Original Release: October 1941
Runtime: 64 minutes
Jim Korkis, an excellent writer on all things Disney, mentions in his book that “Every Disney movie is someone’s favorite Disney movie.” (The Revised Vault of Walt: Unofficial, Unauthorized, Uncensored Disney Stories Never Told) And as I watch these movies in concession, two a week for the next several weeks, I think that’s a bit of information that is important for me to remember.
Dumbo feels entirely different than the three previous films in Disney’s lineup. The animation is not nearly as precise, though still incredibly solid by today’s standards. The storyline lacks the constant push forward of Pinocchio. Yet, at its best moments, Dumbo still finds a way to be incredibly moving. While not the most consistent film in the lineup so far, Dumbo still has a wealth of great moments.
It’s easy for us to think of Disney as a monolithic company with more money than anyone could ever know what to do with, but that wasn’t always the case. World War II was an extremely difficult time for many companies, Disney included. Cut off from their European market, both Pinocchio and Fantasia were enormous flops at the box office, and extremely expensive ones at that. So when it came time to put Dumbo on the big screen, Walt gave the team one simple rule: Keep it cheap.
Dumbo only cost $950,000 to make. This was half the cost of Snow White, and a third of Pinocchio. Watching the film, the is instantly obvious. The animation is much simpler than the previous films and it only clocks in at a mere 64 minutes, making it one of Disney’s shortest. It was originally intended to be a short film, but during production, Walt felt that it would need to be a feature length in order to do the story true justice.
Dumbo is probably the most relatable story so far in our Vault re-watch. It’s the story of a baby elephant who is mocked for being different and struggles to fit in. His fellow elephants dislike him for his big ears and after a blunder in the big tent, he is sent to work with the clowns and disowned by his family. To make matters worse, the one person…er…elephant who does believe in him, his mother Mrs. Jumbo, is labeled as a ‘Mad Elephant’ when she tries to defend him and is then locked in a cage for the better part of the film.
The only friend he finds is someone we would least expect, a little mouse named Timothy who drives the story forward, as Dumbo does not speak. Timothy uses his powers of persuasion to get Dumbo into the show and constantly looks for ways to better the little guy. In many ways, Timothy is very similar to Jiminy Cricket, if not quite as opinionated.
Eventually, of course, Dumbo realizes that the thing that has made him different and an outcast, his huge ears, are what make him truly special as they give him the ability to fly. In the most memorable scene of the film, he is forced to finally believe in himself and just before hitting the ground, he soars over the crowd and becomes an instant celebrity.
This is easily the most light hearted of the films we’ve seen so far. There’s no evil queen or Satan dance or huge whale. This is a much smaller story that takes place within the confines of a circus. The darkest the film gets is a scene in which Dumbo goes to his mother in the cage and she uses her trunk to reach out to him and rock him like a baby. With backup from the song “Baby Mine,” this scene is incredibly moving and nears the heights of Pixar films, making us truly sympathize with the plight of these animals.
Once again, Disney shows signs of the times by having crows with cigars and having an entire sequence which is driven by Dumbo and Timothy getting drunk and dreaming of singing dancing pink elephants. Unlike Pinocchio, we don’t really get the feeling that Disney is condemning the use of alcohol. In fact, it is this drunken night that lands Dumbo in a tree and enables him to learn that he can in fact fly. We also see signs of the war in a newspaper near the end, with a lead line that reads “Bombers for Defense,” proving that even the animators had the war on their minds.
Dumbo is the first Disney film which, while researching, I discovered several controversies. The crows in the film were said, by some, to be a racist portrayal of African-American stereotypes. Their was also a strike by many of the Disney employees during the animation of the film due to Walt being hesitant to sign with a different animation union than the one he was already signed with. Several of the key orchestrators of this strike are animated as clowns into a scene in which several characters complain that they are not being paid enough and go off to ask the boss for more money. I think we’ll see plenty of controversies like this on our trek through these films and I’m interested to see how they change over time, but I think the fact that they exist at all really speak volumes to the historical value of these films and just what caused animation to become what it is today.
Despite Dumbo being the lowest budget feature so far on our list, it served its purpose well and made back a significant amount for Disney. I also want everyone who reads this to keep in mind that at the time, a film making 1.5 million means a lot as the average movie goer was spending ten cents to see the film. 1.5 million may seem small by today’s standards but at the time it was huge.
Dumbo is the kind of film that parents and children should watch together. It illustrates the power children can have when they believe in themselves and shows how much impact a parent can make on a child’s life even when they are not around as much as they’d like to be. The film’s simplistic art style, while different than its predecessors, shines brightly through where it needs to, in its main character, Dumbo. Dumbo may not speak but he is animated so beautifully and life like that he seems like a very real character and we sympathize greatly with his plight.
It is interesting to note that a sequel was planned for Dumbo but cancelled in the early stages of production. There is also a live action version of the original film being directed by Tim Burton which is set to release next year. Who knows what adventures this little elephant from over 70 years ago will go on next.
Is Dumbo a favorite or a miss for you? Are you excited for Tim Burton’s most likely gothic creepy version? Let me know in the comments down below.
Next Up: Bambi
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NOTE: Obviously all the photos are courtesy of Disney Entertainment and I would never in a million years claim them as my own. That being said, all are actually taken with my phone during our viewing in order to capture the moment in a slightly different way than originally intended.
ALSO: My Fiancee has a blog too and he is talking about all the classics we are currently watching, which involves more than just Disney. Head over HERE and check it out!