After the commercial failure that was “Fantasia”, an experiment that was hemorrhaging money for the studio, Disney needed a hit. They needed one badly. Thankfully, a little story for a prototype toy came across Disney’s desk. It was a premise for a baby elephant with big floppy ears that learns to fly. With dollar signs in his eyes, Walt Disney immediately bought up the rights and it became their next big release, “Dumbo”.
The story is fairly simple. In a world with literal storks bringing babies to their mothers, a large circus elephant awaits her package. The package is delivered a tad late and she dubs her newborn Jumbo Jr., but because of his ludicrously large ears he acquires the nickname, Dumbo. The other lady elephants are a gaggle of gossiping women (a real unlikable bunch, too), hearkening to another big Hollywood picture of the time, “The Women”. It’s real funny stuff. The rest of the story follows the trials and tribulations of the infant elephant as his ears get him ridiculed, his mother confined to a solitary cell, and eventually his ability to fly. It’s classic and simple and a joy to watch.
It’s a sweet story with a lot of simple and easy to understand themes. There’s the love of a child and mother, the bonds of friendship despite diversity, and overcoming adversity by realizing what makes you different is what makes you special. Running at about an hour, it’s short, sweet, and simple.
It has a lot of great and memorable characters as well, the first being Dumbo himself. Dumbo is only a baby, so he never speaks. He’s innocence personified and it’s heartbreaking to see him separated from his mother and shunned by virtually everyone he meets, the exception being Timothy Mouse (Edward Brophy). This mouse is the stand-in for another classic sidekick, being Jiminy Cricket. Like Jiminy, he serves as Dumbo’s guide and even voice. He does all the talking and moves the plot along. He’s a bit harsher than the insect conscience (he has the voice of a ‘30s hoodlum), but he’s got a heart of gold when it comes to his pal. He’s incredibly likeable and seems all but forgotten when it comes to iconic Disney sidekicks.
Another group of characters that demand mention is the crows. They speak with slang and dress in the manner of your typical minstrel show. The big song, “When I See an Elephant Fly” is essentially just a minstrel piece, filled with funny puns and gags. The lead crow, aptly named Jim (get it?), is voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards (who also voiced Jiminy Cricket), while the rest were voiced by The Hall Johnson Choir. The racism question regarding these characters and their depiction is one that always comes up with this movie. One the one hand, yes, these are caricatures of black people of that time, but on the other hand, the offensive nature is not so easily defined. The crows are funny, but they’re also shown to be clever and the only characters outside of the mouse who sympathize with Dumbo. There’s nothing especially derogatory in how they’re portrayed, and for that I think they’ve aged far better than other depictions in that vein from the time. The fact is, they get the best song in the movie and are a lot of fun when they’re onscreen. Politically correct it is not, but it’s very much of its day.
Like the other Disney movies and shorts, music plays a significant role here as well. There are a couple of wonderful songs, “When I See an Elephant Fly” being one and the other being the Oscar nominated, “Baby Mine”. Even with these classics, the song literally every viewer remembers most is probably the “Pink Elephants on Parade”.
This number is creepy as hell, but animation-wise a fascinating scene of total creativity. These are simple cels against an all black backdrop. The elephants are upright like humans (something no elephant in the movie resembles), and they all have black empty eyes. The two dimensional nature of the characters make them especially unlifelike and soulless, adding to that their constantly changing shapes and harsh animations. They shift and morph to the music and it’s truly an alcoholic nightmare come to life. It’s great.
“Dumbo” is a wonderful little musical with all the classic elements of the old school Disney at play. It was a safer follow up to “Fantasia”, but in terms of iconic imagery it helped solidify Disney as the painter of childhood dreams. After all, he made an elephant fly.