Now that Akira Lippit (Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife) has alerted me to the significance of electricity in animals and animals in animation, it’s time to revisit Pink Elephants on Parade. Not the whole thing, just the electric sequence.
The sequence has six phases of which the electric sequence is the fifth. As a contextual reminder, here’s a lightly annotated list of them (this post discusses the whole sequence):
1. Elephants from Elephants: Origins, with Dumbo and Timothy Mouse still on screen here and there. March music. Ends when elephants fill the screen with pinkness and we hear a trumpet fanfare.2. An Elephant State of Mind: Elephants parade in what appears to be a mental hospital. Vocals. Psychedelic patterning as elephants collide. Ends with the walking creature made of elephant heads. Transition to...3. Elephant Odalisque: Eyes of head transform into bouncing pyramids (of the Egyptian variety). Orientalism. Slinky music, dancing harem elephant, ending in The Eye. Fanfare, part the curtain.4. Elephant Couple Dance: Two elephants, male and female, green and pink chiaroscuro outlined against a black background. Dancing, skating, boating, skiing. A wash of snow fills the screen and...5. Hot Elephant Juice: This is the sequence we’re examining.6. Elephant Machines: Music morphs from Latin to accelerating mechanical music paced by a three-note trumpet motif repeated and repeated and repeated. Machine Age hustle and bustle leading to an explosion of elephants. At the very end they come down from the top of the screen and become pink clouds in a dawn landscape.
First, a caveat: This is a virtuoso piece of effects animation. To appreciate it you need to step through this sequence frame by frame. Screen shots only hint at what’s going on.
The sequence starts when a spray of snow filling the frame cuts to our elephant pair encased in ice and shivering, but shivering to a Latin beat the quickly thaws them out.
Their trunks touch and the electric elephant juice produces an explosion.
This sequence is filled with quick changes in color scheme, often from one frame to the next. That’s why you need to step through it a frame at a time. You don’t see these changes when you watch the sequence at speed, but you sense a vibrating energy on the screen. Notice also the shading on the elephants in the first frame (airbrush?). That’s a lot of effort for something that’s going to play for no more than a frame or two. And Disney did this film on the cheap, by his standards.
Now we’re into the dance. The couple dances around with and under that electric arc, an obvious and marvelously apt way of visualizing the connection between a joyously dancing couple. The dance quickly evolves so that he—I’m assuming the larger elephant is supposed to me male—takes charge of the electric bolt, ending up rubbing it on his rump while he shakes his booty.
Is that a pelvic thrust? As Pappa Siggy used to say, it’s all hidden in plain view. The crackling arc becomes a spear, he tosses it and, SHAZAM! Reproduction in the mechanical age. Lots of elephants shaking they booty to beat the band.
The camera now zooms in on one of the couples. concentrating on them for a few seconds, no more, with appropriate color jazz (only some of which is in these frame grabs):
The couple now transforms into a pair of automobiles, an utterly crucial transformation. This, in effect, establishes the equivalence of animals and machines.
We’re there. And from cars to trains speedboats and beyond. We’re now in the 6th phase of the Pink Elephants sequence. The Latin music is gone, we just have straight beat and simple phrases that get faster and faster. Various vehicle noises—train whistles, honking horns, engine sounds, etc.—are mixed in as well.
The sequence ends the only way it can, in an explosion that returns us to the “real” world. Up in a tree.
Now Dumbo will, with the help of the crows, learn to fly. That is to say, he will take a behavior that came to him naturally in his drunken state and incorporate it into his repertoire of deliberate learned actions.
Man will have conquered the machine. Not just any machine, but the newest high tech machines: airplanes. Dumbo will fly in triumph; the military will design and designate bombers on his image; and he’ll end up wearing an aviator’s cap and goggles.
That is, in the logic of myth and symbolism, this movie is about, not just the reunion of a very young child with his exiled mother, but also about animals, humans and technology in the mid-20th Century.
The Pink Elephants on Parade sequence is absolutely central to this mythology. Yes, it DOES perform a dramatic function, as I argued in my original Dumbo post. It gives Disney a way of getting Dumbo into the tree without actually gives us ocular proof that he CAN fly and without exposing him to the indignity of tripping around drunk and eventually stumbling his erratic way into flight. But it also provides the symbolic variousness that allows Disney to assert an identity among animals, machines, and humans.
As I’ve said before, this is a metaphysical film in a metaphysical medium. As the figure of the whale was for Melville in Moby Dick, so the figure of the elephant is for Disney in Dumbo. Lest you think the comparison between Dumbo and the white whale is silly—and it is, a bit—let me remind you that the man who animated Dumbo, Vladimir Tytla, also animated the demon in Night on Bald Mountain. That monster of a whale was once an infant and his mother no doubt found him irresistibly cute.