Dumbo (1941) Review
What do I know about the film?
After both ‘Fantasia’ and ‘Pinocchio’ made a loss, the team working on ‘Dumbo’ were told to keep things cheap and simple while the Walt Disney Studios tried to claw some money back. The lavish detail that set the previous three films apart from art being produced in that era? Gone. In order to keep the studio from losing more cash, they reverted back to water colours rather than oil paint and gouache. And the story? Came from an idea for a children’s book.
Disney was not enthralled by the concept and as a result, somewhat aptly given the plot, ‘Dumbo’ was not one of his favourite children. It probably didn’t help that there was a staff strike during production meaning the cosy Disney family vibe was somewhat taut at the time.
But trust Disney to give us a happy ending…Dumbo made more money than both ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ combined despite a shorter run at the cinema due to America entering the war. Ok, so maybe not a ‘happy’ ending. But you know…They got some money. And that must have been nice. I would like some money.
Did I see it as a child?
I did. I liked it, I was easily pleased and this film had animals doing things, but I did not own it and would not have named it a favourite…However I watched it a few years ago on a whim and was astonished at how short it is. 64 minutes.
Apparently the distributors of the time were equally confused figuring that the film would be over by the time everyone had settled in with their malteasers (or whatever old timey snacks people were enjoying in 1941). So the studio was faced with an ultimatum: Make it a shorter B movie or a longer full length feature. Walt Disney chose neither. And nobody argued with him. So 64 minutes it remains. Making their ultimatum seem like something of a time waster, really. Almost as if it is only mentioned now to add drama to a fairly straightforward cinematic release…
The setting is a travelling circus where baby animals are regularly dropped off by storks. An elephant named Mrs Jumbo is waiting anxiously for her child and is thrilled when a fairly inept stork finally arrives with the adorable Jumbo Jr. However her fellow elephants are both horrified and amused that her son has massive ears. Things only get harder for little Jumbo Jr when his Mother is put in solitary confinement after defending him against a mean human, and he is left ostracised from his kind with only a New York mouse and booze for company. After a particularly frightening bender the elephant and the mouse wake up in a tree, we’ve all done it, and wonder how exactly they got up there…
‘Toy Story’ creator and Pixar head honcho John Lasseter calls ‘Dumbo’ the perfect film, justifying his claim by pointing out how it manages to be both heartfelt and tight. It is hard to dispute this. By not having to focus as much on design, scale or breaking new ground, the Walt Disney Studios produced a first for them: A truly nuanced, loveable and heart breaking eponymous character. And here is the true brilliance: Dumbo has no lines. He is the lead in a Disney film and does not speak once. But you will care about him. I fucking dare you not to.
Menacing threats aside: Here is a film where trains are sentient, clowns are still considered legit entertainment and elephants can fly but the dynamics between the characters are recognisable and easy to empathise with. When Jumbo Jr, hereby known as Dumbo cause it is easier, is revealed to have very big ears, the nasty elephant clique turn from cooing to mocking in an instant. When Mrs Jumbo slaps one of their nasty prying trunks away the mean elephant responds in faux outrage: ‘Did I say anything?’
We have ALL been subjected to this kind of bullying. Judgemental people (elephants) who think their ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of and it is you, the judged, who should be ashamed. As the film progresses they seem to take real vindictive pleasure in the fall of Mrs Jumbo, gossiping about how terrible it is while sounding all gleeful. And when they feel Dumbo has disgraced the reputation of elephants everywhere by having big ears and working with clowns (even elephants know clowns frickin’ blow) they are quick to send him to Coventry. The innocent kidling who misses his Mum. Nice, Girls. In ‘Dumbo’ when a character is down, they get kicked. And it is kind of painful.
Why is it painful? Because as I mentioned it feels real but it only works because Dumbo is so charming. They could have given him dialogue and hired some cutesy kid to have him say: ‘I miss my momma’ to pull at your heartstrings but the character conveys everything with his expressive little face. A scene where Mrs Jumbo gives Dumbo a bath and they have a lovely time is a wonderful example of that great script writing rule: SHOW don’t TELL. They earn the angst when the two are separated because the bonding feels so real and very sweet. By getting me to care about a Mother/Son pairing within 60 minutes with no words spoken between them, The Best Actor Oscar in 1942 should have gone to the animators of Dumbo. Sorry Gary Cooper.
All the music is terrific from beginning to end, with stand outs being the pun-tastic ‘When I see an Elephant Fly’ the brilliantly jaunty ‘Casey Jr’ and the devastatingly poignant ‘Baby Mine.’ Oh Lord, that song. Dumbo visits his Mammy but they can’t give each other a hug as Mrs Jumbo is chained up so their trunks interlock instead as she rocks her baby back and forth…oh dear God I’m off.
The reason this is so effective is it preys on a fundamental truth as Dumbo sobs into his Mummy’s trunk: we all need our family to look after us. As it cut to all the other circus families my heart just kept getting bigger: Hyenas’ laugh in their sleep! Hippos blow bubbles! A Kangaroo is an excellent rocking chair! And then Mrs Jumbo waves goodbye through the bars with her trunk even moving to the other gap to wave from the other side…oh god…can’t…see…through…tears…This isn’t for comic effect. I am actually crying so much it burns a bit. Is that normal?
Despite the economic restraints imposed on the story telling team, there are some delightfully creative moments including the storks viewing the world as a map from the sky, the jaded circus animals and the infamously surreal and oddly hypnotic Pink Elephants on Parade sequence. It comes right out of nowhere and adds nothing to the, already very short, story but dam it if it isn’t great to watch if only to turn to your viewing companions to shrug in mutual confusion.
So the film is heartfelt and skilfully compiled but is there any justification for padding (ie scenes that don’t move the story along) in a 60 minute movie? Well, in my opinion, not really. The story is slight. On the front cover of every VHS/DVD copy of Dumbo I have ever seen he is flying while clutching a ‘magic feather’ a placebo given to him by kindly crows. You know when the flying elephant plot point is introduced? 50 minutes in. There is no time for a training montage. His Mouse friend, Timothy, suggests he may be able to fly, Dumbo tries to fly and finds he can. THE END!
But the plot does not matter. This is not the story of an elephant who learns to fly but a sweet, likeable protagonist overcoming a bad lot in life. The bad lot he overcomes isn’t even his ears but what people say about them. Even the name, Dumbo, is a cruel nickname gifted to him by his attackers. And yet it is the name of the film and the name that has endured. Did you even know his name was Jumbo Jr? After an embarrassingly poor show in a pub quiz several years ago, I found out I didn’t. I think I guessed his real name was George or Arthur or something.
So if we all call him Dumbo, do the bullies win? No. Dumbo owns his name. Being Dumbo is what makes him different, and he learns to take it and use it to change his life for the better. Is there a better message for those who have faced persecution for no decent reason? Not bad for a 64 minute film.
What Doesn’t Work:
As I mentioned the story is a bit thin and Dumbo discovering he can fly happens insanely fast meaning that while it does not outstay its welcome, praise for the film being well plotted or flawless is a bit baffling to me. As I have explained this is by no means a major complaint but if the famous film critics who heap praise on the pace would just take off their rose tinted specs they might see it a little differently.
Also while the balance of light and shade is pretty good, there is a mean streak running through the film that I often found quite hard to stomach. For example the clowns who go to their boss to get a raise represent the staff at Disney who were on strike while making this film. This is a great example of a scene that isn’t needed that made me uncomfortable. I have no trouble believing conditions at Disney were often unpleasant back then and to insert a scene in a cartoon about elephants that comments on greedy staff wanting more money seems really unnecessary and disrespectful. Speaking of which…
You knew it was coming. The crows. ‘The crows?’ Those of you who have not revisited the film since childhood might be thinking, ‘Could you mean the fun loving gang of pun enthusiasts who help give Dumbo the confidence he needs to fly? What could be disrespectful about that?’ Well…If you take it at face value…Nothing. They are great characters and actually better sidekicks to Dumbo than his constant companion Timothy, who I found to be a considerably less winning version of Jiminy Cricket. You COULD even argue that people who claim that the crows are negative stereotypes are reading too much into it. But they just had to go and name the leader of the gang Jim Crow didn’t they?
For my readers who never did first year Theatre Studies at Glasgow Uni (well done for making better life choices than me) I will give a brief and possibly inaccurate explanation: Jim Crow was the archetypical slave character as performed in the 1800’s Minstrel Shows. Minstrel Shows consisted mostly of white people blacking up and taking the piss out of black people by portraying them as slow witted and superstitious but dam happy to be there. The happiness was often communicated through famous song and dance numbers including one called ‘Jump Jim Crow.’ The character, the song and the dance were created by a dude called Thomas Rice who is referred to as the Father of American minstrelsy. He is well known.
So with that in mind, only the most determined of Disney apologists could argue that the crows are not stereotypes of Black Americans. Most of the crows are performed by black choir members but Jim Crow is played by the same voice actor as Jiminy Cricket. In case you were curious he is a white guy putting on his best black voice.
Now does it matter? It was the 40’s you could say. But it ain’t anymore. And while the crows sing well, are good banter and are ultimately on the side of the angels the language, the accents, the name Jim Crow…It is hard to feel comfortable with it.
This is not even the only example of flat out racism (there I said the word!) in ‘Dumbo.’ Early on in the film there is ‘Song of the Roustabouts’ where we see black workers with no facial features singing a traditional working song with lines like: ‘We work all day, we work all night, we never learned to read and write, we’re happy-hearted roustabouts’ So the Disney apologists who whine that the crows are goodies so therefore stereotyping is ok are sort of…well…missing how overt it all is.
This all went over my head until my latest viewing so it has never impacted my enjoyment of the film a huge amount and nor should it. But in a film that says so much about the idiocy of ignorance and bigotry it sure leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
It may not be perfect but it is a joy to see Disney create a protagonist who is warm, loving and believably struggles: All without saying a word. I don’t believe it is possible to watch ‘Dumbo’ and not find something to enjoy even if the more dated aspects of the production leave you squirming. Or even if the Pink Elephants on Parade sequence stops you from sleeping tonight.
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 3
One for when Mrs Jumbo is restrained with chains as Dumbo is taken from her (any parent or child, odds are you are one of the two, has had that nightmare of forced separation) Secondly the awful, awful clowns and third and most obviously the parade. While it didn’t freak me out nearly as much as I was expecting the moment where an elephant made completely of elephant heads is walking on two legs towards the screen I did hide a bit.
Despite all I said about the crows, I really, really enjoy ‘When I see an Elephant Fly.’ Well earned controversy aside the song is catchy, the harmonies are beautiful and the crows are appealing. So it was a hard choice but I had to go with ‘Baby Mine’ because it has had the biggest emotional whollap of any Disney song so far. I usually don’t like songs that are transparently emotionally manipulative or cloying and there is no way I would listen to this without the context of this scene and all we know about these two characters. But still…look at his face at 52 seconds. He never needed words.
Next Time: ‘Your Mother can’t be with you anymore’ Oh yes. It is time for Bambi (1942)