The new Tim Burton remake of the original Walt Disney animated feature Dumbo from 1941 is yet another manic reboot of one of its classics — a sign of the Disney corporation’s greed. Worse, this Millennial Dumbo (live-action humans mixed with CGI animals) is also a scary sign of our cultural amnesia.
Before Disney embarked on monopolizing pop culture through Pixar and Marvel franchises, the studio used to stagger the rerelease of its vintage features every seven years. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi were maintained as marketplace perennials. This shrewd commercial practice had the additional benefit of sustaining certain cultural ideas as Disney’s elegant, representational style of animation challenged the genre’s inevitable stylistic changes; it also created continuity and connection among generations of filmgoers.
Now Disney’s remakes function as attacks on our cultural legacy. Social-justice ideas and politically correct sentiments replace the morals of fantasy tales that we once held in common. Dumbo’s story of a baby pachyderm born with oversize ears to circus elephant Mrs. Jumbo makes for the quintessential Hollywood expression of mother-love, a far more powerful theme than the now-popular notion that tiny yet enormously cuddly Dumbo represents the eternal adolescent outsider. (This snowflake theme is shamelessly repeated in The Greatest Showman, about P. T. Barnum, and just about every “personal” indie film.)
Starved of maternal affection, Dumbo is subjected to ridicule (the circus’s snooty, nattering claque of imperious female elephants are as hostile and mutually intimidating as an Internet mob). The “Baby Mine” song sequence, of the mother elephant embracing and cradling her child, is psychologically astute, but it iconically depicts undulating, biomorphic limbs to symbolize sensual primal emotions — a high point in the art of animation. From there, Dumbo’s story arc leads to the child-protagonist’s self-acceptance rather than society’s evolution. (Disney’s animators tested scenes of Dumbo achieving celebrityhood, including endorsement deals for assorted products, but scrapped them for brevity: The original movie runs an astonishingly satisfying 64 minutes.)
The artistic experience perpetuated by classic Disney films helped filmgoers hold on to fundamental social and spiritual principles. Disney’s omnivorous gnawing and spewing of its timeless inventory desiccates the emotional essence of those films. (Think of The Lion King and Aladdin and Mary Poppins all morphed into Broadway tourist attractions and then live-action reboots.)
The great moments in Dumbo — such as the hallucinatory “Pink Elephants on Parade” dream sequence that evokes Salvador Dali and Busby Berkeley to portray Dumbo stumbling into alcoholic experimentation — are surprisingly sophisticated and belong to our national heritage. In Robert Altman’s California Split, inebriated pals Elliott Gould and George Segal first bond over Dumbo. Dumbo’s black-crow sequence, which caricatures black jive lingo and dancing (“I Never Seen an Elephant Fly”), prompts Gould and Segal’s modern awareness of race: “Taboo! Black folks didn’t like that!” Altman’s improvisatory honesty bests Tim Burton’s PC sanctimony. (The new Dumbo omits the black crows, who could easily have been updated with hip-hop equivalents to convey contemporary cultural communication rather than succumbing to fears of racial stereotyping.)
Dumbo’s other significant tribute was in Steven Spielberg’s 1941, when Robert Stack portrayed General Joseph W. Stillwell attending a screening of Dumbo that makes “Vinegar Joe” break down in tears — an inspiring, knowingly patriotic, sentimental respite before going off to fight WWII.
Now Dumbo, and the culturally unifying ideas that classic American movies once communicated, no longer take flight. Dumbo and our cultural heritage are forgotten and get chewed up in contemporary cynicism.