After the incredible success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in December of 1937, Walt netted the company a snazzy $7.5 million. Walt was so blown away by the heap of cash he turned around and invested it right back into the business. First was the construction of a more comfortable, efficient studio on Buena Vista street, and the other was to jump right into three more expensive, special effects-laden films: Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi. Between these three projects, the new studio, a costly artists’ strike in 1941, and a brewing war threatening to cut off a massive chunk of their international grosses, the money depleted rapidly and Walt had only one option: release a film that was inexpensive, and yet successful. Impossible, you say?
Budget: $800,000 (Compared to Snow White’s $1.5 million, and about $14 million by today’s dollar)
Runtime: 64 minutes (The shortest animated feature second only to 1943’s Saludos Amigos at 48 minutes)
Box office return: $1.6 million
Long-term legacy: incalculable
Dumbo was based off a novelty toy called a roll-a-book, an item so rare even the one the studio used to get the idea from is lost to the sands of time. While so much time and money was devoted to the other three projects, Dumbo just skirted through production without much attention paid to it beyond the mandatory checks with Walt. It premiered in October of 1941 and was set to be on the cover of Time Magazine when…
And now the genius/madman who gave us Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and The Nightmare Before Christmas is at it again. In March of 2019, Dumbo will hit the big screen again in full CGI splendor. But before we marvel at what surprises are in store then, let’s put pride in our positive pachyderm protagonists and review the world’s mightiest midget mastodon, Dumbo!
The plot: Born to a circus elephant named Mrs. Jumbo, little Jumbo Junior is welcomed with open hooves… until his massive ears are revealed and the catty lady elephants regale in calling the little freak of nature “Dumbo”.
At first, Dumbo seems to be almost oblivious to the harsh circus life as he learns his duties. But when a punk harasses him, Jumbo retaliates, and is imprisoned. Now alone and heartbroken, Dumbo is even abandoned by his own kind. But his fortunes turn when a spunky mouse named Timothy decides to stand up for the saddened baby elephant, as Timothy also tries to get Dumbo into the circus spotlight. A measure that goes disastrously.
Now made into a prop for the clowns, apart from his mother, and shunned by the circus community, Dumbo needs something colossal that’ll garner the respect and attention of those who mocked his oversized ears.
How’s the writing?: Objectively, the narrative is as flimsy as a Dr. Seuss book. There’s not much to it if you really think about it. Stuff happens, and most pertain to the story in some way, but a lot of it is filler. There’s no need for Casey Junior the circus train to have its own theme song, or the “Song of the Roustabouts” sequence, and of course, the “Pink Elephants on Parade” number are all relatively pointless as moments purposeful to the plot. But you forgive them all because they are so entertaining. While Illumination Entertainment is still struggling to make the The Grinch and The Cat in the Hat entertaining stories that can fulfill at least an hour’s worth of screen time, Dumbo mastered this skill with entertaining moments and character development…in 1941!
The dialogue is extremely effective with one character who doesn’t speak and the other a smart-aleck rodent with a Brooklyn accent. It feels as though the story is told with unconventional perspectives, yet familiar all the same. Each line hits squarely with each character, from the pompous boasts of the ringmaster, the aloof huffs of Matriarch, and the vivacious outbursts of Timothy. With Dumbo’s silence, it feels like the movie knows exactly when to breathe and when to speak.
Does it give the feels?: Absolutely. A huge part of that is Dumbo’s inherent vulnerability. He’s a silent child, a baby animal. The clowns don’t think he has feelings, the gossipy elephants find him abhorrent, and it seems as though even the circus, at best, just completely ignores him. And the film smartly knows to focus on Dumbo’s cute, expressive animation, allowing us to clearly read his emotions, from joy to devastation.
And when “Baby Mine” starts…you’ve been primed right up to that moment. Dumbo is at his lowest; an abandoned baby animal, a punchline for clowns, ostracized by his own kind, and apart from his mother. By the time the maternal chorus starts crooning, her massive trunk slowly slides across his cheek, his massive blue eyes gazing up in adoration, and Dumbo starts to grimace…I’m sorry…I need a minute…
Who made it worth it?: No character is wasted here, each one providing a very specific purpose. It’s tempting to list each one, and of course, the movie wouldn’t be anything without the titular baby elephant, but my favorite character would have to be Timothy Q. Mouse.
It would have been so easy to make Timothy obnoxious. But he’s not an archetype or a pop-culture spouting sidekick. He is a tiny mouse, almost wholly insignificant, but he uses his tiny stature to knock the other elephants down a peg. He skillfully knows how to hack into the ringmaster’s subconscious to give Dumbo a platform. He takes to a stump and minces zero words when a flock of crows make fun of Dumbo. Timothy is Dumbo’s surrogate guardian, even going so far as to bathe him after the messy clown act. For all his tough guy persona, Timothy’s heart is huge and can’t be overlooked.
Best quality provided: For a movie with no tricky cinematography or edgy special effects, Dumbo is incredibly well animated. For one, it was the last movie to be painted with watercolors in the background until Lilo and Stitch 61 years later. It’s lush, yet graceful. Saturated, yet delicate. It looks like a storybook, and makes the vibrant characters in the foreground pop with vivid intensity.
And yet, Dumbo is also, chromatically speaking, a dark movie. From setting up the circus in the rain to hallucinating creepy images, there are plenty of scenes that either take place at night or are up to their necks in deep shadows, which not only make the vibrant circus colors even brighter, but also underline the inherent tragedy and heartbreak of the story. It’s masterful storytelling.
Yet, I’d be remiss if I failed to talk about the infamous “Pink Elephants” sequence in any sort of detail. When I was a kid, those black eyed phantasms with their giddy, yet slightly malicious grins TERRIFIED me. The loud, bombastic, thunderous music, with a plodding, haunting beat, jaunty with trickster energy. Jarring, cacophonous, yet riddled with rhythm and intent. The blank stares with their gaping black eyes. The chanting men’s chorus, the weird solo vocals, the manic visuals…it’s visually overpowering on top of the chaotic music, vocals, and sound effects. Since I’ve grown up, I’ve learned to better appreciate the artistic integrity and the emotional intensity, especially since the emotions it generates are not altogether clear.
What could have been improved: Heresy! You dare presume to allow me to even do much as imply a movie such as this could be better?! Who do I look like, Tim Burton?!
In all seriousness, though, there isn’t much to improve upon here. Anything added or subtracted would be a disservice to the movie. Though I may need to touch upon the infamous crows.
Ever since the beginning, the jive-talking crows have been a point of contention for many championing for the representation of African-Americans. And it isn’t unfounded, even if we consider the lack of malicious intent. After all, the leader is voiced by white person Cliff Edwards (The voice of Jiminy Cricket), and his name, according to various model sheets, is actually “Jim Crow”.
Yeeaaahhh…that’s awkward to the nth degree.
But as a white person, I can’t help but enjoy these characters. They do come around and support Dumbo when the time comes. Their song, “When I see an Elephant Fly” is great cheeky wordplay. Ward Kimball’s animation is fluid and energized. Yeah, the racial stereotypes are there, and they’re troublesome, but they’re at least entertaining. That’s more than can be said about Warner Brother’s censored eleven cartoons, I guess. That’s not saying much, but still…
Verdict: Dumbo is dark, somber, sweet, endearing, manic, slow, funny, and incredible. It’s incredibly unpretentious in its execution and follows through where the emotions take it. Artistically, it’s jaw dropping. Musically, it’s splendid. And again, considering it was made on a budget of only $800,000, while the big boys were slaving over Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi, Dumbo managed to slip through and charm audiences while bringing in the studio a brief financial respite…that’s pretty miraculous. I award it nine magic crow feathers out of ten.
Now here’s hoping Mr. Burton will do the story some justice come 2019.
So long, Glamour Boy!