Why We Need To Tell Happy Stories
Dumbo (2019) fuses the best parts of Tim Burton’s flair for gothic aesthetics and embodying strangeness with Disney Studio’s fairytale history — and then condenses them into a two-hour long, visually delectable fantasy about acceptance, community, and happy endings.
Since Edward Scissorhands, I’ve been a Burton fangirl. His vision of Dumbo felt like coming home, the ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy of the prototypical, abandoned, lonely child who dreams up a different world — in the darkness of a room with boarded-up windows. Although the movie opened to overwhelmingly negative reviews, personally, it moved me to catharsis.
Dumbo is one of the happiest films I’ve seen in a while.
Burton’s film tells the story of a baby elephant who can fly, laughed at for ears too large, forcibly separated from his mother, and offered surrogate love by two children growing up in a circus. Dumbo is bewildered and fascinated by the bright flickering lights of the stage and frightened by heights and at the prospect of performing for a crowd ready to pounce on him with their severe criticism. Dumbo is all alone and must learn to fly, save those he cares about, and ultimately return home.
The pachyderm was originally was named Miss Jumbo. A circus trick gone wrong prompts the audience to ridicule him and shame him by calling him ‘Dumbo’. Ironically enough, our hero has no voice in the movie. He can only fly with his odd misshapen ears and gaze on with his sad wide eyes. There’s a scene in the film where one of the villains says that to “grow up” one needs to “go at it alone” (a statement that almost every lonely person will hold true even if they wish to disbelieve it). But the film vehemently opposes this idea. Without togetherness and community and empathy, we are powerless. It affirms repeatedly that we aren’t alone, we don’t need to be alone, and it’s okay if you are alone but desperately don’t want to be.
The arc of the story is classic and satisfying. When the villains of Dumbo — horribly caricatured and unreal as they are — lose and the entertainment house they built on exploitation goes up in flames — it fulfills us on an emotional level because we rarely get this victory anywhere else.
Of course, there are problems with the film. While Burton’s protagonists are alienated oddities a lot of us can relate to, they are all overwhelmingly white and played by white actors chosen over people of color. Burton’s casting is tokenistic at best, and while that may not matter to his white fans, it certainly matters to me, a woman of color, who was bullied in school for her dark brown skin. Clearly, I have no space in the starkly white imagination of Hollywood’s top directors.
Maybe that’s what fundamental loneliness is all about — despite relating to someone or something, you’re aware there’s an invisible, insurmountable barrier separating you from the reflection in the mirror that you almost recognize as yourself.
At its heart, Dumbo is about abandonment, loneliness, and reunion. This is the story in most of Burton’s films. It’s the story of everyone and anyone who has ever felt abandoned and lonely, anyone who on desperate nights dreamed up a fairytale to escape to.
It is the story of Lydia Deetz, the prototypical Goth girl from Beetlejuice, with her penchant for ghosts, photography and black lace. Lydia was self-avowedly “strange and unusual” at a time when goth culture was far from cool or as mainstream. It is the tragic tale of Edward who had scissors for his hands, who lived all alone in a castle because the world could appreciate his sculptures carved out of greenery and ice, but not his capacity to love. It is the wish-fulfillment that prompts Burton to add to Dahl’s story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where Willy Wonka and his estranged father share an awkward reunion.
It is in the sadness in Johnny Depp’s eyes as the Mad Hatter prompts Alice to stay in Wonderland just before she is ready and happy to return to her real world. It is reflected in all the peculiar children who gather around and live inside a derelict mansion in a quiet island inside a time-loop for days on end because they are too precocious for the outside world. And it’s there in the fire of Margaret Keane, an artist who gathers the courage to sue her husband who has so far stolen credit for all her paintings. It’s in the dazed and feverish fantasies of Ed Wood, a man dubbed as the world’s worst film-maker, who is young and on the brink of downfall, dreaming of being the next Orson Welles just as the credits begin to roll.
Given Tim Burton’s own childhood — how his parents boarded up his bedroom windows to block all but light from high above, how he experienced many creative differences with Disney during his initial years of animating for the Mouse, how his feelings of strangeness and alienation have accompanied him even in his celebrity life — it‘s hard not to read autobiography into a film that is about being alone and singled out because everyone else perceives you as some sort of oddity, and the struggle that you face to carve a place for yourself.
In the end, Dumbo is a love letter from Burton to Burton — self-indulgent and full of childish idealism, but also exactly what a depressed person needs in today’s world. It might be likened to a wish-fulfillment fantasy or a child’s bedtime fairytale, where no matter how wingless and lonely we are or how odd and strange we may seem, we can still fly like Dumbo above our sad reality, at least for a brief while. And sometimes, that’s all that matters.
Because sometimes art is the only space where you can live out your fondest daydream, for the real world is just too cruel to let you be.
In fact, it’s this need for a happy narrative that makes Tim Burton’s Dumbo so relevant — because we know most of our struggles in real life won’t or cannot pay off, and we want that impossible fantasy realized if not here, at least somewhere. We want to see the circus troupe survive and triumph even though as individual characters they fail to make a mark. We want to see little Dumbo reunited with his mother and living happily ever after in a jungle somewhere in Asia, untouched by colonization. We want to imagine a happy life for the father-soldier who lost his arm in the war, for his daughter who dreams of being the next Marie Curie, for the French trapeze artist who can fly without wings.
We need these wish-fulfillment happy narratives — because while the genre of fantasy does and is capable of a lot of other things, it also does escapism really well and deserves to be celebrated for it so.
Speaking as someone who also has a speech disability and who has suffered from depression since my early teenage years, films like these give me a reason to live. The past few months have certainly been especially harrowing for me, and Dumbo let me realize it’s okay to pretend to be a child who believes that one day, depression will go away.
Because if we can’t tell our happy stories, what else is there to hope and live for?
This essay was first published in Interstellar Flight Magazine.