Friday, May 7, 2010

Dumbo: Baby Mine

In my opinion, the key to Dumbo’s success with children of all ages lies in its believable depiction of the protagonist’s most basic relationships: the one with his mother and the one with his friend Timothy. Playful sequences like the “pink elephants on parade” are only the icing on the cake.

While Mark Mayerson is doing a chronological analysis in connection with his famous mosaics I’m trying to put together a more thematic analysis examining character relationships and uncovering underlying narrative structures. In contrast to 101 Dalmatians color is not the hook for the analysis. It will occasionally be the subject, but not exclusively.

Let me start with a favorite scene, the one that everybody remembers: "Baby Mine". It’s also one of the most sentimental Disney scenes ever – manipulative in its sentimentality even, one might say. Clearly designed as a hiatus in all the turmoil that surrounds Dumbo it serves as a moment of rest and longing for the audience as well. Like the whole film, this scene is very simple yet so beautifully constructed.

Life goes on
Initially Dumbo and Timothy come from the left. After the song they go off to the right. They don’t go back to where they came from. Life must go on as Dumbo is led by Timothy who doesn’t believe in drawing back. Like this scene, much in this film is organized around straight forward movements which are generally translated into left to right screen directions. The extreme point is reached when Dumbo and Timothy wake up in a tree way out of their own environment. From then on, they go back to the circus where everything is resolved in the end and the train seems to move back home to the left.

The prison coach is staged cleverly both in design and lighting. It has barred windows towards both directions. The side facing the approaching friends is lit by the moon as it represents a gleam of hope for Dumbo who longs to see his mother. The side facing to the right is in the shadow. After all, saying goodbye isn’t easy.
In order not to disorient unexperienced viewers (small children), screen directions have to be very cautiously prepared. I have already written about how the panning camera bridges larger gaps in distance in 101 Dalmatians. There is also an even easier, more basic, approach to connecting disparate backgrounds into one set.

Matching eyelines

In fact, it’s the most basic filmic device that distinguishes film from theater: first we see a character looking at something off screen, then we see what the character sees. The eyes are most important to that concept. They tell us not only where someone looks but also the emotion the object triggers in the viewer. From a visual point of view, we’re lucky that human (and cartoon) eyes are surrounded by white (or another bright color), so they even draw our attention in very stylized designs. In animation, if you get the eyes right, you can get away with many shortcuts elsewhere.

While Dumbo is swaying in his mother’s trunk Timothy looks at the other animal families sleeping happily in their wagons. We would probably understand the meaning of these shots anyway, but establishing a spatial connection with Timothy and the prison coach is a very elegant solution. It helps to make sure that this is no montage sequence.

above: the other animals during "Baby Mine", not so different 
from their establishing in the prologue (below).

The other circus animals are practically non-characters. They are not vital to the story other than to have a template for “normal” family life. Thus they are introduced in the very beginning as happy families and are only used for comic relief in later scenes but never as part of a circus performance. The “Baby Mine” scene features their last appearance in the film providing both cuteness and comic relief culminating in the kangaroo’s feet gently creaking like a rocking chair.

It is intuitively comprehensible that this is the film’s reality and not some dreamlike association because we clearly see rational Timothy turn his head from left (Dumbo) to right (other animals) and back again after the last animal (kangaroo). It also shows us that even a tough and controlled guy like Timothy is touched by so much sweetness and Dumbo’s longing to be with his mother.

On a larger scale
Despite the obvious difference that the Mrs Jumbo doesn’t actually sing, “Baby Mine” is reminiscent of the “some day my prince will come” scene in Snow White in that it also provides a welcome point of rest before the final act unfolds. Moreover, although both songs would have allowed for elaborate dream sequences, the makers resisted the temptation and let the eye rest for a while. We just get reaction shots of the surroundings. Both scenes are very intimate and quiet. But unlike Snow White’s longing dream “Baby Mine” is a lullaby that is concerned very much with the present, not the future. Dumbo is a child who lives in the present and not an adolescent dreaming about “some day”.

It’s interesting that neither Dumbo nor Bambi are built around their protagonists’ dreams like Snow White, Pinocchio, Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. I don’t think this is because animals or male protagonists don’t dream. I simply think this is due to the fact that, unlike its three predecessors, Dumbo is definitely a children’s film.

It is only concerned with maternal love and friendship, never romantic love. And it explores situations and relationships that every child experiences. Growing up always involves steps of learning to let go. Adolescents strive for independence, children are more reluctant to accept change. Thus, Dumbo’s story is all the more powerful by having a separation from his mother forced upon him that early. And unlike Bambi he doesn’t have to cope with her being dead but with her being there, although he can not be with her.

All these emotions are set free in this very simple scene of temporary happiness. And although we wish with Dumbo that this moment would last forever, we also understand Timothy (a street-smart cousin of Jiminy Cricket, it seems) reminding him of saying goodbye. This, by the way, is the only instant where the two most important characters in Dumbo’s life meet: Mrs Jumbo has to leave Dumbo in the custody of a stranger; not easy for her to say goodbye, either.

from Mrs Jumbo's point of view Dumbo looks lonely in the open space.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Great stuff as always. Please continue this. :)