Comparisons can be odious. Dumbo is flanked on either side by Fantasia and Bambi, films which represented earnest attempts by Disney to push the limits of what could be done in animation. The studio’s fourth feature film has the more modest goal of taking your money and entertaining you for an hour. Compared to them, Dumbo inevitably disappoints. But taken by itself, the flick is pretty swell.
After Pinocchio and Fantasia flopped, the studio (again) faced the prospect of bankruptcy. The next film needed to be a hit if they didn’t want to go the way of the Dodo. So Walt was cajoled into making Dumbo, a film which would be both cheap and accessible.
Clocking in at a little over an hour, Dumbo‘s story is slight stuff: Mrs. Jumbo, a circus elephant, has a son delivered by Mr. Stork with abnormally large ears, which nets him the moniker, “Dumbo.” He gets ostracized by the other elephants, and, when he mother attempts to defend him from some children, gets separated from her too. A mouse called Timothy Q. Mouse takes pity on him and strikes up a friendship. They eventually discover that Dumbo’s large ears enables him to fly, and so the duo enter into a life of fame and fortune.
I can’t help but note how Dumbo lays the groundwork for almost every children’s movie about a misfit talking animal – a plot which I had wearied of long before adulthood. It seems as if I should like this movie a lot less than I do. But when I put it on, all my misgivings about its overused tropes melt away. I’m trying to think about why.
The first reason is that Dumbo doesn’t talk. If we’re being frank, one of the biggest problems these sorts of movies have is a protagonist who is either insufferably annoying or insufferably bland. As a silent character, Dumbo never sheds the infant qualities that make the audience feeling protective about him. Call it emotional manipulation, but it works.
The second is that the cheapness and dialed down pretensions actually work to Dumbo‘s advantage. The simple, watercolour animation gives a cartoony counterbalance to the film’s more maudlin elements. None of it will make you gasp, but it’s charming in its own way, and filled with little gags, like the circus train being the Little Train That Could, or the bird’s-eye-view shots looking like a map of America.
A third reason is that Dumbo knows not to overstay its welcome. Modern audiences would likely find an hour’s run-time to not be much bang for their buck (and with modern ticket prices the way they are, I can’t blame them), but the alternatives would be to either stew in Dumbo’s misery for another half-hour, which would become intolerable fast, or to expand it into a two hour film thus: Dumbo discovering his talent becomes the first act; the second has fame getting to his head; some crisis in the third humbles him as he relearns the values of friendship and family or some such thing. And that sounds kinda boring.
There are a couple of elephants in the room (pardon the pun). One is the Pink Elephants on Parade Sequence, where Dumbo and Timothy accidentally get drunk and start hallucinating. It’s justly infamous for being really weird and out of step with the rest of the film; but it also features Dumbo‘s most creative animation. There’s little rhyme or reason to it besides, “let’s give Frank Thomas & co. something fun to do,” but I couldn’t imagine the film without it.
Another is that the 1941 animator’s strike was underway, and Disney decided to caricature some of his striking employees in the form of some clowns. It doesn’t affect anything aside from a reminder that, yeah, there were some serious axes being ground in the studio at the time.
Lastly, the crows. A lot of controversy has raised over some crows that Dumbo meets late in the movie, which are taken to be racist caricatures of African Americans. And, although the crows are some of the more sympathetic characters in the movie, and were mostly voiced by black actors, it’s true that they’re kinda racially insensitive by modern standards. But I don’t think it’s worth getting into a moral huff over the attitudes found in a movie that’s over seventy years old.
Anyway, Dumbo did what it was supposed to do: make a lot of money and help keep Disney afloat. Thus Bambi could see its way to completion, and the company could continue its march towards one day owning Marvel and Star Wars, and doing bizarre crossover stuff with Square Enix. A worthy legacy for the little guy? You decide.