March to Disney: What Bolt and Dumbo Share

This is a series of posts this month wherein I will focus on Disney films. For more on my background with Disney films and about the timing of this focus please read the introductory post here.

What’s been great is that I have through sheer luck managed to come across titles I had previously not seen as soon as this theme started. Just recently while browsing Netflix these two titles came up, then randomly on a Sunday morning on Disney Channel Bolt came on.

Now, again, this film came out when I wasn’t as ardently following Disney films. Since it happened to be starting I stuck with it, even with the commercial interruptions. What I hadn’t realized before it came out was that the tale, in which a dog who has been raised to believe the TV show he’s the star of is reality, is not just the set-up to The Truman Show, but in a way Disney refashioning Dumbo with a modern twist.

I saw that because the goals and the protagonists are similar inasmuch as they are unwitting stars. Dumbo is young and knows only the circus, his large ears are hidden, when they come out he’s mocked by the public he’d tried to win. When he learns to fly his unique trait is not a stigma but a mark of pride. The naïveté in the story is more about how he perceives the world.

Bolt’s reality, more modern, stylized, with action sequences, is no different. He’s presented everything as if it’s happening and has to defend his master. Granted the means of production, the stuntmen, the pyro rigs, any essentials needed to produce a TV show, are hidden so it’s easier for him to accept the reality. By chance he gets marooned out in the real world and he wants to and feels he needs to return home to the studio. He faces a lot of hard truths he has to come to terms with, the reversals of fortune are strong and quickly dealt with and the film is very funny.

While there are twists to it, like Dumbo being a more knowing participant in the circus, not that he ever “agrees,” it breaks down to the same path. You substitute a mother for an owner and both seek reunion with that figure. Both struggle against the odds and ultimately win out, gain that reunion and freedom from the life of performance that kept them trapped.

A recent New York Times article had one of the most telling quotes I ever saw, it was a discussion of both films and criticism where the statement “They don’t make them like they used to and they never did” was made. It may seem obvious that film is an ever-evolving artform, but sometimes it’s hard to accept that. There are technical and narrative trends that are the norm and en vogue in one decade and seem passé and almost wrong in another.

Dumbo is a masterpiece because of how perfectly all the elements of the story are rendered from the animation, to the emotional engagement, to the story, music and songs. Everything fits and works perfectly. I wouldn’t say Bolt is a masterpiece but it is very good, in part, because it borrows and adapts so well from a great source. Everyone borrows, self-plagiarism is style and any other quote you can think of can apply to this notion. Disney has done it before, but while it has fallen flat on other occasions like in Hercules, here it’s an infusion of technique, action film editing, humor and an updated sensibility that doesn’t seem forced that really makes it work.

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