Monday, July 9, 2012

Why A Stork? The Opening of Dumbo

Why does Disney open with that fairytale about babies being delivered by storks, and why does he milk it for about seven minutes and forty seconds (over a tenth of the film)? Well, it’s a device that allows them (for it’s not just Uncle Walt, especially not on this one, where he was unusually hands-off) to do a number things, only one of which is to avoid biological reality with those details that are so often embarrassing to well-reared citizens, not to mention many others. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that’s the least of its uses.

Perhaps the most important thing is that it proclaims, from the get-go, that this is a FAIRYTALE, or if you will, a MYTH. That puts you in the proper receptive mode so you don’t worry about pesky details of verisimilitude and plausibility. Instead you’re prepared to bask in the sights and sounds in a different, perhaps even deeper, way.

It’s in that more expansive mode that, once the credits have rolled, we see the opening storm:

Dumbo Storm

And we hear these words on the voiceover:
Through the snow and sleet and hail...
through the blizzard, through the gale...
through the wind and through the rain...
over mountain, over plain...
through the blinding lightning flash...
and the mighty thunder crash...
ever faithful, ever true...
nothing stops him.
He'll get through.
I reminds you of the creed of the U.S. Postal Service: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” This isn’t going to be a movie about the postman, is it? No, but right now we’re going to see a bunch of deliveries. It sounds so dramatic.

It’s also deeply mythic. Many origin stories begin in storms. Whether or not this is an origin story, that’s for a later post. But the storm sets up that feeling.

As the storm dissipates we hear the sounds of an airplane engine on the sound track. But do we see an airplane as the clouds move off to the left? No. We see, first, a lone stork against the night-time moon, and then a whole flock of storks, each carrying a bundle:

Dumbo Storks in formation

At the same time the dramatic voiceover gives away to a light jaunty song, “Make Way for Mr. Stork” and that song contains these lyrics: “You may be poor or rich It doesn't matter which, Millionaires, they get theirs like the butcher and the baker.” The sentiment is egalitarian, deeply American, and sets us up for the snobbishness the elephant matrons display toward Dumbo and toward his mother.

The storks do some flying; then they peel off and head for the ground, giving us a shot like this:

Dumbo Global Shot

You can see most of Florida there and you can see the curvature of the globe. It’s a simple and obvious thing, but did you see any shots like that in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or in Pinocchio? What other films have such shots? Fantasia, of course, but that’s a very strange creature of a film, very. There are others, of course, science fiction films, for example. But such shots of the curvature of the earth from the sky—this is not, of course a realistic rending, notice “Florida” written on the ground—are not standard shots.

But we’ve got one here in this cute little myth of a cartoon. And we’ll have another one just a bit later. What’s more this is not merely an establishing shot through which the camera zooms to get us close to the action. No, there’s action right here, the storks are flying and heading for land. Here you see them dropping their precious cargos with parachutes:

Dumbo City Block

You can see the circus grounds below. The parachutes will land, the bundles will open, and the infants will join their mothers. We see this several times, but no little elephants. In fact, the morning comes and we get another aerial shot:

Dumbo Casey Jr

The circus train is on the tracks and being loaded. We see the loading and we see Mrs. Jumbo make a last anxious scan of the sky, looking for a parachute destined for her. No luck, a matron shoves her into the train. And the train heads out, giving us a number of landscape shots such as this one:

Dumbo Landscape

We see vast vistas and have a wonderful sense of movement and bustle as the train moves along the tracks. There are a few shots of such scope in Snow White and in Pinocchio, but they’re establishing shots. The camera moves through them, but nothing else does. Dumbo is quite different. Space isn’t simply where people and things ARE, it’s where they MOVE, freely and with a sense of purpose.

Once the train is well under way, the camera returns our attention to the sky where we see this stork, on a cloud, with a bundle, and in a blue uniform of some sort:

Dumbo storkfordumbo

He fumbles about, sighs, and consults a map (look at all the roads):

Dumbo map

Then heads down to deliver his bundle to the moving train. We get another aerial shot, this time in bright day:

Dumbo global 2

He lands on the train while it’s moving and, with suitable ceremony, delivers the baby elephant to Mrs. Jumbo. At last!

Even before we see Dumbo’s ears we know he’s different from all the other infants. He’s special. We know this because his mode of delivery is different from that of all the other infants. Not just a little different, but a LOT different.
  • The other storks were realistically rendered, this one is not.
  • The other infants parachuted down to stationary parents; Dumbo is hand-delivered on a moving train.
  • The other infants just appear as the cloth unwraps around them; the courier unknots Dumbo, but not before Mrs. Jumbo signs a receipt.
  • The others are not named; this one is, and with a song.
This is the language of myth and symbolism. It says this one is different. He’s going to be something.

Dumbo is playing the role of a culture hero, a trickster, even a demigod if you will. (And he’s so cute!) He messes up, is ostracized, scapegoated, and sacrificed—not to death. No, not to death. But he IS publicly humiliated and that is a form of sacrifice.

Why? Well, I’ve been thinking about that, but I’ve not got my thoughts together. So far my thoughts connect the aerial opening with the later crows, who also fly. They connect the infants being flown out of the storm cloud with that strange moment in Pink Elephants when the male tosses a bolt of lightening, hits the female on the head, and SHAZAM! The screen is filled with dancing elephants.

That’s reproduction for you, no delivery needed.

pink elephants 35 couples dancing

An exercise for the reader: Look at Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, and Dumbo. Compare the spatial scope of shots in the film. I’ve already indicated that neither of the other two has any global shots. What’s the spatial scope of the shots that they do have and that Dumbo has? My sense is that Dumbo covers a wider range of scales.

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