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Sometimes a studio's best work is produced under pressure, when the goal is competent entertainment, not great art. Walt Disney's first three animated cartoon features pushed forward the limits of film entertainment. The relatively modest Dumbo remains perhaps his most endearing character creation. Produced on a rushed schedule to compensate for (among other reasons) disappointing returns on more expensive shows like Fantasia, Dumbo is an emotional story built on tragedy and pathos that nevertheless maintains an optimistic quality. Little Dumbo the elephant is a freak and an outcast. His mother is persecuted and imprisoned ... but he prevails with the help of faithful friends.
The story for Dumbo elaborates and expands on an existing children's book. Mr. Stork (voice: Sterling Holloway) brings the new baby that circus elephant Mrs. Jumbo has been hoping for. The other elephant ladies, an intolerant bunch, take one look at Jumbo Jr.'s giant ears and rename him Dumbo. Mrs. Jumbo becomes violent protecting Dumbo from some unruly kids and is locked up. Thanks to the suggestions of the circus mouse Timothy, Dumbo is given a chance to play the patsy in a show with some cruel clowns. Deprived of his mother, he's insecure and fearful.
I don't think Dumbo could possibly be made today; children's fare is no longer allowed to be this dark. Helen Aberson and Harold Perl's variation on the Ugly Duckling story isn't all that different from Tod Browning's Freaks. The world presented to little Jumbo Jr. is cold and merciless, and his experience is a series of extreme emotional states, many of them melancholy. An adorable baby's birth defect makes Dumbo a lost soul in a harsh world. The helpless baby elephant suffers abandonment and separation. The other circus elephants shun him and the circus clowns treat him as a punching bag: "Elephants don't have feelings." "Aww -- they're made of rubber!"
Dumbo apparently hasn't had enough time with his mother to learn to talk, and she is given only one dialogue line. Mrs. Jumbo and her baby communicate solely through facial expressions and affectionate play. It's one of the most idealized mother-baby relationships anywhere, amplified by an irresistible maternal 'lullaby'. Dumbo and his mother represent the perfect human state of unconditional love; every viewer recognizes this immediately. Part of the mystery of existence is wondering why the rest of life can't remain as idyllic.
In comparison to Mrs. Jumbo the mother deer in Bambi is almost aloof to her fawn. Although Bambi charms us with its portraits of infant animals, the wild forest is the fawn's natural habitat, and he seems to be partly protected by unseen adult deer. Despite its dangers Bambi belongs in the wild; the whole point of that story is that animals all have their place in Nature.
Dumbo lives a continent away from his natural habitat, adrift in the weird alien world of the circus -- he doesn't belong anywhere, and his only family has been taken from him. Children identify with Dumbo in much the same way they identify with Frankenstein's monster. Both are freaks that never quite understand the world around them. Kids feel that way all the time.
Dumbo also establishes its world as decadent and deceiving. The outwardly jolly and frivolous circus life hides backbreaking work and long and lonely railroad trips. The circus the patrons see is just a facade. Behind the canvas, it's all personalities, gossip and cruel injustice.
Baby Dumbo is badly in need of guidance. Unlike the Original Sin allegory Pinocchio, Dumbo's suffering does not illustrate a point in a morality play. Our big-eared elephant baby simply needs the courage to discover that he has value, that he's not a pariah.
Fortunately for him, Dumbo has one True Pal. Timothy mouse sympathizes with the tubby elephant and helps him understand his emotions. The mouse does his buddy favors with a little honest trickery and runs interference with the local riff-raff. Timothy also inadvertently introduces Dumbo to the joy of -- liquor!
The best thing about early Disney features is the refreshing absence of politically correct etiquette. The Seven Dwarfs were little scamps, and Pinocchio without his human conscience is a misguided fool. Dumbo is tutored in self-confidence by the easygoing Timothy. This mouse is a circus cynic who knows that when things go bad, the best course of action is to just relax and say the Hell with it. Dumbo's personal life-changing event isn't a physical ordeal or a spiritual awakening --- it's a good old-fashioned toot, a Lost Weekend. Knocked for a loop by a water bucket spiked with booze, Dumbo is transported literally Out of This World into the phantasmagoria of Pink Elephants on Parade, the best and weirdest surreal nightmare since the Lullabye of Broadway.
In the morning both Timothy and Dumbo awaken high in a tree no elephant could possibly climb, so there's only way he could have gotten up there. In the course of one night, our hero goes from miserable loser to Power Pachyderm.
It may be totally inadvertent, but Dumbo does have a logical moral lesson: If you want to fly, you have to turn on. Imagine how a movie for tiny tots would be received today if it preached that a young skateboard wannabe could become a champ by smoking marijuana! Dumbo just needed to be distracted from his morbid self-attention long enough to discover his secret inner talent ... and booze seems to have done the trick nicely.
The other delightful non-P.C. element in Dumbo are the pack of crows voiced by Cliff Edwards, Hall Johnson and his choir. They're obviously a bunch of jive-talking blacks, yet they transcend typical filmic stereotypes. The circus animals are the ones in captivity, while the Crows live as loitering layabouts ... uh, "free spirits." They're smart, cool and enjoy picking on a clown like Dumbo. They're also amiable and encouraging ... they're Dumbo's friends as well. After all, they share a talent with the little elephant -- an ability to fly. That freedom is a major part of the Crows' jive attitude, and they see nothing wrong with using a little "Cology ... Psy -chology" to help a fledgling fellow flier into the air. 1
Dumbo is probably the most exuberant circus movie ever made, even though it's an animated cartoon. The music celebrates the circus atmosphere while also underlining its slightly demented quality. The clowns are a bunch of unfunny jerks, and the big boss is a preening goofball. Most of the animals seem bored by everything but their own offspring. Only occasionally are we invited to take a spectator's POV; the rest of the time we're being shown the reality behind the pomp and show.
The music of Dumbo is marvelous. Each number takes on a distinct mood, from the roustabouts erecting the big tent to Casey Jr., the original Little Engine that Could. The lyrics of the lullaby Baby Mine elicit tears. Pink Elephants on Parade is the "artsy" mix of weird styles that betters most of the entries in Fantasia: dig the half-second of animated noise that imitates early television static. The Crows' number When I See an Elephant Fly has yet to be touched for verbal spirit and cleverness -- the lyrics equal the clever rhymes in the Wizard of Oz songs.
Dumbo isn't energized by outsized technical or aesthetic ambitions; it succeeds through emotional honesty and character animation that expresses the wonderful innocence of childhood emotions. It allows the Disney talent pool to express itself in a straightforward manner. It is this reviewer's favorite Disney animated picture.
Disney Blu-ray's 70th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray of Dumbo appears to be a new transfer of this wondrous show. The visuals are tops in every conceivable way, with the main advantage over earlier DVD presentations (which looked quite good) being that all of the watercolor background artwork looks even better. The audio is of course more robust. The picture was always in fine shape on home video presentations (I think this was the first VHS I ever rented, back in 1980) but now it is more stable and rich than ever. This package also contains a DVD feature disc with a slightly smaller array of extras.
All of the old extras from the earlier DVD releases (2000's 60th Anniversary and 2006's Big Top Edition) appear to be here, along with some new HD docus. The new making-of docu Taking Flight is a handsome and informative (and lengthy) piece that goes fairly deeply into the politics that convinced Disney to make a less artistically ambitious feature: the relative poor performance of his last two animated offerings, the war economy, and labor issues. The docu is fairly open about Disney's labor problems, which in some ways reduced his desire to continue with challenging animation projects.
As soon as they can handle the emotional shock of seeing Mrs. Jumbo chained and unhappy, Dumbo will be the perfect Disney fare for small fry. I have fond memories of showing it to my children, and singing along with them -- every time I watch the film and remember their delight, I feel like a kid again too.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dumbo Blu-ray rates:
1. A mystery has bothered Savant since 1972, when UCLA associate professor Bob Epstein showed us an original print of Dumbo at UCLA: Epstein said that the show was originally a couple of minutes longer. He claimed that the crows appeared once or twice earlier to serve as a mocking chorus, commenting on the gossipy elephants and the pitiful Dumbo. Looking at the film with this in mind we see plenty of abrupt blackouts and music cuts where excised footage might once have been. The original Boxoffice listing for Dumbo is not conclusive -- it gives a running time of 65 minutes, the new box says 64 and elsewhere the length is identified as 63.
I've put this issue into a footnote because I'm willing to believe that a.) The whole issue is just Hooey, or b) Some basic book on Disney animation already has a simple answer to my question. Savant has read a few books on Disney but certainly not all of them. Just the same, I've always wondered about the Crows not showing up until the hangover scene. Dumbo is almost perfectly structured, and the crows' arrival seems suspiciously abrupt. They're already seemingly hip to the little elephant's state of disgrace.
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T'was Ever Thus.