Monday, July 16, 2012

Metamorphosis, Identity, and Metaphysics in Dumbo and Fantasia

Things do not always appear the same. Depending on your point of view a disk can appear circular or elliptical and a square can appear trapezoidal. The visual system must learn about such transformations if we are to be able to reliably identify objects under various circumstances.

But some things would seem to undergo intrinsic transformation and yet retain their identity. Consider the riddle of the Sphinx: What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening. Now we’ve got a real puzzle. The riddle asserts an identity over difference. And can one and the same thing have three different forms? The answer to the riddle is, of course, man, who crawls on four limbs in infancy, walks on two as an adult, and requires the aid of a cane in old age.

The riddle is something of a trick, interpreting arms as legs in one case and a cane as a leg in another. Still, the underlying, if exaggerated, point holds, that people do change form over time. More generally, living things change form. And some such transformations are more extreme than that in the Sphinx’s riddle, e.g. the acorn and the oak, the caterpillar and the butterfly.

I want to look at how metamorphosis is handled the Pink Elephants episode of Dumbo and in three episodes in Fantasia: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Rite of Spring, and Night on Bald Mountain. There are subtle differences which are worth noting. I end up arguing that the varying treatment of metamorphosis in the different episodes is evidence of an underlying sense of how reality works. If these "laws" of identity and change are violated, then you cannot even have a coherent fantasy world.

Pink Elephant Metamorphosis

Consider the pink elephants in Dumbo. The sequence starts with Dumbo blowing bubbles through his trunk. Here he’s blown a big one:


It shimmers and shakes a bit, and then starts changing in what seems like a directed way:




Notice that the bubble’s surface never breaks or tears. The transformation appears to be smooth and continuous. And that will remain so all the way to elephanthood.

pink elephants 1 emerge


That’s a pachyderm! All the way from a sphere without a break.

Alas, not quite. Close but not quite. Elephants have holes through them, spheres don’t. As far as I can tell, elephants have three holes: 1) the gastro-intestinal tract, and 2-3) two nostrils. Disney’s animators will craft a small joke out of this business a bit later. But let’s return to the sequence.

After we’ve gotten one full-blown elephant is that that elephant blows a second (out of his trunk, as Dumbo did), the second a third, and the third a fourth. The three then merge their trunks together, like this:

pink elephants 3 four in one

All of a sudden we’ve got a continuous body. But how many holes? If one elephant equals three holes, then, unless some holes got eliminated in the merger, four elephants should equal 12 holes. For it’s only the tips of the trunks that have merged. As far as we can tell, which admittedly isn’t very far, each trunk still has its two holes intact.

But then things happen. That hole in the middle of the combined flare gets larger and larger and the edges start peeling back and splitting. Then—here’s the small joke—a parade of elephants comes out through the bell:

pink elephants 4 parade from one

Surprise! Thirteen holes. Unless those parading elephants originated within the existing four, or came in through the back door, there has to be another hole that they’re coming through, one whose other end we can’t see from the front.

Twelve holes, thirteen holes, it doesn’t really matter. Nor does it really matter that elephants have three holes and spheres have none. What we see on the screen, which is but a 2D projection of the 3D ‘reality’, is a smooth deformation from a sphere to an elephant form.

From that first sphere through to the first full-fledged elephant we see one single object displaying a succession of forms. That’s the point. Few real-world objects behave like that. But then a pink-elephant isn’t exactly a real world object.

This strange pink object then duplicates itself three times and from THAT comes a multitude of pink strangeness traipsing its around on the screen. The identity of that first elephant is lost and the identity of further elephants is irrelevant. They’re must more elephants.

And more metamorphosis to come. In one case an elephant becomes a snake becomes a harem dancer becomes an eye. In another case elephants become cars and trains. It’s a world of elephants.

Metamorphosis in Fantasia

Metamorphosis occurs in thee episodes in Fantasia. It happens in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, first when the sorcerer forms smoke into a butterfly:

x2 Yen sid.jpg

And then when Mickey activates the broom:

x5 ignition.jpg

In the first case something with an indefinite (unnamable?) form is given a recognize able form while in the second a stick on a ‘platform’ (the broom’s brush) sprouts arms and the arms sprout hands.

We’re in the realm of magic, and that magic is explicitly presented as such. The shape-shifting, of the smoke, of the broom, is caused by external agents.

In Night on Bald Mountain women are conjured out of fire—form from formlessness—and transformed into animals and then imps:

SC14 three women

SC15 three animals

SC17 five imps into flames

This isn’t ordinary magic, if you will, as with the sorcerer and his apprentice, but it isn’t natural either. For lack of a better word, call it demonic.

The other case of metamorphosis is in The Rite of Spring, where a fish sprouts legs on the way to becoming an amphibian:



4 turtle.jpg

We are to understand, of course, that it is not the same creature that is shifting shape, though one could read that from the successive images on screen. Rather, we’re being shown morphological changes taking place across generations of creatures.

This process is presented as a natural one. As Deems Taylor clued us in his presentation of the episode: “Science, not art, wrote the scenario of this picture. . . . Finally, after about a billion years, certain fish, more ambitious than the rest, crawled up on land and became the first amphibians.” Yes, the change we’ve seen is natural, but it is nature as verified and explicated by science. It’s NOT trickery. It’s real.

Comparative Metamorphosis and Reality

In two episodes of Fantasia, thus, the metamorphosis of things originates outside the things themselves. The sorcerer and his apprentice direct changes in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice while the demon directs the change in Night on Bald Mountain. In the third case, The Rite of Spring, there is no external source of change. The change is presented as coming from within the changing things, the successive generations of animals.
Wait, wait, wait! You’ve missed one.

One what?



Chernobog himself, the mountain.

Ah, you’re right!
As far as we can tell, THAT change is inner-directed as well, but it’s not natural and science has nothing to say about it. First we see a mountain, and then it becomes a demon.



Not only does it change shape, but something that was animate has become animate. That’s what’s, well, evil about Chernobog. He crosses the line between the animate and the inanimate.

The broom in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a bit like that as well. It’s an inanimate object that Mickey’s brought to life. He attempts to kill it, though, and that’s when things go haywire. The broom fragments simply reconstitute themselves as full and complete brooms, and alive too. Mickey’s created life that he cannot control. But the sorcerer can. And so that episode comes to an end, with order restored.

But who or what restored the order at the end of Night on Bald Mountain? No one or nothing that we can see.

The point then, is that, there IS a sense of Reality at work in these cartoons, these animations. They may involve fantasy, but there’s an order nonetheless.

One very basic form of order has to do with the integrity of things, with their self-identity. If something changes its form, there must be an explicit way of accounting for that change. Magic provides that account in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

In the case of The Rite of Spring, the change comes from within the natural world, but we require science to verify that change, and Disney presents that verification from a point outside the story itself, the Deems Taylor narration. Without that verification the change we see on screen would be inexplicable, or, worse, evil.

Night on Bald Mountain is just strange, uncanny. We see Chernobog manipulate the creatures in his hand—the fire, the women, the animals and imps—and in that respect the metamorphosis resembles that of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, though rather more extreme. But there is no account within the episode itself for Chernobog himself, nor is one given in Deems Taylor the introduction. It’s just happens. It’s uncanny.

The Pink Elephants episode of Dumbo presents a somewhat different case. We have no sorcerers or apprentices waving their hands, there is no science, nor is it totally uncanny and outside an possibility of explanation. It’s framed as a hallucination that has been induced by alcohol. And pink elephants have something of folkloric existence as the subjects of alcohol induced hallucination.

Dumbo himself starts things off by blowing the most extraordinary bubbles. It turns out that, when drunk, he’s something of a magician at bubble-blowing.

But then the bubbles themselves take over. Within this frame the bubble substance seems to be alive, as though it is in fact elephant substance in disguise. Once it reveals itself it keeps on going.

What’s interesting is that both Dumbo and Timothy Mouse (see him in Dumbo’s cap) observe the elephants marching around, including around the edge of the screen:

pink elephants 8 round it

And that screen can only be the motion picture screen. It doesn’t correspond to anything in the fictional world we’re watching.

So, we’ve got an account of where the elephants came from: Dumbo blew a big bubble. And we know that both Dumbo and Timothy mouse see the elephants, so there’s a degree of intersubjective reality there. And within that reality, those elephants become a world and, in particular, breech the distinction between living things and machines.

What happens on screen is different from what we’ve seen in the Fantasia episodes. The string of metamorphosis events is longer than in any of the Fantasia episodes and its framed differently, not as magic, not as a scientific account of the natural world, and not as an uncanny world beyond order and control. And yet it IS framed. It has a beginning and an end. And it changes the action, putting Dumbo is a situation where he can recover from his indignities and restore his mother to society.

Whereas Fantasia as a whole attempts to account for the world and so is a cosmology, Pink Elephants attempts to account for the world within Dumbo and so becomes a metaphysics, albeit a cartoon metaphysics. Elephants can be and become anything. It’s all elephants, all the way down.

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