Dumbo came at an interesting time in the Walt Disney company. It followed two critical successes but commercial flops in Pinocchio and Fantasia. In addition World War II was raging, and with it a huge chunk of foreign box office revenue (about 45% of total box office revenue at the time) was cut off. Desperate to keep the financial afloat and in dire need of a commercial success, the instructions to the animators were clear: keep it simple and keep it cheap.
Admittedly those instructions on the surface do not seem remotely inspiring. But as is so often the case, it is precisely these limitations that forces out great art. I have always felt that a carte blanche freedom to create anything you want often leads to uninspired laziness (see: most modern CGI-fests) and I often point to Dumbo as justification for my argument. For even with a limited budget and various other constraints, the Disney crew managed to produce a short but packed story filled with memorable characters, a lot of heart, wonderfully fun visual gags and humour, and an icon in its flying elephant.
The story is simple and direct, telling the story of a baby elephant who gets mocked for his big ears and separated from his mother, and his journey from social pariah to star of the circus. For most of the movie there really is very little nuance to the storytelling nor does there need to be (except in one very key aspect). The story mostly just serves as a canvas for the animators to run wild with creativity and wonder. And this is exactly what they did.
The budget restraints of the film were mostly felt in the visuals. The company could not afford the lush depth of detail that the previous features had. For Dumbo this turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it freed the animators to focus on character acting instead. In doing this they had to borrow mostly from the playbook of the animated shorts that had built up the company from scratch in the first place. And so though the look and feel may have been jarring when compared to Disney’s other animated features, it also feels immediately fits in with the rest of Disney’s output. It is the first feature that looks and feels like a cartoon in the most positive sense of the word.
This becomes readily apparent even before Dumbo is introduced in his own movie. The movie opens with two sequences that would’ve fit perfectly with the Silly Symphonies series, the first being the stork sequence in which every animal but Mrs. Jumbo has their child delivered to them. But it is the second sequence of Casey Jr. train that signals the whimsical humour that will be this film’s calling card.
Every element of this scene is filled with character whether it is the animals loading up, the individual carriages themselves, or especially the engine Casey Jr. itself. At this point the movie has not had barely a single word of dialogue spoken yet (apart from some early narration) and yet so rich and full is the character being conveyed by the animation that we haven’t felt the need for dialogue at all.
The early whimsy of the movie dramatically and crucially shifts however when we finally meet Dumbo and more importantly Dumbo finally meets his mother Mrs. Jumbo. The early pain we witnessed when Mrs. Jumbo did not have her child delivered earlier melts away the moment she sees her child, and she simply showers Dumbo with love. It is this relationship between Dumbo and his mother that elevates the movie so that it becomes more than just a mere cartoon. These few scenes between Dumbo and his mother are infused with warmth and tenderness. Especially viewing this as a parent now, there is so much attention to detail in how a parent might lovingly interact with a child that it unexpectedly got me choked up at times. In the bath scene, there is a moment when Dumbo and his mother play a silly game of hide-and-seek and you can see in the little interactions the depth of character displayed, whether it is Dumbo’s childlike gleefulness or Mrs. Jumbo much more subdued and tired but still joyful smile.
It is crucial that this relationship is the most lifelike moment in the movie because it is precisely the tragic and heartbreaking separation of Dumbo and his mother that is the driving impetus of the movie. Dumbo’s big ears make him an object of ridicule and rejection by everyone except his mother and the great horror is that it is the very natural act of protecting her child that gets her taken away from him. The movie is somewhat concerned with how people (or animals in this case) marginalize and discriminate against those who are different, and maybe a little bit more concerned with teaching children (and adults) to celebrate the differences that make us unique. But primarily, this movie is concerned with the primal terror of Dumbo losing her mom and the desperate fight to get her back. Because the movie has done so well in creating a real and authentic relationship between mother and son, her separation has the necessary dramatic gravitas to give this simple story its heft.
This realness is punctuated by the stunningly beautiful and sad “Baby Mine” scene, in which Mrs. Jumbo and Dumbo are briefly reunited but through bars. All the animators have to work with is Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo’s trunk and yet they manage to convey an enormous amount of tenderness and affection through that alone. If we were ever to create a Mount Rushmore of Disney moments, there is no doubt that this would be one of them. The scene barely lasts a few minutes onscreen, but its effect lingers through the rest of the movie and frames the stakes that Dumbo is dealing with. His mother has to be free, and they have to be reunited.
Of course the problem with this scenario is that Dumbo is a child, innocent and incapable of the kind of intricate strategic thinking that would be necessary to get his mother free. If Dumbo were to accomplish this on his own it would be a complete betrayal of the believability and integrity of his character. Fortunately the movie does not commit this sin and wisely introduces the brash, scheming, and deeply loyal Timothy Mouse.
The genius of Timothy Mouse is that he is the first truly contemporary character in the Disney animated feature canon. Thus he is the first character in which we can truly channel ourselves into. His righteous indignation and the injustice inflicted upon Dumbo is ours. He can scheme like how we scheme because he is not a mere “fairy tale” character. When he scares a bunch of prejudiced elephants witless we laugh mostly because we are gleeful that they get their comeuppance. When he unwittingly gets Dumbo and himself drunk, we chuckle mostly because his carelessness mirrors our worst behaviours. When he tricks Dumbo into believing he can fly with a magic feather, he mimics how we trick our own kids to do things. His brash earthiness functions not only to give us a proxy, but more importantly shields Dumbo by keeping him pure and innocent. Basically Timothy helps the plot move along in a believable way.
While we are talking about protagonists in this story, now seems about as good a time as any to bring up the most controversial part about Dumbo, namely the appearance of the crows. The crows show up late in the act and after initially mocking Dumbo like everyone else eventually come around and act as catalysts to helping Dumbo figure out that he can in fact fly. The problem with the crows is that they are explicitly portrayed as jive-talking African American stereotypes. Further exacerbating the problem is that in an early script the lead crow was called “Jim Crow” (although crucially, nothing in the actual movie – including the credits – says that this is his name). So for some this is enough to label the movie racist and write it off. For others, they see any attempt to point out the racism of the movie as ridiculous.
I however can’t bring myself to either position. The depiction of the crows is somewhat problematic. It is true that the crows are exaggerated stereotypes whose speech patterns are used for humorous effects. But it is also equally true that from the standpoint of the movie, the crows are seen as positive characters to be admired for the way in which they help Dumbo. And while it is true that from a modern standpoint their antics while not cringeworthy is at least a little uncomfortable to watch, it is also true that for the time period the inclusion of the crows as positive figures in the movie was an undoubtedly progressive move especially in an age where holding explicit racist views was acceptable. Moreover the issues of inclusion in the movie and the way it comes down hard on those who discriminate against Dumbo because of his appearance at least merit that our evaluation of the crows should be at least complicated. I’m reminded of Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner which was Hollywood’s first ever depiction of a mixed-race couple. There are elements of that movie that are cringeworthy by today’s standards. Yet to dismiss Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner movie entirely based on modern standards seems unjustly reductionistic and the historic significance of that movie’s achievement. And I similarly think that about the crows in Dumbo. We can’t benignly accept that there is nothing wrong with them. Yet we can’t also forget that they are the first depictions of a minority within a Disney movie, and their first appearance is as one of the few heroes in Dumbo.
(As an aside, I think the throwaway line of “We don’t know when we get our pay, and we do we throw it all away” sung by all black workers in the “Song of the Roustabouts” is a much more problematic part of the movie than the crows)
The plot of this movie as I mentioned earlier is merely the backdrop for the animators to flex their creative muscle. More than any previous Disney movie, this feels like a collection of set pieces connected by a loose plot. But these set pieces are each in their own way fantastic scenes and some of the best animation ever produced by Disney. We’ve already mentioned the stork and Casey Jr. scene as well as the “Baby Mine” scene. But undoubtedly the standout scene from an animation standpoint has to be the wild and hallucinogenic “Pink Elephants on Parade” scene.
© 1941 Disney.
The scene is an absolute riot of colours and images with every sequence in this scene working double-time to try and outdo the previous one in terms of outrageousness. What is most interesting is that you can see the lessons that the animators learned with Fantasia are clearly being applied here. There actually seems to be much more influence of Fantasia in Dumbo than a surface reading of the movie would imply. For one, this is the first Disney movie that truly feels like a musical. There are six major songs in this movie and apart from “Baby Mine” all of the scenes in which the songs appear are closely choreographed to match the tempo and rhythms of the song exactly like Fantasia did. But in all these scenes the artfulness that they learned from Fantasia has been paired with a much more traditional Disney sensibilities and the results are as entertaining as they are excellent pieces of animation.
It is astonishing that this movie only clocks in at 63 minutes because it is packed to the brim with so many good moments, characters, songs, and scenes. Fortunately for the Disney company, it also turned out to be a great success at the box office – and in turn saved the company. Viewed with modern eyes, it’s a bit tragic that it’s portrayal of race is clumsy and slightly problematic because it takes just a little bit of sheen off this otherwise brilliant movie. Still even with that, it remains one of the greatest feats of animation of all time whose merits far outweigh whatever faults it has.
Rating: ★★★★ (part of me wanted to rate this higher, but the problematic elements knock my enjoyment down just a little bit)