Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Screenplay: Joe Grant, Dick Huemer
Based On A Book By: Helen Aberson
Producers: Walt Disney
Starring: Edward Brophy, Cliff Edwards, Herman Bing
Year: 1941
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: U
Duration: 64 min

Since it began making feature length animated cartoons back in the 1930s, the Walt Disney studio has created some of the most memorable and artistically remarkable films of all time. Although there have been numerous high points, critics generally cite the “golden age” of Walt Disney feature animation as the six year period between 1937 and 1942. This era takes in the groundbreaking debut feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the ante-upping Pinocchio, the aspirational high-art excursion of Fantasia and the breathtaking experiment in realistic animal animation of Bambi. All these films have their merits but my favourite of the five golden age Disney features is undoubtedly Dumbo.

The roots of Dumbo are easily detected in the early Silly Symphonies, a series of acclaimed shorts made by Disney throughout the 30s. Luxurious, colourful affairs, the Silly Symphonies were often endearingly cartoony but as the series progressed, Disney characteristically pushed the creative envelope, resulting in sumptuous artistic experiments like The Old Mill, a crucial stepping-stone towards the style employed in films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Bambi. The Silly Symphonies quickly gave way to the features and the cartoonish style of the early entries in the series was largely usurped by a heightened artistic sophistication. While this resulted in some of the most breathtaking films ever made, there is also an element of fun that is lost as the studios efforts get loftier. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no arguing with Snow White… or Pinocchio but Fantasia constantly wobbles between jaw-dropping beauty, nauseating kitsch and tedious excess.

The commercial failure of the very expensive Pinocchio and Fantasia left Disney in bad need of a hit. The admirable artistic ambition was kept alive by the continual development of Bambi but, in the meantime, another Disney unit was given the go-ahead to begin working on an adaptation of a little known children’s story by Helen Aberson about a big-eared elephant. In contrast with the studios previous productions, Dumbo was envisioned as a simple and inexpensive project that would eschew the intricacies of Fantasia et al. The result of this was the welcome return of the warm, caricatured style of the most charming Silly Symphonies, a “back to basics” approach that was welcomed by both critics and audiences alike. Less emphasis on groundbreaking artwork allowed animators to focus more closely on storytelling and character development, which instills a glorious warmth in Dumbo which is less evident in the films that surround it.

The story of Dumbo is incredibly simple. A baby elephant with extremely big ears is seperated from his mother when her attempts to protect him from bullies are taken for a mad rampage. Rejected by the other elephants, the baby (cruelly nicknamed Dumbo) is befriended by a mouse who helps him turn his affliction into an asset and reunite with his mother. With such a simple plotline, Dumbo is perhaps inevitably one of Disney’s shortest features and only just passes the hour mark. However, this feels more like an artistic decision than a neccesity because Dumbo is so close to perfect that there is nothing you could add to or take away from it that would improve it in any way. The brief runtime heightens the sense that Dumbo owes much to the Silly Symphonies and it comes across as a particularly beautiful, elongated entry into that series.

Although I’ve acknowledged several times that Dumbo was a cheaper, less visually-intricate work, that does not mean it is by any means less gorgeous than its predecessors. The film is a feast of uplifting, bright colours, busy, energetic sequences and surreal experimentalism that are delivered in bitesize chunks which gel effortlessly into one glorious whole. One of the major achievements for which Dumbo is celebrated is the character animation. The crowning glory in this respect is Dumbo himself, who is the only Disney protagonist who remains silent for the entirety of their starring role. Consequently, much needs to be communicated through Dumbo’s expressions and actions in order to ensure he is a fully fledged character rather than just a prop. This is achieved with aplomb, so that Dumbo’s initial “awwwww” inspiring appearance quickly melts into an expressive, empathetic, fully-rounded personality. Dumbo’s mother is similarly silent (she speaks once and then forever holds her peace) but the relationship between her and her offspring is all the more touching and palpable for it. The famous scene in which she cradles her son in her trunk through the bars of her cage is at once more heart-rending than a million murdered Bambi-mothers or trampled Simba-fathers!

With such silent main characters, Dumbo requires a strong, vocal supporting cast and it keeps the memorable characters coming in a constant stream. Timothy Mouse, who befriends Dumbo and is the driving force behind moving the plot forward, is the second in a long line of Disney’s little helpers which began with Jiminy Cricket. Cockier and less folksy than his predecessor, Timothy spends much of the film spouting a monologue punctuated by Dumbo’s reactions. Timothy is a relentlessly positive character and his presence on screen keeps the film lively. On the flipside, the shockingly cruel pack of gossipy female elephants are a brutally negative force in the story and will be familiar to anyone who has ever been bullied just for being different. The other most memorable characters are birds whose appearances bookend the film. Sterling Holloway, a Disney legend, makes his Disney debut here as the voice of Mr. Stork, who delivers Dumbo to his mother at the beginning of the film. Holloway’s unusual and instantly recognisable voice would be a magical presence in many subsequent Disney films including the roles of Kaa in The Jungle Book, the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh in his various appearances and a variation on his Dumbo character in the classic 1951 Disney short Lambert, the Sheepish Lion.

But it is the bird characters who appear at the end of Dumbo who are most widely discussed. The gang of crows, who intially laugh off Timothy’s assertion that Dumbo can fly and subsequently act as flying mentors to the elephant, are partially remembered so well because they are superbly energetic, funny and likeable characters. But more often than not the crows are discussed solely in the context of racism, since they are depicted as an African American musical group who speak in a stereotypical patois. Racial stereotyping was commonplace during animation’s golden age but this is too often used as an excuse for some occasionally horrendous racism. However, the crows in Dumbo are characters I would certainly defend. Far from resembling the big-lipped, bug-eyed grotesques that animators so often resorted to when depicting black characters, the crows are attractively rendered cartoon birds and their shtick is based heavily on the sort of musical performances and jokey interplay on recordings by African American artists of the day. This whole sequence is specifically an homage to a certain trend in 40s music and as such is a relatively respectful, even admiring segment of the film. Of course, there are legitimate complications raised by the fact that the main crow is voiced by a white actor (Cliff Edwards, the voice of Jiminy Cricket) and that he has been named Jim Crow (after the Jim Crow Laws, segregation laws enacted in Southern America). While this character name does highlight the outsider status of the crows and its crucial narrative similarity with Dumbo’s enforced isolation, packaging it in the form of a jokey pun is in questionable taste. But ultimately the crows are depicted in a more postive light than the majority of characters in the film and their intervention is instrumental in encouraging Dumbo to unlock his potential.

The crows sequence at the end of the film helps Dumbo pick up a real head of steam in its final reel. Much credit must be given to one of the greatest Disney songs ever, the lyrically smart and musically infectious When I See an Elephant Fly, a delerious show-stopper amongst a largely subtle musical selection. The wonderful music in Dumbo tends to be almost incidental, occuring alongside narrative action rather than interrupting it. The marvellously upbeat Casey Junior theme which accompanies appearances by the titular personified train is a strong example. Another of the most celebrated sequences in Dumbo, however, breaks completely from this trend and takes the film off in a weird, compellingly surreal direction. Like a film within a film, the Pink Elephants on Parade segment focuses on a drunken nightmare shared by Dumbo and Timothy after they accidentally drink alcohol. Suddenly the focus shifts to stylised, multiplying, shape-shifting elephants with frighteningly hollow eyes. Often described as proto-psychedelic, the Pink Elephants on Parade musical number is a prime example of how keeping things simple and inexpensive at Disney studios did not necessarily mean sacrificing innovation. The appearance of this startling and sometimes spooky passage directly before the appearance of the crows and When I See an Elephant Fly makes the ending of Dumbo one of the paciest and most unusual of all Disney’s features.

Practically any review of Dumbo you can find will mention the crows, the pink elephants and other famous moments such as the Baby Mine trunk-cradling sequence or the Look Out for Mr. Stork opening number but to get caught up in these numerous highlights is to sell Dumbo short. Remember I stated early in this review that Dumbo is virtually perfect and that is not a label I apply lightly. That means that there is no padding whatsoever and the consistency of Dumbo‘s brilliance means there are numerous sequences that usually go unmentioned. For instance, Dumbo frequently uses a fiendishly clever trick of portraying its human characters as silhouettes behind circus tents. We are placed in the role of voyeurs and eaves-droppers, glimpsing the world of human circus performers from the point of view of animals kept outside. The clever use of lighting allows us to view multiple layers of the characters costumes, such as a clown’s human head which is visible in silhoutte through his fake elephant-head mask. Also hidden in these sequences is an allusion to the bitter strikes that were occuring at Disney Studios at the time of Dumbo‘s creation. The clowns are depicted as caricatures of the strikers, going to “hit the big boss for a raise”. Another great sequence involving the clowns is Dumbo’s first performance as a newly appointed clown. Dumbo is placed in a mock burning building from which the clowns, in the garb of firemen, make various fruitless attempts to rescue him. The frantic animation captures the art of clowning impeccably and whether you find clowns amusing or not (and god knows I don’t!) it’s impossible not to be impressed by the accuracy and energy of this setpiece.

Of the five films that make up Disney’s critical golden age, Dumbo is perhaps the most influential on the style of the studio’s subsequent output. Although a high level of artistry was maintained, humour and character would ultimately become more important in later productions than the perfectionist realism that peaked with Bambi. By the time of his death, Walt Disney himself was emphasising the importance of entertainment, storytelling and character over anything else and, tellingly, his final achievement with this triptych as his mantra was The Jungle Book, another personal favourite of mine. Dumbo‘s ability to please both demanding critics and audiences craving entertainment and escapism speaks of its place as one of the great filmic works of art of the 20th century. Sandwiched between two of Disney’s most ambitious and highfalutin productions, Dumbo is the little cartoon that could. Every one of its 64 minutes is a delight to behold.

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One Response

  1. David Brook

    It’s been a long long time since I saw Dumbo, but it always stuck in my mind as a kid. Even though it was part of the ‘golden age’ as you put it, many critics put this on the bottom rung of that period, but as a child I used to prefer it to those others. It’s definitely time for a rewatch.


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