Sunday, November 07, 2010


Nap time. My kid is watching a DVD of Dumbo. Serge Daney was never fond of animated movies, openly admitting he didn’t get them and famously claiming he never saw Bambi. But he was still able to write good pieces of film criticism such as the extracts from this text about Dumbo in 1989.

The Dumbo case

Dumbo is firstly a hymn to the night. Whether it’s the circus train, the female elephants raising the big top under the rain, the shadow cast over the destroyed big top or the isolated hut where Dumbo’s mother – now a “mad elephant” – is crying, the great moments of the movie happen at night. It’s at night that the mouse whispers to the man the idea of the show where Dumbo will be the star, and it’s at night, after the disaster, that the elephant with too large ears and his mouse friend fall in a well of champagne. Dumbo is this strange animated movie taking place in half-light and the strange story of this fake elephant (1).


The film is perhaps more beautiful if we look less at Dumbo’s revenge than at a process described in many mythologies: the hero’s double birth. First birth: from day to night. Second birth: from night to day. At first, Dumbo would be wrongly cast in the role of the baby elephant that he isn’t, and then he would be revealed as Dumbo, the unique specimen of a unique species with only one individual: the dumbo. Light ends up revealing the true nature of this celestial entity, after a long and difficult series of nocturnal tests. In a word, Dumbo would not be an elephant.

Why this surprising thesis? Because there is an extraordinary moment in Dumbo. Before he finds himself up in a tree, ready to fly, Dumbo spends one last night on earth, and there, in all innocence, he gets copiously drunk. Amateurs of animated movies, of happy fantasies, or simply of graphic invention, all know Dumbo’s booze-up with its procession of pink elephants on a black background. But this great moment of madness is not without its logic. From the black background against which the laughing elephant-like figures stand out, to the pink clouds of the dawn of Dumbo’s first day, there is a true rite of passage. And it’s a whole series of figures which parade, dance and jig, laughing and grotesque figures which only retain their trunk, or the concept of a trunk, as a distinctive elephant sign. Carnival bipeds, carefree and lewd, with black holes instead of a mask, camel-elephants, pig-elephants, gondola-elephants, car-elephant, all happy to be improbable, true cage of forms of a pagan ritual, joyously watching over the true birth of one of them: the Dumbo. Suddenly, we’re very far from the strokes and the mothers of the beginning of the film.

(1) The author, who has little taste for animated movies, saw Dumbo for two reasons. He was really bored in Malta and he like elephants. He saw the movie in a filthy and empty theatre.

Originally published in Libération on 2 January 1989 and reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1997. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.

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