You might be wondering why Dumbo is being considered for the question, “Is It Still Scary?” If you were a sensitive child who remembers the “Pink Elephants on Parade” scene, you already know why, and you’re nodding your head emphatically in affirmation. Besides the fact that it’s bizarre and scary that we still have circus animals in 2016, that scene scarred childhoods and imprinted itself in many memories.
As a child you have a pretty limited understanding of what inebriation is. You’re not quite sure if someone can get drunk from soapy water or if you should be worried about swallowing the water in your bubble bath in case it causes horrifying hallucinations. Turns out there’s champagne in that water, but you didn’t know that when you were five, did you?
Despite being an impressive bit of animation for 1941, it’s legitimately horrifying. Disney’s traditional use of bright, vivid colors is enhanced by a stark black background and a five minute visual assault. The lyrics of the song say it all when they say, “ . . . technicolor pachyderms is really too much for me!” Yeah, no kidding, this psychedelic freak show comes out of left field. It does nothing to advance the plot or have anything to do with Dumbo besides the fact it features elephants. It is unlike anything Disney had ever done or has ever done since. One might think that this seems like a risky move for a company in financial distress: it was World War II, with an animator’s strike, and the previous two films were flops (Fantasia and Pinocchio). In reality, Dumbo was meant to be cheap, created simply and quickly. Instead of using the traditional oil and gouache paint, watercolor was used for backgrounds and the animation was more simplistic than earlier movies. Pink Elephants was created as a surrealistic filler for an already short film. That’s why it has little to do with the story, and surprisingly it paid off.
Pink Elephants can be a lot to take in, so it’s helpful to break down what’s happening as much as possible. It begins innocently enough. Dumbo blows some lazy bubbles that gently turn into rotund elephants. Those elephants start blowing bubble-elephants out their trunks, and play a various selection of body-horror instruments. Never mind the fact that the song is fairly dark and foreboding, before you know it they’re breaking the fourth wall and encompassing the screen to a suffocating degree. POP! Already the sensory overload is frightening.
“Look out, look out, pink elephants on parade . . . They’re here, and there, pink elephants everywhere!” they have empty sockets for eyes, they loom over each other, their skeletons glowing electric yellow through their skin as they surround your bed. Perfect nightmare fuel. Perhaps the most terrifying moment is the giant elephant formed out of multiple grinning elephant heads. He looms closer and closer to the screen, his evil eyes taking you in before turning into pyramids. Thus begins a hypnotizing trip to Egypt, presumably, and a bit of a welcome reprieve. We are hypnotized, unable to look away as the elephant harem dancer’s belly turns into an oddly human eye that stares back at us.
This fever dream ends with a seizure-inducing panic of a variety of vehicles and a collision that turns to elephants peacefully floating down, settling into pink clouds in the dawn sky. Are we to believe that Dumbo and his mouse friend Timothy are so drunk that this is the only thing they can mentally process? Isn’t it kind of profoundly adult that Dumbo doesn’t realize his greatest power (flying) until after he becomes so drunk he wakes up in a tree he has no memory of climbing?
Of course, the inherent sadness of the rest of Dumbo probably influences our feelings about Pink Elephants. There’s a lot to be sad about in Dumbo. There are many mean-spirited characters, whether Walt is mocking the animator’s strike with a caricature of clowns asking for a raise, or some seriously questionable racism involving crows, or a mother elephant separated from freedom and her baby. Even as a child, emotions run high. The internet is full of anecdotes of children bursting into tears, running from the theatre and never, ever watching that movie again. Add a limited understanding about the world and an overactive imagination, and this five minutes is absolutely and unforgettably nightmare-inducing. All these years later it’s easier to appreciate Pink Elephants on Parade for what it is, but that childhood fear still remains. Although, like all our fears, it starts to become rather silly once you face it enough times.
Featured Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures