Now we have come to a movie I really love, Dumbo. It’s one I don’t recall seeing as a child and always dismissed as ‘the sad Disney movie’. Boy was I missing out.
Dumbo is not only lovely but has an interesting backstory. Released in 1941 the Disney studios needed a hit after flops of Pinocchio and Fantasia. War and high production costs had made the budget on both pictures balloon. Walt told his animators they need a film that would be cheap to produce and box office friendly.
A merchandise director showed him a storyline for a toy called The Roll-a-Book about an elephant who could fly. Walt Disney loved the idea and they went right to work with budget being the priority.
What’s amazing about that is even with so many restrictions they still managed to produce art and take risks that make Dumbo very special.
At it’s core Dumbo is about overcoming differences and finding true friends. (and never discounting someone as a friend because of those differences). Of all the Disney ‘messages’ it is one of my favorites.
Each character is vividly portrayed because the backgrounds and other visuals were simple allowing the eyes and other body parts to be especially expressive. Outside of Timothy Q Mouse and the crows there is remarkably little dialogue in Dumbo, but we don’t notice it because meanings and emotions are very clear.
There was a strike while Dumbo was in production which was very demoralizing for Walt and Roy Disney. He had felt like a family to the animators and as a subtle jab in the clown scenes several of the strikers are depicted.
The war also affected Dumbo. Time magazine was going to name Dumbo ‘mammal of the year’ and have him on the cover but the bombing of Pearl Harbor superseeded it although the article was still listed. No doubt the new war made a sentimental tale about friendship extra appealing. Dumbo cost half the price of Snow White and a third of Pinocchio so they succeeded in their budgeting for once.
The story is pretty simple.
Dumbo is delivered by the stork and he has huge ears! The lady elephants are horrified and call him Dumbo instead of Jumbo Jr as his Mother wants.
The matriarch of the elephants is voiced by Verna Felton who is in many Disney films including Fairy Godmother in Cinderella and The Queen of Hearts in Alice and Wonderland. They are actually quite harsh and say Dumbo is an ‘elephant only a mother could love’
Timothy Q. Mouse hears them making fun of Dumbo and asks the question ‘I don’t see nothing wrong with them (ears). I think they are cute”
The other elephants are scared of Timothy (elephants really are scared of mice. Check out the Mythbusters episode if you don’t believe me!)
Little boys make fun of Dumbo which makes his mother angry and she storms them and is locked up.
The circus owner decides to create a pyramid of elephants with Dumbo at the top as the smallest elephant. Unfortunately Dumbo slips and everything comes crashing down.
Dumbo gets sent to work with the clowns as punishment and the elephants decide he is ‘no longer an elephant’.
Dumbo cries and takes him to see his mother where she sings to him ‘Baby of Mine’ .
Here’s where things get strange. After the song Dumbo gets the hiccups and they drink some water not realizing it is actually champagne from the clowns. This starts a surrealist dream sequence called ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’.
I love that in Disney’s low budget, safe movie they have something that out there as the pink elephants on parade. It’s like they couldn’t help themselves but be artistic and take risks.
They will channel a similar surrealism in 1968 in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh when Pooh dreams of Heffalumps and Woozles.
When the 2 wake up they find themselves amazingly on top of a tree high in the air. How did they get there? Timothy figures they must have flown.
They meet a band of crows who tease them at first but after Timothy’s intervention they become friends and sing the song- When I see an elephant fly
There are some who claim the crows are racist. I actually find the song at the beginning called Song of Roustabouts to be more questionable with black men with no facial expressions doing physical labor.
The crows are friendly, happy, characters who in the end help Dumbo. I don’t see them as any different than the vultures in Jungle Book and nobody complains they are racist?
They do speak in a stereotypical way and use some halting language, but I don’t think it is demeaning or cruel.
Perhaps I am wrong on that but it seems a bit of a nit-pick.
Eventually Dumbo realizes he can fly and he returns to the circus becoming a star along with his true friend Timothy.
As we can see in the picture above most of the backgrounds in Dumbo are solid colors or painted in watercolor. This is only done in 2 other Disney movies- Snow White and 2002’s Lilo and Stitch. It is only 64 minutes long so Disney’s shortest theatrical release and it has relatively few characters. None of the voice talent was even credited at the end of the movie.
I love stories that have a real heart to them and Dumbo certainly has that in spades. Amazing to have a lead character who doesn’t have one line of dialogue can be that appealing and sweet. Timothy Q Mouse is the real hero of the movie who doesn’t let the discrimination and hate of other people influence his thoughts and actions. It probably has more tears than in any other Disney movie but I feel the tears are earned because we see what is happening to a character that is a baby.
I like to think that every person has someone in their life who is their unabashed cheerleader. We all get tough talk in spades but the people I treasure most are those that love me and think I am a one of a kind. My Grandfather was that person for me and Timothy Q Mouse is that person for Dumbo. I love that.
It’s also an interesting depiction of both the joy of maternal love and the pettiness of a sorority mentality.
I love stories about friendship and Dumbo certainly gives us a great one and reminds us friendship can come from the most unexpected sources. It also teaches what is seen as a drawback to others, is actually what makes us special and unique. When Dumbo embraces his ears instead of hiding them he is embracing his nature and is happy. The world recognizes him for that. If he had stayed in a corner in fear that would have never happened.
And of course I love the fact that in the middle of all this sentiment we get something as jarring and nuts as Pink Elephants on Parade. These early films from Disney are art that happens to have an audience. It’s like they couldn’t help themselves but explore new genres and push boundaries. It’s awesome.
Some are bothered by the crows and I respect that but it is honestly a short segment an could be fast forwarded if you prefer. I think most kids are likely to just laugh at the crows cheerful goofy antics. If not, perhaps it can be used a teaching opportunity about the type of stereotypes and caricatures in all eras of art, music and storytelling. It seems a shame to throw away a wonderful film about accepting differences and loving all people because of a positive happy song by crows.
Nevertheless, I think Dumbo is great for kids of all ages with perhaps the pink elephants scene skipped for very young children. Also, talking about Dumbo and Timothy getting drunk may need to take place after the scene is over.
If I were to dock it a little it would be the songs aside from Baby Mine aren’t especially memorable although the score by Oliver Wallace and Frank Churchill is lovely (Oscar winning). Still, music-wise it would rate fairly low in the Disney cannon.
Other than that, I really do love Dumbo. It is a weird, sweet, sad, tender-hearted tale of an elephant with really big ears!
Overall Grade- A