Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Flap Over Disney’s “Dumbo”

Disney's Fourth Animated Feature - 1941
When I was a little girl, my parents put up wallpaper in my room. It was decorated with characters from Disney films. As I think back on that wallpaper, the image of one character in particular jumps out at me: Dumbo. Actually, I should say it’s the image of two characters—the lovable baby elephant and his best buddy, Timothy the mouse. I have no memory of my first viewing of Dumbo, but I know that as an adult, I can only watch it every few years; it takes me a while to recover from the emotional strain.

I guess I’m not supposed to take the film so seriously, but let’s face it: Dumbo is insanely adorable. The central character of Disney’s fourth full-length cartoon is way cuter and more helpless than his predecessors in Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia. Granted, those dwarves are charming, and like Dumbo, Pinocchio is an unhappy child (albeit a wooden one). But the talking puppet can, at least, talk. Poor Dumbo is not only mocked for his overlarge ears, he’s also mute, so he can’t even speak up for himself. His emotions are expressed entirely through his body language, his facial expressions, and the large tears that flow down his face in several scenes.

I myself am reduced to tears at least twice during Dumbo: once when the unlucky protagonist is cast in a humiliating role in a clown act, then again when he goes to visit his mother, who has been locked up for “attacking” (spanking) a naughty boy who is tormenting her baby. The “Baby Mine” sequence (so called because of the lullaby that plays as Mrs. Jumbo caresses and rocks Dumbo with her trunk through the bars of her cell) is probably the scene folks remember most fondly from the film. Another highlight is, of course, “Pink Elephants on Parade,” a four-minute explosion of weirdness depicting the hallucinations Timothy and Dumbo experience after accidentally drinking water spiked with champagne. This scene may be evidence of widespread pot smoking among Disney’s animators, as are several parts of The Three Caballeros.

Then there’s “When I See An Elephant Fly,” the song performed by a chorus of crows as Timothy attempts to teach Dumbo to use his large, wing-like ears to soar above the petty world that pulls him down. I remember being taken aback when a high school teacher I admired told me she would never allow her daughter to watch Dumbo because of the way in which this scene perpetuates racist stereotypes. This woman was, like my mother, a black woman born in the 1940s; indeed, she and my mom are the same age. Yet it had never occurred to my parents to shield me from Dumbo; I don’t think they ever even noticed the elements that caused my teacher (and others) such offense—or, if they did, they didn’t think that I would notice them … and they were right.

When my mother was growing up, she watched The Amos n’ Andy Show on TV and found it hilarious. Unlike the original radio program, the television version actually used African-American actors, but this didn’t keep the NAACP from protesting it constantly until its cancellation. My mom—just a little girl at the time—saw the characters as hapless everymen getting into funny situations (like, say, Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton), not as representations of an entire racial group. White people may have seen them that way, but that wasn’t her problem. One can say, well, she didn’t know any better … but who, exactly, was more ignorant in this scenario?

Dumbo’s crows are clearly modeled on a certain type of African-American character familiar to movie audiences: all but one are voiced by black actors, and that one, the leader, is called “Jim Crow” in the script (though, thankfully, not in the dialogue. By the way, he’s played by the same guy who voices Jiminy Cricket. Wrap your mind around that one). I can’t say what kids of the 1940s would have thought about them, but I’ll wager that kids of the 2010’s have no idea that these birds are supposed to be analogous to any particular ethnic group. It is obvious that they are unsophisticated, speaking in country accents with lowbrow grammar—but then, so is Timothy, except that his accent is Brooklyn, not Alabama. Where’s the chorus of complaints about the stereotyping of fast-talking city slickers? I’m not arguing that the Disney Company wasn’t racist in 1941 (let’s be honest: everyone was racist in 1941), but that it’s okay to enjoy things that are otherwise pleasurable even if they have some potentially offensive content. For heaven’s sake, people still produce The Merchant of Venice, don’t they? And hey, the crows may be raucous and unrefined, but compared to Dumbo’s snooty fellow elephants, who shun him, the birds are all right.

There are a lot of reasons Dumbo could have failed to achieve the classic status it currently enjoys. The studio was reeling from the financial disappointment of Fantasia, so Dumbo was made on the “short and simple” plan, clocking in just over one hour. Disney’s animators went out on strike in the middle of production, and World War II was looming over the as-yet uninvolved United States. But the silent baby pachyderm with the sail-like ears ultimately achieved what Pinocchio and Fantasia could not—turning a box-office profit. The passage of time has redeemed those other movies, while Dumbo’s mid-20th-century ethos now has to contend with early 21st-century values. It may not pass with (ahem) flying colors, but, all things considered, the young and young-at-heart should be tickled as pink as those parading elephants.

Regina Robbins is a theater and film artist. She has worked with several New York City stage companies, including Manhattan Theatre Source, the Looking Glass Theatre, UTC #61, and the Directors Company, and her films have been screened at venues in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Chicago, Asheville, and NYC. She also teaches kids how to write and perform, and is a four-time champion on the game show Jeopardy!

Monday, June 13, 2011

“The Kids Grow Up” (Way Too Fast!)

Documentary Review of The Kids Grow Up by Maggie Hames
A wise woman once told me that for parents, the days are long but the years are short. Doug Block’s latest documentary, The Kids Grow Up illustrates this idea as we watch his daughter Lucy grow from a camera-loving kid to eye-rolling teen to articulate young woman. That’s what happens when your dad is a documentary filmmaker.

The Kids Grow Up’s stated purpose is to document Lucy’s last year at home before college, but this is really about fatherhood, or more accurately, parenthood. Block’s wife Marjorie Silver—also featured in this film—is the clear-eyed parent who knows that when Block turns the camera on her, he’s really looking at himself. She tells Doug that he tends to “visit on me (Marjorie) your own feelings about Lucy going away.” As Block admits in voiceover, nothing prepares you for letting your kids go.

Doug Block’s first documentary was 1991’s The Heck With Hollywood, which I joined as an intern and eventually clawed my way up to Associate Producer; well, not “clawed” so much as “lasted.” That film was a low-budget indie about low-budget indie filmmakers. We were meta when meta wasn’t cool. I knew Doug when Lucy was a toddler who was already being regularly filmed for what was to become The Kids Grow Up. Block has been working on this film for his entire professional career.

Block touches on universal themes but this is a personal and specific memoir. Members of his family regularly tell him off with stinging insights that ultimately reveal the family’s soft center. It’s a love-fest, but that’s the point. The best advice for confronting the passage of time is simply to love each other—alot—and try to appreciate every stupid day. As Lucy very aptly said on her way to get her ears pierced, “The best moment of my life is right now.”

Block seems to yearn for reassurances from even a very young Lucy that he’s a good parent. The end “product,” this document of Lucy as a confident young woman stands as the answer to all of Block’s questions. He and Marjorie obviously parented her well. But this ain’t The Brady Bunch. From a young age, Lucy’s able to converse with Block on almost a peer level and comment on her own childhood while she’s in the middle of it. Which is precisely what Block asks of his subjects: that post-modern comment-on-it-as-you-live-it experience and his extended family is up to that challenge.

Lucy, Marjorie, and stepson Josh Silver are more than the subjects of this documentary; they are the co-filmmakers. They didn’t live with Block for all of those years for free; they’ve learned to speak the language of film, too. Protest as they might, each is at home before the camera as they choose to live important emotional moments in front of the lens when they could easily exit the frame. Marjorie in particular emerges as a brave co-author when she allows Block to film her during a bout of clinical depression—even speaking to the camera from bed—in the hope of destigmatizing this illness.

Lucy’s physical and emotional evolution is stunning in much the way every child’s is, but it’s the theme of parental identity that is at the heart of this work. When the kids grow up and leave, do you still get to be super-parent? Or coolest dad ever? Or wisest mom on the planet? Are you now a has-been? Is it selfish to even ask these questions? The Kids Grow Up offers the suggestion to savor the journey and revel in the process, which is all life allows.

Lucy’s wise beyond her years and that’s at least partly her parents’ doing. Be kind and supportive and you may very well emerge from the journey of parenting with much in the plus column; but it’ll still be over in the blink of an eye. So don’t forget to take pictures.

You can watch The Kids Grow Up at its television premiere on HBO2 on Father’s Day, Sunday, June 19th at 5:15 pm. Other HBO2 playdates in June are the 22nd at 9:30 pm; the 25th at 6:20 am; and the 30th at 3:30 pm. You can pre-order the dvd here, where you can also view the trailer.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Disney’s “Pinocchio”? Proceed With Caution

Disney's Second Animated Feature - 1940
I’ve shared my thoughts on Disney’s first animated feature, Snow White and found it still has a lot to say to today’s kids. In this installment, I look at Disney’s second feature, Pinocchio, released in 1940 and based on the 19th century Carlo Collodi tale of a marionette who becomes a real boy. I can sum up my reaction with a 19th century nursery rhyme: when it’s good, it’s very, very good. When it’s bad, it’s awful. This is not for young children, at least unsupervised. By today’s standards, I’d give Pinocchio a rating of PG-13 at least.

Why this stern warning? It's because there are segments in this film so scalding and dark, they’re disturbing even to an adult audience. And there is no kid-friendly, understandable context for characters’ evil actions nor is there any justice or comeuppance for the wicked. Call me the one-woman Hayes Commission of children’s film, but it’s no wonder to me that this movie failed to find an audience in its day, even though it was released on the heels of the mega-hit Snow White. To its credit, Pinocchio is at times adorably wholesome with its charming, child-voiced main character, Pinocchio and its crowd-pleasing cricket, Jiminy. It features several wonderful and memorable songs, like “Give a Little Whistle,” “An Actors Life For Me,” and “I’ve Got No Strings.” And it features the most famous Disney song of all, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” that has become the Disney corporation’s theme song. Its animation is particularly stunning, especially the under water sequence when Pinocchio battles the whale Monstro to bravely save his father, Gepetto.

Where did this story go wrong? Italian satirist Carlo Collodi’s original story of Pinocchio was a slapstick tale, heavy on the slapping. The moment Collodi’s child-hating Gepetto finishes carving Pinocchio’s feet, the puppet starts to kick him, an ironic statement on the “joys” of parenting. The original character of Pinocchio was an obnoxious wild child who played many thoughtless, nasty pranks and was punished harshly in return. It’s a perversely comic 19th century time capsule reflecting a world where children (and adults) were often unfairly and savagely punished for misdemeanors and felonies alike. Compare this to Snow White, whose script took great pains to show how twisted and wrong the Evil Queen’s choices were, the Queen eventually paying the ultimate price for her wrong doing. There certainly is drama in Collodi’s source material, but when Disney’s Pinocchio team created a main character too similar to Collodi’s tough, willful wooden boy, Walt Disney himself had them revamp him into a sweeter, more innocent Pinocchio, which is probably where everything started to go wrong. This soft kid can’t fend for himself like Collodi’s wise-guy. The audience naturally feels protective of this softer, more vulnerable Disney Pinocchio and rightly so.

In Disney’s Pinocchio, a con-artist fox, J. Worthington Foulfellow, has only a chance at meager profit as his reason to betray and sell Pinocchio to puppet show impresario Stromboli, a rather chilling character motivation. And the smarmy way he tricks the hapless boy is just this side of sick-making. When sweet, innocent little Pinocchio is led away by the Fox, it reads like a modern toddler abduction. In contrast, the Wicked (would-be murderous) Queen in Snow White makes her jealousy and evil intentions clear, but the Fox, Stromboli, and an evil Coachman are malevolent for reasons that are never made clear, except for a suggestion that they’re “in it for the money.” Yet they behave more like characters who enjoy being evil for its own sake. These scenes are good illustrations of why children should NEVER talk to strangers, but there’s got to be a better way to teach that lesson.

And don’t get me started on the perverse sequence of the “bad boys” on Pleasure Island or as I see it, Entrapment Island. They’re spirited away by an evil Coachman (with the help of the Fox again) and actively encouraged, even enabled into misbehaving. They are then punished for their misdeeds by being morphed into donkeys as their pathetic, frightened cries for “mother” disappear into brays. Then they’re stripped of their clothing and tossed into crates marked with signs suggesting faraway destinations like “sold to salt mine.” As the boys’ crimes were smoking, drinking, and playing billiards, the sarcastic message seems to be, “You REALLY have to wait until you’re twenty-one to do these things or—trust me—you won’t like the consequences.” But in truth, it again feels more like every parent and child’s worst nightmare of abduction and permanent disappearance, the boys literally silenced as they weep for mother and plead for mercy. Once more, the context and circumstances of the abuse are allegorical, deeply cynical, and not easily understood by a child. Even an adult could find these scenes haunting. And the appearance of the Blue Fairy with the power of life and death neither honors nor negates religious belief; it merely confuses the issue. Simply put, a child should not approach this material alone.

There are some wonderful sequences in this film, too. And the animation is nothing less than stunning. The Disney creative team took the techniques they pioneered during Snow White and pushed them even farther to create a visual masterpiece in Pinocchio. But when I find myself using the word “perverse” to describe a cartoon, I suppose what I’m really saying is what I said up front: proceed with caution. Adults and older kids will find an ambitious, sometimes sweet but often dark piece of animation. If you’re okay with that, you’ll find a visual and emotional stunner in Pinocchio. But parents should see to it that younger kids give this a pass.