I know that most people come here because of my posts on color but I also believe that most readers are interested in animation and film making in general. So when I come back to films like Dumbo (1941) over and over again, this is not because I only like simple escapist fare. I do like Dumbo, of course, which caused me to look closer at it despite having seen so many more interesting films throughout the years. However, there are several reasons for writing about Disney’s early features here:
First of all, these are the films I believe every reader of this blog has seen at least once (do you read many analyses of films you haven’t seen yet?) and they are available to almost anybody around the world so you don’t have to take my analysis for granted but can reassess it yourself.
There is much more to them than just brilliant character animation. Every storytelling device is used so carefully that it rewards analysis. Furthermore, it’s always interesting to see what a mainstream film as a mirror of mainstream social conventions tells us about a certain period and what makes it still work for today’s audiences.
On the other hand the stories themselves are as basic and simple yet effective that analyzing them can tell us a lot about more complicated or complex movies and essentially about film making in general. It’s important to stop looking at animation isolated from live-action films.
I believe that this blinder perspective is one reason why there still is an “animation ghetto”. The most obvious proof of its existence are overwhelmingly enthusiastic reactions from top critics to every new Pixar production even though most of these movies are only better than other studios’ animated features but hardly as interesting as any live-action film that gets comparable reviews.
Or in other words: excellence within established formulaic conventions is praised so loud that – maybe unintentionally – these conventions are cemented as natural limits to animation. This, among other things, is how a whole medium gets to be widely mistaken for a genre.
I strongly believe that in-depth analysis of just one single film can uncover much more about the nuts and bolts of film making than just superficially comparing many films. Of course, in order to put these discoveries into context, we have to see a lot of movies for comparison. Once you’ve recognized a certain pattern in the film you study, you become aware of it in other films without really looking for it. This certainly enriched my movie viewing experience and still does, every time I stumble upon a new concept.
So, most importantly, writing about a nearly 70 year old film like Dumbo is only interesting in a broader context that tells us something about film making or even human behavior in general.
Last but not least, looking at one film over and over again in different contexts may ultimately help us decide where we want to go with our own works and hopefully may encourage us to shake off the limitations that mainstream feature animation (perceived as a genre) is currently suffering from.
By the way, I do think Ponyo is a remarkable film not because it is old fashioned or even hand drawn, but because it explores its themes from a personal rather than a formulaic point of view. Accordingly, even though I consider Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to be one of the best animated features I do not want to see another Snow White unless someone truly makes it his own story again. I’d rather see Mary and Max or any other character-based film that does not revert to animation as an excuse for being predictable and formulaic but as the medium of choice to present a certain story.