I’m burning brain cells like mad trying to figure out Dumbo. I got up at 4:30 this morning and sent a long email to my friend and colleague, Tim Perper. Here’s a lightly edited version of that email. It’s rough, tentative, crude, but it’s where I’m trying to go.
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As you may know, I’m currently working on Disney’s Dumbo and, in consequence, have been thinking a lot about animals in cartoons. “Funny animals” were, and still are, all over the place, but why? On the one hand we know they’re humans in animal drag. But what’s the point of the drag? In particular, if they’re humans in drag, then why do we so often have regular humans playing roles in funny animal cartoons? Does the presence of all these animal humans represent a way of dealing with animality, or of humanity?
Questions, questions, questions!
Akira Lippit made a fruitful suggestion at the end of Electric Animal, where he suggested that animals appeared in cartoons at the time that they were disappearing from American life. People were moving from the farms to the city (and then the suburbs) and machines were more and more taking over work formerly done by animals (this, of course, was well under way in the 19th century). He also noted that Descartes thought of animals as automatons. Thus, animals as machines.
All that’s in play. I’m currently reading Paul Wells, Animation and America, and he makes consonant observations. Funny animal cartoons are a vehicle for thinking about what it means to be human, and the use of the animal vehicle also implies an attempt to think through animality as well. These funny animals aren’t merely humans in costume, they’re humans under scrutiny and the costumes are metaphysical in nature.
Bambi and Beyond
And Disney’s a funky and complex case. Dumbo was his fourth animated feature. It was followed by Bambi, his last until the late 1940s—the war killed his feature film business. Bambi is gorgeously drawn and animated, but I find it to be a yawner of a story. Bambi’s born, mommy gets shot, Bambi survives. Big deal. But it also represents a real attempt by Disney to deal with animals almost more or less sorta’ as animals. For example, they brought a fawn onto the studio lot and observed it so they could get it right. They also, ahem, realized that a realistically drawn fawn would not be cute enough.
Where Bambi leads, I think, is to Disney’s nature films, which began in the late 1940s. It does seem that Disney’s the one who’s most responsible for creating nature films as a genre. Now he faked those films in various ways—reusing shots, editing shots of different animals as though they were the same animal, and imposing human family values on animal lives—but he did photograph real animals in natural settings. And the public loved it, which was a good thing for the studio, for Disney always seemed to be running it on the edge of insolvency. The films were relatively cheap to produce (yeah, it costs money to hang out in the jungle with movie cameras, but not as much as an army of animators and inkers or expensive movie stars) and brought in bucks, well over production and marketing costs.
And, in the larger picture, others have done on to do a better job of documenting animal life than Disney did back in the day.
Dumbo, Animals in Clothes, and Humans
But this is a digression. Back to cartoons, and to Dumbo. The central figures in this film are animals, elephants, crows, a mouse, and a stork. Those aren’t the only animals, but they’re the central ones. And you know what? They wear clothes! The other animals don’t.
In Dumbo’s case clothes means a little cap, and he’s not always wearing it. But the stork (that delivers Dumbo) and the crows wear shirts or vests, and hats, and the elephants all have caps and some kind of blanket on their backs. As for the mouse, he’s Dumbo’s side kick and mentor and he wears a jacket and a hat.
And, of course, there are humans in Dumbo. They’re the audience for the circus, and that audience includes one nasty boy who taunts Dumbo. For which Dumbo’s mom spanks him, causing a panic among the humans, and she gets sent to elephant jail. Crisis. Then there’s the ringmaster and boss of the circus. He’s the bad guy. He’s also Management, the 1%. We’ve got the clowns, who abuse Dumbo and suck up to the boss. And we’ve got the animals handlers. Forget them. They’re under management’s thumb.
Finally, the roustabouts; they’re more interesting. There’s a dramatic scene early in the film in which the roustabouts and the elephants raise the tent, at night, during a driving rain. So, we’ve got solidarity among elephants and roustabouts.
Here’s what I make of all this. The clothed animals and the roustabouts, they’re us, the ordinary humans. The humans in the film, crudely put, they’re the Establishment. That’s obviously the case with the boss, and the animal handlers are subordinate to him. I think there’s a way to work the clowns and circus audience into it as well. We all, that is, us ordinary humans, know that the Establishment if full of toadies and clowns. So that takes care of the clowns.
Interestingly enough, both the elephants and the crows regard the clowns as the lowest of the low. When Dumbo was put into clown make-up for his act, that was the ultimate insult. That’s when the snooty elephant matrons decided that Dumbo was no longer an elephant.
Why so hard on the clowns? I’ve not thought it through, but, they’re humans who put on clothes and act as something they’re not. I suspect that, in the myth-logic of this film, that that’s the problem with them. That’s why they’re at the bottom of the moral totem pole. And they drink whiskey too!
As for the audience, they’re, well, the audience, the nameless crowd of Others and observe and judge, and occasionally, pester us. They’re not one of us.
And the roustabouts? What of them? They disappear after the tent-raising.
Now Things Get Really Murky: Categories
But why this displacement and division? Why not just depict all these creatures as humans? I suspect it’s because they’re not enough clearly distinct and different categories to do The Job that way. It’s like you sense there are five different things out there, but you only have four different categories you can put them in. What do you do? Well, eventually you’ve got to create a new category, but that takes awhile.
In the crucial “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence there’s a point where the elephants morph into machines, cars and trains. There’s that old identification of animals with machines. It was only a decade or two before Dumbo that Rossum’s Universal Robots was staged, and not so long after that, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. And we’ve got the SciFi pulps and their robots. I think that what’s forcing the issue is real honest to god machines on the one hand, machines that threaten us in various ways, and the Big Machine that is The System. Cartoons are trying to deal with this and don’t have a ready-to-hand language. So they’re inventing it. And funny animals is a major device for doing it all.
Yeah, I know that’s kinda’ vague, but that’s where I am with this. Just beginning to sort things out. The important thing is that we can’t just throw away the animal drag and treat these beings as humans. Humans, yes. But the animal drag is there as a way of trying to figure out what we are: animal, or machine, or, well, er human, whatever that is.
And there’s the medium itself, hand drawn cells cranked through the projector at 24 per second. And brutal mechanical process that, when well done, gives the semblance of fluid life.
Animation is a deeply metaphysical medium.
Two more remarks about Dumbo. Let’s tweak the underlying myth machinery a bit. Tweak it one way and the clothed animals become human beings and the human beings become alien invaders, living among us and dominating us. Tweak it another way and Dumbo becomes Tezuka’s Mighty Atom, the other clothed animals become robots, and the humans remain, well, humans. Humans oppressing robots.