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Disney made animated movies that were more artful and sophisticated, but Dumbo is perhaps his most endearing creation. Produced on a rushed schedule to compensate for (among other reasons) disappointing returns on more expensive shows like Fantasia, Dumbo has some of Disney's best character creations. An emotional story built on tragedy and pathos, it nevertheless maintains an optimistic quality. Little Dumbo the elephant is a freak and an outcast. He has a mad, imprisoned mother ... but also faithful friends.
I don't think Dumbo could possibly be made today as children's fare no longer allowed to be this dark. Helen Aberson and Harold Perl's variation on the Ugly Duckling story reminds us of Tod Browning's Freaks. The world presented is cold and merciless, and the story is a succession of extreme emotional states, many of them melancholy. An adorable baby's birth defect makes him a lost soul in a harsh world. The helpless Dumbo 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 a 'lullaby' musical theme. 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.
By comparison, the mother deer in Bambi is almost aloof to her child. Although Bambi charms us with its portraits of infant animals, Bambi's forest is his natural habitat, and Bambi seems to be partly protected by unseen adult deer. Even if the wild has dangers, he belongs there; 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 the same way they identify with monsters like Frankenstein's creation ... they're both freaks incapable of fully understanding 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 seen by the patrons 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 isn't used to illustrate points in a morality play. Our big-eared elephant baby needs the courage to discover that he has value, that he's not a pariah.
Fortunately for Dumbo, he has a True Pal. Timothy mouse sympathizes with the tubby elephant and helps him understand his emotions. Timothy does his buddy favors with a little honest trickery and runs interference with the local riff-raff. He also inadvertently introduces Dumbo to the joy of -- liquor!
The best thing about early Disney is the absence of politically correct etiquette. The Seven Dwarfs were little scamps, and Pinocchio a misguided fool without his human conscience. Dumbo is tutored by the easy-going Timothy. This mouse is a circus cynic who knows that when things go bad, the best course of action can be to just relax and say the Hell with it. Dumbo's life-changing event isn't a physical ordeal or a spiritual awakening --- it's a good old-fashioned toot, a Lost Weekend. Both he and Timothy are (accidentally) knocked for a loop by a water bucket spiked with booze, and 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 that no elephant could possibly climb, and 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.
The logical moral lesson of Dumbo, therefore, is You have to turn on if you want to fly. Imagine how a movie for tiny tots would be received today, if it preached that a young skateboard wanna-be could become a champ by smoking dope! 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 willing to pick on a clown like Dumbo. They're also amiable and encouraging ... they're Dumbo's friends too. After all, they share a talent with the little elephant -- an ability to fly. That's a major part of the Crows' hipster 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 best circus movie ever made, even though it's an animated cartoon. The music celebrates the strange circus atmosphere while also underlining the fact that there's something screwy about it. The clowns are a bunch of unfunny jerks, and the big boss is a preening goofball. Most of the animals are bored by everything but their 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. From Casey Jr., the Little Engine that Could, to the roustabouts erecting the big tent each number has a distinct mood and a musical challenge. The lyrics of the lullaby Baby Mine elicits tears by discouraging them. Pink Elephants on Parade is the "artsy" mix of weird styles that betters most of the entries in Fantasia. And the Crows' number, When I See an Elephant Fly has never been touched for verbal spirit and cleverness -- the lyrics are better than the clever rhymes in the Wizard of Oz songs.
Dumbo succeeds through emotional honesty and beautiful character animation of childhood emotions. It isn't motivated by outsized technical or aesthetic ambitions, and simply allows the enormous Disney talent to express itself in a straightforward manner. It's Savant's favorite Disney animated picture.
Disney DVD's Big Top Edition of Dumbo is a re-formatting of the 2000 "60th Anniversary Edition" with slightly different extras. Menus and artwork are changed but similar. The menu animation moves a bit faster, thankfully, but evil marketers have invented a new initial title page called Fast Play that gives us the same old choices: We can find and hit a menu button (an active choice) and go to the disc menu (more work), or do nothing (the passive choice) and go the 'fast play' route ... which still means sitting through four or five promos and trailers to get to the feature. The more things change ....
The transfer appears to be unchanged although compression quality may have improved in the last six years; the feature starts with the same RKO logo that was missing from some earlier VHS versions. I don't know the movie well enough to say whether it's been cleaned up digitally, but I did see quite a number of original animation 'rough edges' that convince me that the picture hasn't been grossly re-painted.
The extras are the same, and different. The full list is below. John Canemaker's commentary is good but stresses personnel bios and who-animated-what details over feature and story analysis. A sound design demo and a Michael Crawford music video have been dropped, and some games and two cartoons added.
One of the unwelcome promos is for Dumbo II. They didn't use Savant's fabulous sequel idea that updates the story to fit today's political realities. Baby Dumbo and a hyphenated mouse buddy called A.C.L.U. rescue lovable Mrs. Jumbo from the torture chamber of a Vincent Price-like Grand Inquisitor. I call it Pit and the Pachyderm and my literary agent is accepting all inquiries.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. A mystery that's 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. The crows appeared once or twice earlier to serve as a mocking chorus, commenting on the dowager elephants and the pitiful Dumbo. Looking at the film with this in mind we see plenty of abrupt blackouts and music cuts to make this idea possible. I also remember looking up Dumbo in the 1941 Film Almanac at the research library, and seeing a running time longer than the present print of 64 minutes. I've put this issue into a footnote because I'm willing to believe that a.) The whole thing is just Hooey, or b) Some basic book on Disney animation 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 thought the basic idea was sound. Dumbo is almost perfectly structured, and having the crows show up only for the 'magic feather' scene -- when they're already seemingly hip to the little Elephant's state of disgrace -- looks suspicious.