When you have kids, you know they’re going to constrict your cultural experiences because you won’t have much time anymore for those languorous restaurant meals, nights at the cinema, lectures, concerts, etc. In short, you’re in for a grim few years. That being said, most of us don’t expect that our cultural horizons may actually be broadened by having children. That’s what happened to me.
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of buying the Thomas the Tank Engine, Baby Einstein, Wiggles crap that passes for popular toddler entertainment these days. Pop that sucker into the VCR and it’s instant 30 minutes of tranquility on the baby front. But if you figure that stuff insults your intelligence and probably will insult your child’s (even if they appear to like it), then you’ve got to work hard to find alternatives. My alternatives usually run to the classics. For music, it’s Pete Seeger, Sweet Honey in the Rock and the like. For video, give me the Disney Classics (and Warner Brothers cartoons too) anytime. We’ve managed to find Fantasia, Bambi, Silly Symphonies, Dumbo at Costco and ordered Snow White from Amazon Marketplace.
Dumbo is an absolute classic. It’s almost revelatory cartooning. If you look at the Silly Symphonies cartoons of the early 30s, you’ll see some ingenious, inventive cartooning. But the storylines, drawing and characterization are all bare-bones and basic. They are elements of an artistic whole that is still gestating and in-the-making. Yes, there is music, there is drawing, there is character development. But all of these seem to exist as distinct elements.
In Dumbo, they all fuse together in an organic whole. I remember the first time I watched the film I thought I was watching the equivalent of a cartoon musical–just as bold and enveloping as any of the great Broadway musicals of the era. Listen to any of the wonderful Dumbo songs like Casey Jr. (Comin’ Down the Track), Look Out for Mr. Stork, When I See an Elephant Fly, the vivid, but politically objectionable Song of the Roustabouts, and Baby Mine, and you immediately notice that they function within the film in the same way that the great Broadway songs do. They illuminate character, they embody action, they advance the plot. In a word, they are seamless and organic to the film itself. The composers were recognized for their achievement when they won an Oscar for Best Musical Scoring.
Many film critics rank it as one of the greatest animated films of all time. Jon Fortgang, writing at Britain’s Channel 4, says:
Touching, comic, visually inventive and emotionally convincing, this remains a jewel in the crown of Disney’s golden age.
I certainly agree.
Baby Mine is one of the sweeter, more touching lullabies of film history. As it’s sung, you see the entire circus menagerie bed down in their railroad cars for the night with mom and dad animals cuddling their “new arrivals.” Of course, Dumbo and his mom are the only ones who cannot share in this bliss as she is chained up for her “bad behavior.” They must settle for twining trunks together through the prison bars. Both the music and the action combine to create a powerful emotional experience.
I was delighted to discover that Disney, which is very smart and hip in the ways it markets its film music, enlisted Alison Krauss to cover the song for Country Disney: The Best of Country Sing the Best of Disney (1996). Alison always conveys a song impeccably and she does so once more with Baby Mine (hear it). It’s just the sweetest and most lovely cover you can imagine. The original was nominated for Best Song Oscar (it lost out to Hammerstein and Kern’s The Last Time I Saw Paris). Bonnie Raitt also covered the song for another Disney tribute album. Her version is cool and slightly bluesy. It’s nice, but I’ll take Alison’s version any day.