156 — Regionalism in Disney Animation: Pink Elephants and Dumbo
1) "Pink elephants on parade," the dream sequence in Dumbo, is 100% nightmare fuel, full of grinning, mutating grotesques: https://t.co/Zdr7Bk6I8D— Julia Galef (@juliagalef) January 20, 2018
Did you ever wonder what it was doing in the middle of Dumbo? Not just tonally but stylistically anomalous in a Disney kids' movie? pic.twitter.com/1kZY9lvwy6
Most literature about 1930s animation “stresses the Disney influence on other animation studios” — that is, Walt Disney (the man) held enormous sway over the rest of the industry because of his enormous impact on the field. At this time, the “rubbery” East Coast style we now often associate specifically with Steamboat Willie began to lose ground in favor of Walt Disney’s realist Magic Kingdom style. It was in the mid 1930s that Disney’s style — the West Coast tradition, of which Walt Disney himself was a product — became the norm in America.
Unlike the East Coast style, which was often a meditation on the unique surrealist abilities of the medium of animation, the West Coast style aimed to most closely emulate the cinematographical styles of Hollywood. (It was common for New York East Coast characters to break the fourth wall or otherwise manipulate the medium of the story.) And where the New York style presented all types of narratives — comedy, tragedy, romance — the West Coast animations followed the “Good always wins” moralistic preaching that Disney is now known for.
But when Walt Disney Productions — Walt himself preoccupied with World War II — began to work on Dumbo (released in ‘41), the New York style began to show through again, particularly shining in the Pink Elephants sequence in Dumbo. You can watch it in full here; it was very clearly a significant deviation from the styles of previous Disney movies. In fact, the entire film was in large part directed by two of Disney’s contemporaries, Dick Huemer and Joe Grant — two East Coast artists.
The Elephants sequence isn’t the only place where the East Coast style contributed to Dumbo or other Disney movies from the 1940s on…but it’s likely one of the most self-aware cases. The elephants in the sequence do not have depth; they are only drawings of elephants. And they do not exist in a 3D space. At one point, they even march in a line around the square frustum of the camera frame.
It was this hybrid style, which also led to such works as Fantasia, that became the artistic trademark of later animated films both inside and outside of the Disney studios.