaricious human response to such a phenomenon then set the agenda for the rest of the film. This is done in a powerful yet measured way. While many plot elements are woven together the film remains transparent and is not over complicated. The ugly face of coercive domination is explored, then entertainingly and satisfyingly put in its place. Yes the final plot has been described as formulaic but formulas are there for a reason. Every story is a formula, and this is well crafted old fashioned storytelling. The ending is an imaginative departure from the original and adds to a deeply feel-good send off.
This film has depth of character development which however stops short of narcissism. Though a light-hearted romp it touches on profound issues such as control in relationships, personal dreams in economic shackles and organisational ethics. The film leaves you in pleasant contemplation, not just shell-shock. This is how films were / are meant to be made.