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.