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Under Childhood: "Dumbo"

In children's cinema, what rights should be protected and advocated for on behalf of children, and also taught to them as their own?
Kelley Dong
Under Childhood is a monthly column on children’s cinema—movies about and for kids.
In a notorious bit from his 2004 comedy show For What It’s Worth, comedian Dave Chappelle stops to consider the child pornography charges raised against R&B singer R. Kelly, asking his audience, “How old is fifteen [the age of Kelly’s victim], really?” The contingencies—fifteen years, depending on the situation, are too little or too many—are perplexing even for Chappelle. The problem at hand, he suggests, is not limited to R. Kelly’s actions but the legal and moral discrepancies in how society categorizes the event. If a fifteen-year-old can so sporadically be either an adult or a child, Chappelle wonders, who is to say that fifteen is too young to consent to mature activities? The murkiness of the invisible loopholes is puzzling. But when seen in retrospect, the argument raised by his act seems less a provocation on legal grounds than an insidiously timed attempt to represent child abuse as an abstract whodunit matted with what-ifs or why-nots, in effect delegitimizing the voice of an already unprotected victim.
When asked to partake in the Lifetime documentary series Surviving R. Kelly (released in January of this year), Chappelle declined. The series returns to the starting point of Kelly’s career and charts the star’s continued pattern of predation (including Kelly’s marriage to then-fifteen-year-old Aaliyah, who he met at the age of twelve, later producing and writing her controversial 1994 single, “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number”) on young girls to the present day. Each survivor featured throughout the series’ six episodes is introduced with an intertitle that includes her name and occupation, but also the age when she encountered Kelly for the first time. We, as an audience, are then urged to consider Chappelle’s flippant question: How old is fifteen, really? Can, and should, childhood only be measured by its proximity to adulthood, rather than a life period in and of itself?
In a chilling speech at the January 2018 Women’s March, Natalie Portman recalls how, as the young star of Léon: The Professional (1994) and the Star Wars prequels, “a countdown was started on my local radio show to my 18th birthday, euphemistically the date that I would be legal to sleep with. Movie reviewers talked about my budding breasts in reviews.” (Portman’s role in The Professional was reportedly inspired by director Luc Besson’s relationship with actress Maïwenn when she was between the ages of twelve and fifteen.) When children are only considered as almost-adults, the tangibility of the threats that they face precisely because of their age and maturity-specific vulnerabilities are then diminished. By comparison, the articles detailed by the United Nations’s 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (which defines a child as any person under 18 years old) are based on the foundational idea that children are a group with distinct human rights that encompass “the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life.” Regarding cinema and the representation of truth through the deconstruction of falsehoods, what rights should be protected and advocated for on behalf of children, and also taught to children as their own?
For HBO’s Leaving Neverland, directed by Dan Reed, the talking head is a technical maneuver that uses children’s subjectivity as a framework wherein truth can be found. (Tsai Ming-liang constructs similar frames in his 2018 documentary Your Name, in which he films thirteen subjects in close-up and beneath bright lights, refusing to turn away.) Organized in the chronological order of the crimes committed, the series recounts acts of child molestation committed by Michael Jackson against Wade Robson and James Safechuck for over a decade. We learn that neither boy was able to recognize what had happened until after he’d reached adulthood, and that like many predators, Jackson also told the children that coming forward would only cause further harm. Jessica Sharzer’s sobering Lifetime film Speakin which a teenager, Melinda (Kristen Stewart), whose trauma from a past sexual assault inhibits her ability to talk freely—comes to mind as a predecessor, maintaining a seriousness that never strays in focus. In the eyes of the now-adult Robson and Safechuck, we see the children they once were and the psychological effects of a stolen childhood, paired with the voices of adults who have reached the capacity to revisit the past. 
Intermixed with face-to-face interviews, all outer and archival materials exist as a means to exemplify how Jackson manipulated his fame to dissolve boundaries—between adult and children, rich and poor—for seedy purposes, often under the guise of his own assumed child-likeness. (The boys’ mothers claim that Jackson was like one of their own sons.) Photographs depict the boys in their homes, wearing makeshift replicas of Jackson’s stage outfits and mimicking the singer’s signature thrusting and grinding. Jackson, apparently captivated by the boys’ talents, soon hires the two (separately and for different tours) to dance onstage with him, using their labor as an excuse to introduce them to icons of children’s media like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford on the set of the Indiana Jones films. After a sunny drone-shot introduction to the titular Neverland Ranch (a quasi-amusement park where Jackson invited unsuspecting families), the camera slowly dollies through and across the property as Robson and Safechuck identify the acts of violation that occurred in various secret locations in Neverland, which heavily featured iconography adored by children like E.T. and Peter Pan. The queasy revelation of Leaving Neverland is that the public was, and is, far more likely to trust a man masquerading as a child for our entertainment than the actual children that Jackson had hired for his entertainment.   
Though Surviving R. Kelly intermixes its survivor testimonies with input from psychologists, criminologists, and family members, Leaving Neverland only features those directly involved and their immediate family members. The result of this narrowed roster is something like a somber and intimate community reckoning, and the frankness—paired with a lack of context, since information is only communicated through recollection—can overwhelm viewers with an emotional fatigue that might be mistakenly classified as a sign of a formal failure.
Alfred Soto of Pitchfork describes Leaving Neverland as a “humdrum piece of filmmaking […] like an attenuated 'Dateline' episode” that lacks the “forensic concentration of documentarians like Barbara Kopple or Errol Morris.” But the exhaustion roused by the seeming monotony in hearing about repeated counts of child abuse is a required portion of the exercise; the aim is to sit and listen, even through yawning and fidgeting. Leaving Neverland does not address the ubiquitous notions that Robson and Safechuck are trying to steal Jackson’s money, or that the parents (who also received gratuitous gifts and favors from Jackson) are entirely to blame. The faux-political critique suggested by these allegations, that the boys are cogs in an overarching oppressive machine against Jackson, is paid no attention in comparison to allowing the survivors to their deserved right to speak. Instead, we are positioned at eye-level with the men; their trembling voices our only guide for belief.  
The single striking image of Tim Burton’s Dumbo is that of the baby elephant staring out at a jeering crowd of bullies chanting that devastating nickname. The computer-generated Dumbo is as wordless as his two-dimensional hand-painted predecessor from 1941, and only communicates his perspective in brief cuts to a fisheye lens, blurred and shaky. Unbeknownst to the baby, the world is a hierarchy of entertainment establishments owned by callous bosses, from the ringleader Max Medici (Danny DeVito) of the small traveling circus where he is born to V.A. Vandevere, the CEO of Dreamland (Michael Keaton), a lucrative amusement park where Dumbo is eventually sold. When Dumbo’s mother, Jumbo, is taken away to Dreamland, Dumbo and a motley crew of circus performers join together to free the mother and son from Vandevere's control. For his human accomplices, liberating Dumbo is a way to express gratitude: The elephant’s supernatural ability to fly, a re-appropriation of his supposedly hideous huge ears, inspires the downtrodden circus folk to stand up for themselves, and a change of heart in Medici.
Though his human compatriots—and among them, two friends, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), and their WWI veteran father Holt (Colin Farrell)—trace their troubles to their lack of money and power, Dumbo only knows the immediate suffering of everyday life. Any similarities perceived between Dumbo’s plight and that of young children, particularly survivors of abuse, are sufficiently supported by the film’s design. With a flexible snout like a hand with a finger, watery eyes with thick eyelashes, and clunky, chubby limbs, Dumbo resembles a human baby. That Walt Disney’s 1941 Dumbo depicted the bullying of Dumbo by other talking, adult elephants (as well as a performance wherein Dumbo is dressed in a bonnet and rattle) indicates that he indeed possesses a more enhanced anthropomorphism, intended to echo the behavior of a child.
Burton’s films, however, seems to consider the elephant’s experience to be only a small blip in a larger phenomenon of powerful people—reduced to the base qualities of rude and rich—hurting powerless people. To execute the argument, the film multiplies the original film’s 64-minute runtime nearly twofold to make room for an ensemble of characters meant to signify the uncommon myth that the circus is, in essence, a safe space (and not a marketplace) for outsiders. The fetishized fantasy of the American circus is not exactly an uncommon filmic trope, as saccharine as The Greatest Showman, despite historical archives suggesting a reality closer to American Horror Story: Freak Show, since the space has always demanded that marginalized people peddle the exaggeration of their stereotyped traits, however voluntary their choice to perform may be. Burton’s inclusive troupe includes a black strongman in a loincloth named Rongo the Strongo (DeObia Oparei), whose punch-line is that he works part-time as an accountant, and Pramesh Singh (Roshan Seth) the turban-wearing snake charmer. It is only when Vandevere takes over Medici's small business through a sneaky backhand contract, which involves further capitalizing off of Dumbo's talents, that Dumbo takes a stand against an ideological foe, that is, the even larger business, which is so big and bad that it eclipses the withstanding fact that whether here or there, Dumbo is still trapped. Restlessly tossed from one master to another, and speechless throughout the entirety of his journey, he becomes less of a character and more a figurehead for any and all people affected by a literal man in a high castle. No longer is he a child, instead a muted mouthpiece without even a mother to stand up for him.
That Dumbo trades in the possibility to interrogate the exploitation of children for a diluted anti-corporate message says much about Burton and Disney's underestimation of the elephant in the room. The implication here is that in turning this world to the live-action realm, the film likewise attempts to provide commentary on heavier issues, often referred to as grown-up or real world issues. But serious matters of the economy or of mental and physical autonomy do not disappear when reflected through the prism of a child's perspective. Beneath the carnival trappings and the ruckus of moving trains and screaming crowds, Dumbo himself proves the damage that occurs when children's rights are violated for the sake of generating capital; there is little evident need for additional decoration. In fact, the brutal coming-of-age that Dumbo undergoes, wherein he is separated from his only surviving family for cash, then required to labor day and night, is much like Pinocchio's terrifying excursion to Pleasure Island, the slave-trading island disguised as a theme park, where boys are turned to donkeys. If any distinction can be made, not only on the basis of species, between Dumbo and those around him in the circus, it is that he is barely a few months old. (The only other children, Milly and Joe, seem to have no specific complaints about their circumstances, besides wanting more attention from their father. Eventually, they begin working as performers themselves.) The scenes in which humans speak in cardboard-stiff whines about how they feel bad about the baby, are weightless in comparison to the sad sight of Dumbo in total isolation, sleeping on a pile of hay.
Referring to Dumbo, critic Nick Pinkerton claimed that “no self-respecting adult should be addressing most major studio releases." It is likely that Dumbo will not impress or wow the trained eyes of seasoned cinephiles or whatever other self-respecting old person, but it is the responsibility of the adult to put these qualms aside to address what these studios are churning out for a distinctly non-adult (and not "almost-adult") audience. And in the case of Dumbo, what looks like a shot-for-shot remake of a classic animated film is actually the Walt Disney Company's ironic pontification on consumerism, sprinkled with the glitter of circus paraphernalia. Simultaneously, the suffering of the child at the center of this world only recedes further beneath a thick haze of grown-up gimmicks.


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