Dumbo is one of the most beloved Disney animations. It was also the movie to help Disney out of its run of financial losses. This is somewhat surprising due to the team working on the film were the B-team, as the A-team was working on Bambi. Dumbo was a more economical film to make after the excessive budgets that weren’t profitable in Pinocchio and Fantasia. It helped that Dumbo was only sixty-four minutes long. Audiences loved Dumbo for its simple storytelling and emotional attachment. Considering it was a financial success without much international distribution says something to the impact it had at the time.
Dumbo starts with a moving scene showing cranes delivering babies to all the animals, all except Mrs Jumbo. Sadly, Mrs Jumbo gets on the train the next day along with the entire circus to move onto the next location. By luck, the crane that was carrying Mrs Jumbo’s baby spots the train and unites the two. Once the bundle is unwrapped revealing the young elephant the cute ques turn quickly to dismay from the crowd of elephants once they see his ears are huge. The name Dumbo is given by those elephants quickly to the tears of Mrs Jumbo, who loves her baby wholeheartedly. The teasing soon proves to be too much for Mrs Jumbo as they open the circus at the next town and Dumbo is teased relentlessly by the visitors. Mrs Jumbo in a fit of rage tears the place down and earns herself exile from the show and away from Dumbo. Like Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio before, Timothy Mouse makes it his mission to help Dumbo through these hard times and tries to excel him. After a bad start, Dumbo ends up as the star in a clown act that mocks him further. In one of the most memorable scenes, Timothy Mouse and Dumbo try picking themselves up, however, the pick-me-up seems rather literal as they become intoxicated and see “Pink Elephants”. The morning after they find themselves at the height of a tall tree that they realise Dumbo flew up. And here our story ends with Dumbo’s ears being the most incredible trait as he can soar through the air, and finds himself in stardom and reunited with Mrs Jumbo.
After what has come before, Dumbo is cheaply made. The story may be rich with merit, however, the animation is largely simple and undetailed. There are massive blocks of scenes that are as if they could have been coloured in by the way of a colouring-in book. For example, a scene where all the elephants are gossiping is filled with just flat grey bodies, with only minute detail on the trunk and face, leaving no detail of depth to the body. Dumbo by today’s standards would be a straight to video release, much like the Disney animated sequels that were plentiful in the 90s and 2000s.
The story to this day has continued to resonate with audiences and just this year a live-action film was released. However, time has not been completely kind to the film as more and more critics find controversy in the crow sequence near the end (atop the tree with Dumbo), for portraying African American stereotypes. It’s easy to see why Disney is the target of this sort of thing when they are by all purposes a family-friendly company. I have no qualms with it as it is timely to that era. With the release of Song of the South only a few years later, critics have reason to criticise the scene. The scene was going to be cut or reconfigured to edit out the crows with the release of Disney Plus, and thank goodness they had the sense to not go through with it.
Dumbo is a really short story that goes by in a breeze, but I think more could have been added to the film, so I’m curious what they added in the live-action film to almost double the screen time. Whatever the case Dumbo is a good wholesome film.
What do you think of it overall?
Previously The Reluctant Dragon
3 thoughts on “Dumbo (1941)”
I certainly remember watching the original Dumbo movie when I was a kid. When I worked at a music and film festival one summer years ago, I was the a/v coordinator of the children’s version of the film festival. I was told by the director we would have an old-school Disney night and Dumbo was one of the films I got that day. Watching it as an adult made me extremely uncomfortable when it got to the Song of the Roustabouts (notice how they are faceless black people singing about not knowing how to read or write) and the crows. What I didn’t realize until then was that the lead crow’s name was Jim and that legit offended me on so many levels. It’s a shame that Disney uses racist stereotypes even in non-human characters like the Siamese cats in Lady & The Tramp, Tito from Oliver & Company, or even the hyenas in The Lion King. It does annoy me how people wandwave the bigotry away because it’s Disney and the company can do no wrong in their eyes.