Directed by Ben Sharpsteen (supervisor)
Baby circus elephant Jumbo Jr. is given the derisive nickname “Dumbo” on account of his big ears. After his mother is locked up for defending him from abuse, he is forced to become a clown. After getting drunk, he learns that he can use his ears to fly. The end.
Dumbo, based on a children’s book by Helen Aberson-Mayer and Harold Pearl, was original slated to be one of Disney’s Silly Symphony shorts. Early during production, however, Disney decided that they wouldn’t be able to do the story justice in a 5-10 minute short, so it got promoted to feature status. Due to Disney’s huge financial losses from Fantasia, director Ben Sharpsteen was given orders to make a quick, simple film to help Disney recoup some of the money. As a result, it’s one of the shortest movies in the Disney animated canon, at just over an hour in length. Thanks to how inexpensive it was (about half as much as Snow White had been), it managed to be the only Disney movie of the 1940s to turn a profit.
I have very mixed feelings about Dumbo. On one hand, what’s here is very well done. The animals are a lot more “cartoony” than pretty much anything we’ve seen so far other than the hippos and gators in Fantasia, but they’re all very expressive and well-animated. Even though Dumbo doesn’t talk himself, he’s still got a lot of personality, as do many of the other characters (especially Timothy Mouse, this film’s Jiminy Cricket stand-in). And the “Pink Elephants” sequence is an all-time masterpiece of surrealism. I’m honestly not sure how they got away with something quite so bizarre in a movie in the 1940s. I can’t think of anything else like it from that time period, except maybe some of the works of Dali and Bunuel.
However, on the other hand, there’s just not enough movie here to really satisfy me. The movie ends right as most movies would be getting started: immediately after Dumbo realizes his special power of flight. It feels like there’s an entire hour of the movie missing. I have yet to see the live-action remake, but from what I hear it actually does fix this, and continues the movie after this point. Still not sure I’ll end up seeing it, but that fact alone makes me more interested in it than most of the other adaptations.
There’s also the issue that the movie is, for the most part, relentlessly sad. Dumbo gets terrorized by, well, pretty much everyone other than Timothy and his mother for the vast majority of the runtime. He’s called names, ostracized from the other elephants, and is forced to not only join the clowns, but risk his life in pointless stunts. The Oscar-nominated song from the film, “Baby Mine,” is sung to him by his mother from her jail cell, as she’s unable to even look at him, only feel for him with her trunk. And this is supposed to be an uplifting movie for kids?
Finally, we need to address the….erm, elephant in the room (I’m sorry). The movie’s most famous song, “When I See an Elephant Fly,” is sung by a chorus of African-American-voiced crows, led by one literally named “Jim Crow” (played by the white Cliff Edwards, the voice of Jiminy Cricket). Now, as several people (including Whoopi Goldberg) have pointed out, the crows (stereotypical coding aside) are actually portrayed very positively, and are pretty much the only characters in the movie who go out of their way to help Dumbo. But I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable during that scene, especially with the knowledge that Song of the South, a movie whose racial politics have aged so badly that Disney won’t even distribute it anymore, was released only five years after Dumbo. I’m a little hesitant to give the company the benefit of the doubt.
I know this review is definitely on the short side, but I found that just didn’t have too much to say about Dumbo. Disney was right in that it wouldn’t have been able to fit into a short, but there’s not enough material present to really make a feature. Maybe it would have been best suited to being an episode of one of Disney’s anthology shows a decade or two later.
Of the four films I’ve watched so far, Dumbo is the only one that I’m overall negative on. I get its place in film history, but I really don’t know that it has all that much rewatch value for me, beyond the “Pink Elephants” sequence. I’ve been pretty lukewarm on the Disney live-action remake trend so far, but I might actually have to seek the live-action Dumbo out to see if it improves on the original any. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t actually think Dumbo is a bad film or anything. But it’s too slight, and way too much of a product of its time, to really hold up to a modern viewing.
Animation: B+ (it’s bright and cartoony, without a lot of the detail of the previous movies. But the “Pink Elephants” sequence more than makes up for it)
Main Characters: C+ (silent protagonists have to work extra to leave an impression, and Dumbo is no Wall-E)
Supporting Characters: B- (We’ve pretty much just got his mom, a low-rent Jiminy Cricket knockoff and the crows)
Villains: C+ (again, not much to see here. A couple of gossipy elephants and some drunk clowns)
Songs: B (Almost entirely for “Pink Elephants”)