Dumbo, 1941, 64 minutes.
Dumbo is the first cartoon feature made by Disney. While Pinocchio, Snow White, and Fantasia were each animated, Dumbo is the first movie by Disney to exist completely in a cartoon world. It almost feels as if Disney made a Silly Symphony (the name given to the original series of Disney short cartoons) and stretched it out to ten times its length.
The financial failure of Pinocchio and Snow White meant Disney needed money, which is why the film seems so simple compared to the preceding three features. The film establishes its cartoony-ness almost immediately, as the storks are dropping off the animal babies to each circus animal. Our stork, Mr. Stork, voiced by Sterling Holloway in his first of many Disney roles, is tasked with dropping off a baby elephant, to a female elephant named Mrs. Jumbo. This whole stork sequence, up until Dumbo is dropped off in the circus train, is as good an introduction as any animated film has ever had. It is up there, for me, with When You Wish Upon a Star, and even Woody’s confrontations with One-Eyed Bart (Mr. Potato Head) in both Toy Story and Toy Story 3.
Of course, Jumbo, Jr. is given his cruel nickname by Mrs. Jumbo’s elephant co-slaves (Performers? Elephant actresses?). This sends Mrs. Jumbo on a tirade, and after defending her helpless son’s honor (and spanking a young Lampwick-like boy with her trunk), Jumbo is taken away from her son. Right out of the gate, this is one of the saddest moments in Disney history. The film’s roots as an extension of Disney short films shows here, as it is telling its story with little dialogue and few characters. Mrs. Jumbo has one line in the film, and Dumbo has zero.
Snow White begins with longing, “Someday my prince will come,” and at the end, he’s there. In Pinocchio, he must prove himself brave, truthful, and unselfish, and the movie ends with his reward after proving himself. Each of these films sets up the ending right out of the gate, but Dumbo begins with a mother meeting her child, and ends with her holding him. It is a much simpler feature, and the lead character’s journey reflects this. Dumbo exists within the circus both in the beginning and the end, and the only trial he truly overcomes is his own humiliation. He becomes a hero, not to prove anything, but because he discovers something wonderful about himself. While it is a great tale of love, familial love, it is, at its core, about believing in oneself.
Timothy J. Mouse, think Jiminy Cricket by way of Bugs Bunny, has the only notable dialogue in the film. While the hateful elephants certainly talk a lot, Timothy drives the story. But he is no conscience, Dumbo doesn’t need one of those. He needs courage and dignity, and Timothy plays that part well. Played delightfully by Ed Brophy, a character actor who usually played gangsters and cops, Timothy is a bit more of a wiseass than Jiminy Cricket, and less pure of heart, but helpful and needed just the same. The relationship between Dumbo and Timothy is a simple, yet tender one, and is very affecting even in its brevity.
This is the thing about Dumbo. It’s short. It is 64 minutes, and while its storytelling is still quite effective, any comparison to Snow White or Pinocchio is unhelpful. That is not to say it is not good, It is still a (mostly) wondrous movie, and it is by design that the movie is much simpler, shorter and less of a production than its predecessors. Disney needed money, fast, and needed to make a simple, universally appealing film, that would sell tickets. There is nothing wrong with this approach, it is good business, and it led to a film still cherished by many, but I can’t shake the feeling something is missing.
Looking at the animation and comparing it to the first three films, it is immediately clear what is different in Dumbo. The backgrounds all use watercolor paints instead of oil, and the character animation is much looser than in Snow White or Pinocchio. It is much more Dance of the Hours than Night on Bald Mountain. The lines are less stable, characters squish and squash, and pretty much every character outside of Timothy and Dumbo are very plainly designed, in strict contrast to the lavish, elaborate designs of every character in Snow White.
The movie’s cartoonish look is epitomized in Casey Jr., the circus’s train engine. Casey Jr. is a train, a train, that moves in more exaggerated motion than Figaro the cat, or even Dopey the dwarf. It is alive, at least partially, and talks. Casey Jr. is evidence that we have left the high fantasy worlds of Bald Mountain, Pleasure Island, and the Dwarfs’ Cottage, and entered the zany world of Toontown. As a fan of older Disney shorts, I appreciate Dumbo’s ability to do a complete 180° and reverse course from the increasing sophistication and beauty from Snow White to Fantasia, and focus on silliness. The circus clowns, the elephants, and the employees of the circus all have a somewhat rudimentary, 1930s-animation look to them, and while it does not always ring true, especially compared to the two leads, it is still entertaining.
There are still some great moments that Dumbo manages to squeeze in, despite its short runtime. Though the clown scene is funny, and would be great in any Disney short film, it has little to do with the overall story, and once it pans up to Dumbo in his baby clown makeup, you wonder why you just watched 3 minutes of clowns before going back to Dumbo’s story. It is a fun bit of diversion, but it hurts the overall structure of the film.
The same argument can be made for Pink Elephants, the marvelous, yet curiously unnecessary dream sequence about two-thirds the way through the film. Dumbo is a short movie, but it is not an exercise in efficiency. The film is stuffed with these set pieces, as well as the crows’ song later, none of which help push the story forward. Snow White has The Yodeling Song, but this shows us the strong bond that she has developed with the dwarfs up to this point, and it makes their reactions to her apparent death more affecting. Pink Elephants has no such point, as it does not bring Timothy and Dumbo closer together, it almost just feels as if they needed to add a silly sequence for the sake of filling out a very short film.
Dumbo has been controversial since its release because of its awful portrayal of black people. It portrays the crew that sets up the circus as being faceless black men, singing a song akin to a negro spiritual. There really is no excuse for a movie made in 1941 to have had this sequence. It is pre-Civil Rights, and it is indicative of how bad race relations were at the time. I can only assume, that on a research trip, they went to an actual circus and saw that the setup crew was entirely African-American, but if they did see that and they were only going for accuracy, then why didn’t you give them faces? Or any sort of identity beyond singing black people? The film has a large de-emphasis on humans as it is, and virtually all humans in sight are drawn quite plainly (the ringmaster, the Lampwick-like kid, and a few key members of the circus being the exceptions), but the lack of faces, identity, and the fact that literally every worker in sight is black all add up to make this scene distasteful and outdated.
There has been much said around the crows near the end of the film as well. The five birds sing the sarcastic “When I See an Elephant Fly.” The song is catchy, but the lyrics, as well as the crows’ accents, are of a stereotype of lower-income African-Americans from the South. The main crow is played by a white man as well, making the exaggerated dialect harder to take in, not to mention the fact that the character’s name is literally Jim Crow. The other four birds are voiced by members of a local black choir, and they improvised most of their dialogue. While it does not ruin Dumbo for me, it makes it harder to take in. Fantasia’s few seconds of racism (There was originally a slave faun that was dark-skinned in Pastoral Symphony) have been scrubbed from existence more-or-less. That, however, was a handful of quick animated sequences that you could miss if you blinked. In Dumbo, the crows play a huge part in its finale, and wiping the film of them is to destroy it, as it would completely change the structure of the film..
Dumbo is not Disney’s best feature. It is commonly regarded as one of the best, but I strongly disagree. While still good, certainly, it lacks the storytelling efficiency and narrative punch of Pinocchio and Snow White (And certainly of Bambi, which I’m getting to next). It is a short, strangely unfocused film, whose first half is stronger than its second. Its uncouth portrayal/mockery of black people certainly make the film tougher to revisit than most of Disney’s canon (Save for, of course, Song of the South). But it is still a good film, worth the watch, but with a couple of caveats.
Up Next: Bambi