Posted by Richard Harland Smith on December 2, 2008
When you get on the subject of deaths in Walt Disney movies (and if you grew up on Disney product of the 1950s and 60s, you really couldn’t escape the specter of the Grim Reaper, who seemed to leapfrog from film to film, poised to leaven your childlike joy and wonder with shock and sadness), one that comes up right away is the shooting of Bambi’s mother or the shooting of Old Yeller but for me those killings pale in comparison to the death of Dumbo’s mother. You may remember the scene: falsely accused of being a ‘mad elephant,’ Dumbo’s Mom is chained and stuffed into a too-small circus wagon, to be carted off for execution. In their final moments together, she reaches her trunk out through the bars of her cage and cradles little Dumbo, swinging him as she sings him a comforting song. God, it’s killer. I’m welling up now thinking about it. To a 10 year-old kid (hell, to a 47 year-old man), this cruel separation of mother and child is about as bad as it gets.
The only thing is, Dumbo’s mother doesn’t die. We don’t see her for most of the movie and assume she’s dead (there were not then, nor do I think there are now, rehabilitation centers for mad elephants) and then, BLAMMO, there she is. Mother and grown son reunited. Order restored. Happy ending! Yeahhhh… kinda. Watch the movie again and that fake-out farewell scene is still as traumatic as it was when you went into the thing blind.
Walt Disney, et al, were always doing this kind of thing. Death had free range over at Buena Vista but the deaths were usually reserved for villains. The Evil Queen of SNOW WHITE, Maleficent from SLEEPING BEAUTY, that hateful cat from CINDERELLA; occasionally, an innocent would buy it – in addition to those mentioned above, I’m thinking of Fess Parker and his comrades in THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE, the little dog who walks the green mile in LADY AND THE TRAMP to be put down at the dog pound, and Brian Keith in SCANDALOUS JOHN (shot in the back!). But when I go back and re-watch these things it’s not the actual (movie) deaths that get me… it’s the bogus ones. Because when he was pulling the wool over our eyes, Uncle Walt didn’t blink. He didn’t cut away (as he did to depict the death of Bambi’s mother) to soften the blow, but laid it on with a trowel.
Remember the fate of old Trusty (voice of Bill Baucom) in LADY AND THE TRAMP? Racing to delay the horse-drawn wagon porting a wrongly-accused Tramp (voice of Larry Roberts) to the dog pound where he faces certain and immediate death (yeah, Disney recycled a lot), Trusty puts himself in front of the conveyance, causing it to topple and fall, crushing him to death. Or so it seems.
His little buddy Jock (voice of Bill Thompson) even rushes to his side, sniffs at his lifeless form and …
… howls pitiably as a gesture of profound grief. It’s a remarkably grim set-up coming as it does on the heels of a thrilling chase and a snatched-from-the-jaws-of-death denoument. Add to that, it’s raining.
But come Christmas Day, there’s old Trusty, leg in a cast but alive and well and back in the game. I don’t put Trusty’s seeming death on an emotional par with that of Dumbo’s mother but still… Uncle Walt… what up with this? And like an annoying uncle who thinks his joy buzzer is comic gold, Disney and his conspirators kept pulling this one. And we kept falling for it! In 101 DALMATIONS, the happy birth of 15 puppies is a joyous moment for four-legged narrator Pongo (voice of Rod Taylor ) and his bitch Perdita (voice of Cate Bauer). That is until…
… one of the pups is stillborn. As Nanny (voice of Martha Wentworth) dabs a tear and Pongo looks on incomprehensively, Roger (voice of Ben Wright) mumbles something like “it’s just one of those things” as he cradles the lifeless newborn. And then, a propos of nothing, Roger gets an idea…
… and commences to rub the swaddled critter vigorously (as the flash of lightning and cracking of thunder from without threaten to turn this curious scene into a moment from FRANKENSTEIN) until…
… the little darling comes back to life. Happy ending! Except that it happens, like, half an hour into the thing, which means there’s still 45 minutes of drama to go. And again I hasten to add that this odd little death-and-resurrection scene plunked down into 101 DALMATIONS was never, for me, a soul-scarring/life altering experience. It’s just odd that Disney kept insisting on faking us out with the apparent deaths of adorable little animals. And all the while saving the best worst for last.
And now we come to the death of Baloo. In the exciting, scary climax of THE JUNGLE BOOK, Baloo the Bear (voice of Phil Harris) comes to the rescue of wild child Mowgli (voice of Bruce Reitherman, son of the director Wolfgang Reitherman), who has fallen into the clutches of the malevolent tiger Shere Khan (voice of George Sanders). Grabbing “Old Stripes” by the tail, Baloo allows Mowgli to scramble to safety while he takes the brunt of the tiger’s anger. Reitherman frames the action in close cuts as Shere Khan slashes at Baloo with his fearsome claws, leaving him a (that word again) lifeless lump.
“Baloo, get up,” implores a horrified Mowgli, cradling the fallen bear’s enormous head in his tiny hands. “Oh, please get up.” It’s THE CHAMP all over again! And it’s raining again! And you’d think Disney and his director would leave it at that, but no…
… the scene just goes on and on, with the rain and Mowgli hugging Baloo, filling his little fists with the great bear’s hair as if willing him to live again…
… as Bagheera the panther (voice of Sebastian Cabot) sidles into the shot to comfort Mowgli: “Greater love hath no one than he who lays down his life for his friend,” says Bageera, at his most Churchillian. “Whenever great deeds are remembered in this jungle, one name will stand above all others… our friend, Baloo the bear.” I have no memory of what I thought about this grim scene when I first saw it as a 6 or 7 year-old but 40 years on and after countless repeat viewings I’m nearly in cardiac arrest when, astonishingly, magically, infuriatingly…
… Baloo opens his eyes. So not dead! “I was just takin’ five,” he tells Mowgli. “You know, playin’ it cool.” (Who does he think he is, Lee Marvin?) While Bagheera is outraged (he calls Baloo a “four-flusher” – you probably didn’t know the fauna of Southeast Asia played poker), Mowgli is understandably overjoyed.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy THE JUNGLE BOOK ends on an upnote, glad that Baloo (“that shiftless, two-bit jungle bum”) lives to laugh and scat and partake of the bear necessities for another day but again I can’t say that the happy ending really exorcises the demons spawned by this deeply upsetting fake death. It’s almost as if Disney and his collaborators were trying to recreate the dark magic of their DUMBO bait-and-switch with a father figure and it took them over a quarter of a century to get it right. This scene does a number on me – my 3 year-old daughter takes it in stoically while I’m squirting brine horizontally out of both eyes. Seriously, for the last five minutes of this movie it’s as if I’m watching through an aquarium.
Walt Disney died during production of THE JUNGLE BOOK, which was the last feature from his studio that he oversaw personally. Though the Disney death toll continued to escalate into the new millenium, I can’t for the life of me recall of a single fake death in all the films that have followed… so maybe that gag, that propensity, that fetish died with him. Of course, there are those who say Disney isn’t dead at all but preserved in cryogenic suspended animation, awaiting a cure for the circulatory malady that took him down in December 1966 at the age of 65. I’ve heard that urban myth all my life but in it I never placed much faith. Yet now that I think about it, in the context of all this death fakery, the possibility does make a kind of eerie sense, doesn’t it?
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