Every Disney — Dumbo
We went out of order I apologize, I’m a real… In 1941, the United States had entered World War II and severely altered the nature of popular culture in the country. After the expensive classical music-meets-cartoon Fantasia, Disney decided to make a more profitable low-budget film to recoup costs. Despite its childish appearance and schoolyard bully chosen name, Dumbo (1941) is much more of a rightful classic than meets the eye. I had not seen this movie since I was 5 if not younger.
The movie comes to us after the story and moral-heavy Pinocchio (1940) with a very different mood and message. Dumbo (1940) entertains us with very swing, doo-wop, and jazz tunes sung by enthusiastic storks flying over Florida. After watching the realistic and, as I reviewed plot-lacking Bambi, I felt much more at ease with the lively and bouncing world that Dumbo provides. Our leading stork carries a cute package to the most lively and anthropomorphic train in cartoon history, cradling inside a Jumbo Jr. elephant for its mother. The colors, exaggerated skipping and singing, and the gossiping elephants in the nearby train car just warm you inside as if you knew anything was possible; to contrast, I felt strangely limited and more scientific watching the anatomically correct animals of Bambi act as expected. Nonetheless, Jumbo Jr. sneezes and suddenly exposes slightly-large ears to his elephant peers. To their dismay and my surprise, he is deemed ugly and called Dumbo as an insult. While it isn’t “solved” thoroughly by the end, it’s clear that the movie wants to parallel kids being bullied for how they looked.
Where I think the film’s plot should be praised is in Timothy Mouse and the relationship between Dumbo and his mother. After being picked on at the circus, Dumbo’s mother rightfully throws a tantrum and several ringleaders across the tent; this of course leads to her imprisonment for the majority of the movie. Dumbo’s incredibly simple but innocent animations really tear at you like watching a real toddler without any friends. Timothy Q. Mouse, a small ringleader quick-talking partner, balances his own desire to make Dumbo into a famous act and an altruistic need to make Dumbo feel better. He befriends him while Dumbo cries (due to his mother being separated from the animals), he keeps up his spirits and even helps him visit the mother, and gets him a drink to help clear his mind after a humiliating show at the circus (more on this next). I feel as though the simpler the friendship gets, the more you feel for it and can relate to it. I’ll admit that it does take a bit of childlike wonder to help push the Dumbo-mother story along, after all you’re watching a baby unable to deal with separation. I will note one of few criticisms of the movie is that upon Dumbo *spoilers* achieving the ability to fly with his ears, the film closes immediately with him becoming a sensation and his mother being freed. This happens in about ten minutes and feels severely rushed, but the budgeting is likely to blame.
The “Pink Elephants on Parade” scene is a spectacle that makes the film, if not the entire world of animation for me. Using word-play as inspiration, Dumbo and Timothy accidentally ingest champagne-spiked water and hallucinate an incredibly vivid scene of pink elephants dancing and marching. The amount of synchronized horn accents, decorative dances, unprecedented uses of shading and semi-3D characterizations is just mind-blowing for 1940 and in general. Instead of the nonstop musicals of the 1990s Disney Renaissance, Dumbo incorporates fanfare, circus-friendly marches and a lot of that “actions timed to music” approach that gives vintage cartoons this magic about them. It goes without saying Dumbo does not talk once in the movie, nor would he need to. If I honestly had to choose best Disney film for sound design so far, Dumbo hands-down had me captivated every moment.
I can see why Dumbo has lived on as a character but not as the film itself. After all, growing up with more singalong-driven Disney films with more heart-felt morals, this circus adventure really doesn’t fit in. Watching Dumbo is about good feelings, warm and bouncing characters trying to be happy in a tough narrative (along with some stereotyped crows), and of course the limitless nature of animation mixed with music. You aren’t being taught to listen to your parents, and you hardly get taught that having huge ears doesn’t make you weird; instead you see animals making the best of the circus and a fascinating world of the daring acts. Watch this movie if you love cartoons for the sake of cartoon imagination and fantastic animation, or if you enjoy the exciting nature of circuses.