Dumbo, or Fear of the Big D

dumbo2019

The new version of Dumbo, based on the 1941 animated classic, is an anti-capitalist story. In this live action update, director Tim Burton presents Dumbo -the flying elephant!- as a uniquely talented creature, one that boosts the ticket sales at a crumbling circus and ends up attracting the attention of V. A. Vandevere (Michale Keaton), the biggest entertainment magnate in the country. Vandevere, believe it or not, turns out to be evil. In order to get Dumbo into his fold, he buys the raggedy old circus, not caring about all the circus workers who will lose their jobs in the process. Even worse, he doesn’t care about Dumbo reuniting with his long-lost mother (she’s an inconvenience he’d rather shoot dead). But this being a children’s movie, the ragtag group of now unemployed circus performers (led by Colin Farrell) comes up with a plan to get Dumbo and his mom reunited, and give Vandevere a taste of his own medicine.

How ridiculous is it for a company like Disney to make such a movie? Disney, a company that last week finalized its purchase of 20th Century Fox -one of the “big six” Hollywood studios- creating massive layoffs as it inches slowly into total domination of the entertainment industry. Isn’t this some sort of deep hypocrisy- a giant corporation warning us about the dangers of giant corporations? Vandevere, who owns an amusement park called Dreamland full with massive parades and a “world of tomorrow” exhibit, couldn’t be a more obvious parallel for uncle Walt himself. How can this be a coincidence? Is this some sort of sick joke? In the time of Late Capitalism, Disney is here to sell our ideals back to us, as long as investors get rich. And we’re buying it. It’s hard not to when the same company owns Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, ESPN, the Muppets, Avatar, Titanic, The Simpsons, Disneyland, ABC, FX, and holds a majority stake in Hulu. How could you possibly escape that? 

Who is Dumbo in this analogy? The cute little elephant could be standing for an artist like Tim Burton, who has had his talent and originality drained by the franchise machine (and in no small part by Disney, who makes millions off of Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise). Although at this point in the game, he might as well be standing for any talented young person trying to break into a creative field. Directors, writers, actors spend years trying to get a low budget off the ground, and if that movie breaks through in any noticeable way, the reward is being hired by a big corporation to write/star/direct their latest franchise entry. Independent voices such as Ryan Coogler, Chloe Zhao, Alex Ross Perry, even Argentinian arthouse staple Lucrecia Martel have gone through this process in one way or another. Is Disney’s plan to soak every talented person into its orbit? Is the ability to spend as much money as they can to attract talent what will allow to build a monopoly on culture. Here’s a once ridiculous question that now seems only appropriate: What would pop culture look like in a world where everybody works for Disney?

What makes this real life scenario different from the movie is that there is no ragtag group of circus performers that can save us. There is no Colin Farrell here to lead the charge. How could there be, when we don’t have to take on one bad individual, but an enormous conglomerate who nobody can escape. Because nobody can resits Disney. Not the artist who is presented with a massive, once-in-a-lifetime paycheck. Not the children who are advertised to from the minute they are born. Not the adults who grew up with Disney movies and have a visceral reaction when they hear the opening notes of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”, or “Circle of Life”, or the Star Wars theme. How do you fight that?

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself for a while. Earlier this year I took inspiration from Alternate Ending editor Tim Brayton and decided that, like him, I will no longer go to see any Disney movie on its opening weekend. But what will that measly moral stance do other than make me feel a little better about my choices? Why does cutting Disney from my media diet feel as if I was becoming a Vegan (something I would never do)? How has a company been so effective at commodifying our pleasure, at owning our childhood, at selling it back to us? Why, if I understand that Dumbo’s anti-capitalist message is absolutely hollow, do I still find the little elephant so damn cute? Why do I get excited when I hear “Casey Junior” and “Baby Mine” on the soundtrack?

I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing to do. I will continue with my “no opening weekend” rule, but Disney cannot be stopped. I do not know what a world in which culture is monopolized by one company will look like, but I am now convinced we’ll find out sooner rather than later.

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Top Ten: Disney Songs

So, before we get into the list, here are three rules (some more arbitrary than the others) that I decided to play by in order to make the impossible task of picking out the ten best songs of the entire Disney Canon  a little easier for me. First rule: Only movies in the Canon are eligible. That means no “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” or any song from Mary Poppins, even if they probably would have made the list. Second rule: Only movies written specifically for the movie they appear in. So, for example, all those Elvis songs featured in Lilo & Sitch are not eligible. Third rule: Only one song per movie, because otherwise, the list would have ended up being all Beauty and the Beast songs.

And one more thing before we start. This is not only a ranking of the songs, but of the way the song and the animation work together to service the movie. Good songs featured in lame sequences, or great sequences scored to lackluster songs won’t make it on this list.

IWannaBeLikeYou10. “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book (1967)
Written by Robert Sherman and Richard Sherman
Performed by Louis Prima
“I Wanna Be Like You” is without a doubt the stand-out musical number in The Jungle Book, and Louis Prima was inspired casting for King Louie. Apparently, the jazz musician was really excited about voicing a Disney character. So much so as to send the studio story notes about the character. Prima’s performance of the song is just fantastic, full of the excitement and vitality that make King Louie such a memorable character despite the fact that his appearance probably doesn’t amount to ten minutes of screen time.
What About…? The only other song from The Jungle Book that I considered was “The Bear Necessities“, which is fun and sweet, but doesn’t have the anarchic power of “I Wanna Be Like You”.

Friend Like Me

9.“Friend Like Me” from Aladdin (1992)
Written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman
Performed by Robin Williams
Talk about show-stopping numbers… The first part of Aladdin has quite a bit of problems, but they all disappear once the Genie (Robin Williams) arrives with his thunderous performance of “Friend Like Me”. Your response to Aladdin as a movie might depend a lot on how much you like Williams’s schtick. I find it really funny, and if for no other reason, “Friend Like Me” deserves a spot on the list just for the amount of flexibility adopted by the animators to capture Williams’s riffing in cartoon form.
What About…? I’m not a huge fan of the rest of the Aladdin score, but I will admit to having a soft-spot for “A Whole New World“, even if its lyrics are a little too cheesy even for Disney standards.

CircleOfLife8. “Circle of Life” from The Lion King (1994)
Written by Elton John and Tim Rice
Performed by Carmen Twillie and Lebo M
I said this in my review, but it bares repeating, who doesn’t know the opening african chant to The Lion King? The rising sun over the savannah, and all animals walking together to greet young Simba as he is lifted in Rafiki’s arms are all some of the most prevalent images in the contemporary public consciousness. There might be certain weaknesses to the songs in The Lion King, but “Circle of Life” is a spectacular beginning to a wonderful movie.
What About…? For a while, and just for the sake of being a contrarian, my list didn’t have any Lion King songs. That obviously didn’t last long (there’s no denying the power of “Circle of Life”). I also considered “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” thanks to its visual playfulness, and “Be Prepared” because how the hell is there a Disney song that features Nazi imagery?

UpDownAndTouchTheGround7. “Up, Down, and Touch the Ground” from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
Written by Robert Sherman and Richard Sherman
Performed by Sterling Holloway
“I’m short, fat, and proud of that”, all of the appeal of Pooh as a character in a single song. Watch this and tell me it’s not the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen. The Sherman brothers were masters of coming up with silly little songs, and when paired with Sterling Holloway’s sweetest performance, the result is pure magic.
What About…? This one is full of classic songs, it was really hard to pick just one song. The two that came closest to making the list were “Little Black Rain Cloud” and “The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers

WhistleWhileYouWork6. “Whistle While You Work” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Written by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey
Performed by Adriana Caselotti
Pretty much all the songs in Snow White are good, but I had to pick one. “Whistle While You Work” just happens to be my favorite. I also might have given it the advantage based on historical bases. I mean, this is the beginning of the cheery princess that cleans up the house with the help of cute little animals, and where would we be without that character stereotype? It’s also a very fun song to sing while cleaning up your own house.
What About…? Like I said, the Snow White score is pretty fantastic. The stand-outs that didn’t make the list are “Someday My Prince Will Come“, which is a very good song, but not the best sequence in the movie, and  “Heigh Ho“, which is terrific, but also really short.

PinkElephantsOnParade5. “Pink Elephants on Parade” from Dumbo (1941)
Written by Oliver Wallace, Ned Washington
Performed by Mel Blanc, Thurl Ravenscroft, The Sportsmen
It might be a little far-fetched to think all of this was a product of Dumbo being drunk, but who am I to say what the effects of alcohol are in young elephants. What I do know is that there is no way you watched this scene as a kid and were either scared as hell or completely fascinated by it. It’s simply one of the best dream/hallucinating sequences in all of cinema. If you have a stoner friend who hasn’t seen Dumbo, he’ll appreciate it if you show him this.
What About…? The other big Dumbo song is the Oscar-nominated “Baby Mine“, but if I have to be honest, that is one of the cases I talked about above, where a fantastic sequence (Dumbo reencounter with his mom always brings me to tears) scored to an unmemorable song.

BellaNotte4. “Bella Notte” from Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Written by Sonny Burke and Peggy Lee
Performed by George Givot and the Studio Chorus
If you ever find yourself watching a montage of the most romantic movies (be it while watching the Oscars, or YouTube, or wherever people watch montages nowadays), and this scene is not included, you can rest assured that whoever put together said montage is a complete imbecile.
What About…? If I had allowed more than one song per movie, be assured that Peggy Lee’s steamy rendition of “He’s a Tramp” would have been a very, very serious contender.

IveGotNoStrings3. “I’ve Got No Strings” from Pinocchio (1940)
Written by Leigh Harline, Ned Washington
Performed by Dickie Jones
Hard to pick from a score as fantastic as what Harline and Washington wrote for Pinocchio (I was very close to pulling my hair out), but I am very comfortable in my pick of this funny, little song. It is funny, catchy, and it features fantastic animation in the way the marionettes move and dance around our little wooden hero.
What About…? This was probably the hardest movie to pick just one song from. I mean, Pinocchio simply has the best Disney score from any Disney movie released before the nineties. “When You Wish Upon a Star“, “Give a Little Whistle” and even “Hi Diddle Dee Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me)” could have comfortably earned a spot in the top ten.

PartOfThatWorld2. “Part of That World” from The Little Mermaid (1989)
Written by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman
Performed by Jodi Benson
I said it once in my review, and I’ll say it as many times as it is necessary, because people just have to know that this is the best “I Want” song ever written. It’s also probably my favorite of all Disney songs.
What About…? If my love for “Part of That World” weren’t as unreasonably high, I would have had a horrible time picking just one song out of The Little Mermaid’s score. “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” are amazing, and I flirted with the idea of choosing “Poor Unfortunate Souls“, because I wanted to have a villain song in the list, and Ursula’s number is probably the best such song in the Canon.

Belle1. “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Written by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman
Performed by Paige O’Hara, Richard White, Alec Murphy, Mary Kay Bergman, Kath Soucie, and Chorus
Since I just wrote that “Part of That World” is my favorite song, you must be wondering why I didn’t have it at number one. Well, while it is fantastic, there are two reasons I picked “Belle” for number one. First, because I think Beauty and the Beast is the best score of any Disney movie and it deserved to have the top spot. Second, because the sophistication with which “Belle” works as both a song to introduce us to the world, the tone, and the main character of the movie is like nothing Disney had ever done (or has done since, to be honest).
What About…? Like I said, the best score in all of Disney history (give or take your Mary Poppins). It has all of the big Disney areas covered. A great villain song? You got “Gaston“. A show-stopping number? There’s “Be Our Guest“. One of the most romantic songs ever? you just have to listen to the eponymous “Beauty and the Beast“.


Before I go, let me just list a number of songs I considered for the list, but sadly didn’t make it. They are (in chronological order)…
– “The Three Caballeros” from The Three Cabaleros
– “
The Working Song” from Cinderella
– “Cruella De Vil” from One Hundred and One Dalmatians
– “I Won’t Say I’m in Love” from Hercules
– “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from Mulan
– “Son of Man” and “Strangers Like Me” from Tarzan
– “I See the Light” and “Mother Knows Best” from Tangled
– “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and “For the First Time in Forever” from Frozen

Top Ten: Movies in the Disney Canon

The Disney Canon Project has come to an end, but that doesn’t mean that the fun is over. Actually, depending on your point of view, some of the most interesting stuff might be coming up. I’ve prepared a series of lists about my favorite elements of the Canon that will come out in the following weeks. This is the first of them, and it is one that I have been trying to make since I was a very young child, but I couldn’t, and hadn’t really been comfortable to make it until now that I have officially watched them, and all 53 movies in the Disney Canon stand fresh in my mind. So, without further ado, here’s a list of my ten favorite Disney Movies.

CinderellaFilms

10. Cinderella (1950)
If you ask someone to picture the most conventional conception of what a Disney movie looks like, they’ll probably picture something fairly similar to Cinderella. And although it wasn’t until the studio’s renaissance period of the early nineties that it started to rely strongly on the musical princess (Disney only released three movies starring princesses before 1989), Cinderella, with its family-friendliness, classic ideas of femininity, cute sidekicks, and happy ending, may look very old-fashioned. But this doesn’t mean that it’s not a good film. Not only are the images and production values wonderful, but like I wrote on my review, there are aspects of the movie and the main character -especially the power dynamics in household between Cinderella, the Stepmother, and the animals- that speak very directly and effectively to the way children see the world. That might be a personal theory of mine, but believe me, I haven’t met a single small child who has seen it and hasn’t been captivated by this movie.

TangledFilms9. Tangled (2010)
I hope that by this point in time, after how miserably Disney failed at trying to be hip and copy studios that were more popular at the time (Dreamworks, Pixar) in the 2000s, there is no doubt in everyone’s mind that Disney is at its best when it embraces its legacy and doesn’t try to run and hide from it. It is fitting, then, that the best movie they have released in the last twenty years is a very classically structured fairy tale. Tangled is less ambitious than its contemporaries in what it is trying to say about the idea of the “Disney Princess” (and it is funny that, while being 3D, it ended up being a much more classical movie than the 2D Princess and the Frog), but it shows the most heart and detail of al of Disney’s recent releases. You just have to read my review to know what a fantastic pair of characters I find young Rapunzel and evil Mother Gothel to be.

PoohFilms

8. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
I always have difficulties judging The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh alongside other Disney movies, because it has the particular distinction of being the only movie in the Canon to be composed exclusively out of pre-existing material. But even if the three shorts that make up the film were released on their own throughout the sixties and seventies, they are great, and since the movie is considered canon, they must be ranked according to their greatness. There are very little movies that manage to perfectly capture the mentality of a child. One of them is Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, and another is this Disney gem. There is a reason why characters like Pooh, Tigger, and Eeyore resonate with children up to this day, and they have never been better represented on film, or any other medium (yes, including the books), than in this movie.

LittleMermaidFilms

7. The Little Mermaid (1989)
Many animated movies have had the distinction of “saving” Disney, but while Dumbo and Cinderella saved the company from financial bankruptcy, The Little Mermaid did a different kind of deed. It saved the studio from irrelevance. The fantastic story about Princess Ariel and her wish to know what live is like above water captivated critics and audiences, became the highest-grossing animated movie of all time, won two Oscars, and ushered the golden period known as the Disney Renaissance. All of these accomplishments are more than deserved, since The Little Mermaid is an absolutely great movie, featuring a quality of animation not seen in American cinema since the fifties, a wonderful heroine, one of the most memorable villains, and some of the very best songs in Disney’s filmography.

DalmatiansFilms

6. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
The period in which Disney had to cut back on expenses, and started using the “xerography” process of animation isn’t regarded as the best moment for the studio, but it started out with a bang in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which is perhaps the most lively and energetic of all Disney movies. I think I love practically everything about its design, and the version of the early sixties these characters live in. And I shouldn’t leave the content of the movie behind, since this is a thrilling adventure that holds up surprisingly well, and infinitely better than the live action remake starring Glenn Close. It’s perhaps the movie I was most delighted to rediscover during this project, as I got all curled up and invested in the idea of these puppies managing to escape the hands of heartless Cruella De Vil.

LionKingFilms

5. The Lion King (1994)
The most epic of Disney movies, and for a long time also the most successful (it was just unseated by Frozen a few months ago). The Lion King is the very first movie I saw in theaters, so it will always have a special place in my heart, but its very high ranking on this list is not base don sentimental reasons. It is a fantastic movie on its own right. For starters, it features some of the most beautiful animation in the Canon, including a handful of iconic images that even the most pretentious of filmgoers could recognize. The Lion King was a massive phenomenon, and it keeps resonating with audiences for a reason. It is the best example of what a powerhouse Disney managed to become during its Renaissance period.

SnowWhiteFilms

4. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
The movie that started it all is undoubtedly a masterpiece of the genre. Disney spent a good part of the thirties just inventing and perfecting technology in order to make Snow White, and thus, he ended up creating a complete new genre. It was the first animated feature produced in the United States, and it was so successful that for virtually fifty years after its release, all animated movies would be made based on its image. Singing princesses, woodland critters, a set of funny sidekicks, and a luxurious, bigger-than-life villain are all animation traditions that started with this movie. The movie is a visual marvel, with wonderful watercolor backgrounds and flawless animation, it is one of the best movies of the thirties, and one of the most important moments in the history of cinema.

DumboFilms

3. Dumbo (1941)
All great cinema, but Disney in particular, manages to achieve classic status by tapping precisely in the correct spot in the audience’s minds and hearts. Dumbo, which was made for cheap after Fantasia and Pinocchio failed to turn a profit, managed to hit right on the bullseye. It was a huge success that saved Disney’s finances, but in its simplicity (at 64 minutes, it is the shortest movie in the Canon)* it goes straight to the point and tells one of the most moving and effective stories of animation (and cinema) history. If you want to witness the living proof that movies don’t need to be long to be great, watching Dumbo will do the trick

*Correction: As friend of the blog ‘The Animation Commendation’ mentioned in the comments, Dumbo is not the shortest film in the Canon. That would be Saludos Amigos. It’s still very short though. 

BeautyBeastFilms

2. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture, and with good reason. Some of the animation is still a little uneven compared to what the studio would achieve in the following years, but in terms of marrying story and visuals, there’s no beating the masterpiece of the Disney Renaissance. The character development, the structure of the story, and the simply fantastic music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman not only make Beauty and the Beast the masterpiece of the Disney Renaissance, they raised the bar of sophistication for all animated movies to come.

PinocchioFilms

1. Pinocchio (1940)
The unexpectedly huge success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs gave way to Disney’s most ambitious period. For all the flaws you may or may not find in the work of Walt Disney, there is no denying that the man always worked on projects he felt passionate about. And he never seemed to have more passionate than when his gamble to make an animated feature-lenght film succeeded. Instead of trying to make another Snow White, he shot for the stars, and came up with two of his most impressive works ever. I have my problems with Fantasia, but Pinocchio, the studio’s second feature, is simply the best animated movie ever made. The shot that pans over Geppeto’s village towards the beginning of the film alone is outstanding, but then you have one of the best song scores of the Disney Canon, and some of the most effectively primal and psychological sequences too. The relationship between Pinocchio and Geppeto, the seamless proficiency of the animation, and the movie’s treatment of its darkest passages are all signs of the relentless genius Walt and his collaborators were determined to achieve in order to secure animation’s place in the sun.

Don’t worry. I know what you’re thinking. “A top ten is not enough, we need a full ranking!” Well, I figured as much. Now, ranking them was going to be a little too much for me, but here are all the other movies in the Canon in roughly my order of preference:

Other Really Good Movies:
Mulan, The Emperor’s New Groove, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, Fantasia, Robin Hood
Good Movies:
Frozen, Tarzan, Lilo & Stitch, Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh, Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, Hercules, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, The Three Caballeros, Fantasia 2000
OK Movies:
The Sword in the Stone, Alice in Wonderland, The Great Mouse Detective, The Princess and the Frog, Pocahontas, Bolt, Wreck-It Ralph, Meet the Robinsons, Melody Time, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free
Not-So-Good Movies:
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Rescuers, The Rescuers Down Under, Oliver & Company, The Fox and the Hound, The Aristocats, Saludos Amigos, Home on the Range, The Black Cauldron, Brother Bear
The Bad Movies:
Trasure Planet, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Dinosaur
The Horrible Movies:
Chicken Little