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Following the heavy financial losses of both Pinocchio and Fantasia Disney could not afford to spend anywhere near as much money on their next theatrical release. They were in need of a less costly film that would turn over a greater profit. Due to the Second World War cutting off the majority of the European market, the purpose of Dumbo was to bring revenue back to the studio. They were in desperate need of a hit, and if Dumbo turned out to be a failure, the company could potentially have folded. Dumbo’s budget was $950, 000, substantially cheaper than the previous three films!
Aside from the fear of not making a profit, there was a lot of unsettlement at the studio during the making of Dumbo. During the 1930s, many studios had animators going on strike, but Disney had managed to avoid this issue. However in 1941, the leader of the Screen Cartoonists Guild, Herbert Sorrell demanded that Walt Disney sign a salary agreement with the guild. When Walt Disney repeatedly refused and fired one of his highest-paid animators Art Babbitt for his union activities, many of the animators went on strike for five weeks, shortly after rough animation on Dumbo had been completed. Unfortunately, even when the strike was over and issues were resolved, tensions remained high throughout Dumbo’s production process.
The film itself is one of the studio’s shortest ever releases, running at just over sixty minutes. RKO gave Walt Disney an ultimatum, that he could increase the running time to seventy minutes, reduce it to a thirty minute short, or release it as a B-movie. Walt Disney said no to all three, and RKO reluctantly released the film as an A-movie.
Original Trailer Time!
– A terrifying picture of Dumbo’s head looming towards the camera. Forget the Pink Elephants, this will haunt your nightmares
– Hateful images of ugly scary clowns
– ‘A trainload of exciting new characters’ – most of whom are in the trailer about as much as they are in the film
– ‘Casey Junior! The train with a personality!’ – who is here to provide filler and little else!
– The narrator describes the Pink Elephants sequence as ‘delightful’ – I think many would beg to differ. ‘Delightful’ is not exactly your go-to word for that sequence
– The narrator comes dangerously close to spoiling the ending (but thankfully it cuts away just in time)
– ‘Lots of people with big ears are famous’ – this allegedly was a cheeky poke at Clark Gable, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars
As a protagonist Dumbo (or Jumbo Jr.) is unique, being the only non-speaking main character in a Disney film. By this stage non-speaking characters were nothing new – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had Dopey, and Pinocchio had Figaro, Cleo and Gideon – but to have a non-speaking character in the main role was certainly an interesting direction to take. The character succeeds in being suitably sympathetic, being a sweet-natured and bright eyed figure, who is cruelly mistreated by the world around him time and again. Curiously everyone – including his friend Timothy – refers to him by the name Dumbo, even though it was intended as a cruel nickname.
(Special Note from Melissa: YES! What on earth is that about? When the nasty elephant says, ‘Jumbo? You mean Dumbo’, it’s not even clever and yet somehow it sticks. It’s like a joke that no one gets. Yes he is a silent character so ‘dumb’ (as in mute) makes sense, but he has only just been born so of course he has not spoken yet. He has big ears … ‘Dumbo’ obviously! What? Would ‘Big Ears’ not make more sense? Or ‘Floppy’? Or ‘Flappy?’ I know Dumbo is based on a book, but in the context of the film alone, it just seemed to be used only because it rhymes with Jumbo)
The character himself is very like a young baby, unsurprising since he is newly born at the start of the story. The emotions he typically displays are joy, confusion or distress. These emotions are used very effectively within the film’s narrative, and it is very easy to feel sorry for the poor baby elephant who naively smiles away whilst ugly members of the public laugh at him.
The relationship between the baby elephant and his mother, Mrs Jumbo, is one of the film’s strengths, and when the two are separated there is a real sense of unfairness, especially because of how abruptly the other elephants ostracise him. The film does highlight their strong bond through poignant interactions between the two, from playing together to the more tragic scenes. You completely believe the relationship, and that a mother will do anything to protect her baby.
(Special Note from Melissa: What on earth happened to Mr Jumbo? Then I realised … there was a famous circus elephant called Jumbo, bought by Barnum and Bailey Circus from London Zoo, only for him to be hit and killed by a train several years later. If that’s true in this particular universe, then poor Mrs Jumbo! Hasn’t she suffered enough?!)
However, like a baby, Dumbo is incredibly cute but that does not make the most engaging or interesting protagonist. While we were engaged by the relationship between Dumbo and his mother, Dumbo does not drive the story’s action. Things happen to him and he is an observer. But you do feel sorry for the poor little animal. He is a victim of abuse – shunned, ignored and bullied by the elephants and physically maltreated by the circus staff. It is painful to watch at times, e.g. putting a baby elephant in a burning building and forcing him to jump from a great height.
He is an underdog protagonist and while it is pleasing to see him fly and able to tell everyone that bullied him where to go (primarily by shooting them with peanuts or making them fall over), becoming famous in the process, the real journey that we invest in for the character is his eventual reunion with his mother. That’s the character’s true goal. Overall, while not a fascinating protagonist, we are emotionally invested in Dumbo’s character and are glad that he has a happy ending.
Unlike Pinocchio, which is stocked with more villains than supporting roles, Dumbo lacks the conventional villain character. The closest that we come to antagonists are the gossipy elephants that snub Dumbo, and the human characters that work at the circus.
The herd of female elephants demonstrate antagonistic tendencies, primarily in the form of bitchy women – The Elephant Matriarch (The Leader), Catty (The Gossip), Giddy (The Stupid One) and Prissy (No Distinguishing Quality but a Red Cap): sounds rather familiar …
Somehow this comparison below also came to mind …
‘Perhaps Mr Jumbo went on holiday!’
While they gush over Dumbo when he arrives, as soon as they see that he has large ears, they gasp, gossip and label him with a mean nickname. Mrs Jumbo proceeds to be brilliant by the slamming the door in their faces. When Mrs Jumbo becomes imprisoned, they blame Dumbo and make a point out of shutting him out. When Dumbo ruins the circus act, they declare him no longer an elephant.
Yes, they take an actual vow declaring that Dumbo is no longer an elephant, followed by another vow that they can only wear pink on Wednesdays
Dumbo shoots peanuts at them when he flies. It’s brilliant, as if to say ‘HAHA take this!’ Yet despite how horrible they were, when Dumbo becomes famous, they sing and wave as if they are cheering for him – hypocrites.
The Elephant Matriarch is voiced by Verna Felton. It is her debut appearance in a Disney film, but she would go on to voice many more Disney characters. She also speaks one line as Mrs Jumbo.
The clowns who perform at the circus are caricatures of the animators that went on strike, and as such come across as stupid, ignorant and greedy when they are seen conversing behind the scenes. During a post-show conversation they suggest that the audiences will enjoy the show even more if the elephant falls from an even greater height. The only one sensible enough to point out that the elephant might get hurt is quickly rebuffed, and another remarks that “elephants are made of rubber”. According to them, elephants have no feelings and would love to jump from a ridiculous height for the pleasure of a loathsome audience. They then congratulate one another on their collective genius and leave to demand a pay raise. Satirical!
The ugly children that mock and taunt Dumbo, the worst of whom looks either like a relation of or a monkey version of Pinocchio’s Lampwick …
… are rotten because they are responsible for the imprisonment of Mrs Jumbo. Monkey-Lampwick child behaves really badly by repeatedly grabbing Dumbo; it was his own fault that the baby elephant’s mother negatively reacted to such stupid actions. There is a reason for health and safety. Stupid kids.
Dumbo is a film that makes man look pretty obnoxious and unlikeable – perhaps they are preparing us for Bambi …
Timothy Q. Mouse is Dumbo’s closest friend, who stands by him even when nobody else does. He is a very supportive figure towards the downtrodden protagonist during some of his lowest moments. He is uses his wits in many situations, such as scaring all of the older elephants away, and interfering with the Ringmaster’s subconscious while he sleeps in order to get Dumbo into the show.
Their dynamic is somewhat reminiscent of Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket, but since only one of them talks it does not have quite the same spark. Additionally the character does not have as much fourth-wall breaking charm, nor the same wry asides and humorous quips that Jiminy Cricket had. As a result their partnership just feels like an inferior version of one that came before. It reminded us of when a film cannot get a certain actor back for a particular role and they have to give it to someone else. Although the actor is trying their best, it does not quite work because you have the old preferred model in your head, e.g.
It does not matter if the kid from Home Alone 3 is any good or not, you just cannot beat Macaulay Culkin as Kevin McCallister. Besides Home Alone 3 was awful.
This child has absolutely no excuse though. Bad performance in painfully bad film, Home Alone 4!
Anyhow, while Timothy has a big heart and looks out for Dumbo, he occasionally veers into being a tad irritating, primarily due to excessive shouting and shrillness. Also unlike Jiminy who is the first character that we meet in Pinocchio, Timothy does not appear until about a third of the way through the film.
Dumbo’s mother, Mrs Jumbo, is a very likeable character. She only says one line, but had the story chosen to focus on her, she could have been an engaging and credible protagonist. Her dejected look when the stork does not come for her is honest and painful, reflecting real-life fertility fears. Her interactions with Dumbo are adorable and the maternal aggression that she expresses when she feels that her baby is being threatened is truthful in its intent. All good parents are protective of their children, but when a child has a physical ‘abnormality’, the protective feelings are sky-high, and the way she responds to it feels like a representation of what many parents would want to do when their child is mocked and taunted. When Mrs Jumbo is locked away, labelled a mad elephant, and separated from Dumbo, it is unbelievably painful because we know how much she wanted that baby (thank God she did not face some of the dreadful punishments that circus elephants in real-life have received for attacking humans). Mrs Jumbo may have been a great character to have followed, but instead let’s focus on Dumbo getting plastered:
‘I think I might have been sad about something but I can’t remember what it was. WOWWWWWWWW PINK ELEPHANTS!’
Their reunion (although the ending is incredibly rushed) is lovely and heart-warming!
Sterling Holloway, famed veteran of many Disney classics, makes his debut appearance in a Disney film, playing Mr Stork. He is an amusing character engaged in the strict protocol of delivering the baby, much to Mrs Jumbo’s exasperation. He is even designed to look very like stork version of Holloway.
The human characters all have small roles within the film, and as such none of them are particularly fleshed out – some of them don’t even have faces, so to expect personalities is just wishful thinking. The Ringmaster is sometimes considered to be a villain, but to be honest he is just doing his job when he locks away Dumbo’s mother (painful as it is), since all he sees is an elephant who has just attacked a customer. Beyond that he is simply a pompous showman, who has a fondness for overly showy speeches.
There are numerous debates and arguments all over the internet discussing racism in Disney, and the crows in Dumbo are always a focal point. There are plenty of places to go online to read about that, so we’ll avoid the rather sizeable flying elephant in the room and just say one thing on the matter…
Racist or not, the unfortunately named Jim-Crow (…erm) is voiced by Cliff Edwards, who previously voiced…
…that’s right, When You Wish Upon A Star and When I See An Elephant Fly are sung by the same person.
(Special Note from David: Knowledge of this fact just conjures up images of Jiminy Cricket in ‘blackface’ – and for that I apologise!)
Come on Cliff it’ll be a great idea! Think how successful Al Jolson was in The Jazz Singer!
If you research Jim Crow laws and famed minstrel character of the same name, you will comprehend the political incorrectness of the situation and the consequential embarrassment it brought for Disney. The race card tends to pop up in response to Disney jazz numbers (The Jungle Book and The Aristocats also suffer from this). However, on a positive note, the characters are very entertaining. Yes, they are playing stereotypes, but after having spent most of the film with primarily mean characters, the crows are a breath of fresh air. They are smart, cool, friendly and they both support and help Dumbo to discover the courage to fly. They essentially become the heroes of the film. They find Dumbo and Timothy, hungover and downbeat in a tree, and from that scene onwards, the atmosphere can only go up, and they are responsible for that change in mood. The way in which they are animated and voiced is like watching a scatting jazz band: the energy is uplifting!
Dumbo won an Academy Award for Best Original Music Score. This surprised us, as Pinocchio won the same award the previous year and while we found that underscore very memorable, this one did not particularly leap out at us, sounding more like standard circus music. It is not a bad underscore; it just did not stand out.
The opening song, Look Out For Mr. Stork sounds like the start of a short feature, rather than a feature film. The sound is very like a Barbershop Quartet, with a little bit of musical accompaniment, which is very typical for the time. Also the jolly tone of the singers acts as a distraction from the lyrics, which are actually quite sinister in isolation (“Look out for Mr. Stork, and let me tell you friend, don’t try to get away, he’ll find you in the end” or “he’s got you on his list, and when he comes around, it’s useless to resist”).
(Special Note from David: You can’t run or hide from Mr. Stork, so make sure to use protection!)
(Special Note from Melissa: It is a strange how the song sounds so foreboding, like a warning, and yet all of the animals receiving their babies look chuffed. There should have been at least one with a ‘Woops’ face):
Perhaps this is why we do not see what happens when this hippo wakes up.
Or this could be close enough …
In Casey Junior, the melody mimics a train … and that’s about it. Many will disagree but to us it sounds very like a generic song from a children’s compilation album.
The Song Of the Roustabouts contains some of the most dubious lyrics out of any Disney song, juxtaposed by the rousing nature in which it is performed, and suggesting that the workers are “Happy-hearted” even though they are working in appalling conditions, probably won’t get paid, and will keep working until they drop dead (it’s all in the lyrics!). We think that the relatively harmless sequence by the Crows is what people focus on to drown out how horrific the Song of the Roustabouts is lyrically – ‘Grab that rope you hairy ape!’
Dumbo was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song for Baby Mine. It’s a genuinely sad number sung by off-screen singer, Betty Noyes and a female chorus. Pure emotion and effective simple storytelling as we see different animal mothers cuddled up with their young, while Mrs Jumbo can only reach her baby by the trunk.
Pink Elephants On Parade sounds suitably menacing for the scene in which it is used. The song is performed by The Sportsmen (who also sang Look Out For Mr. Stork and Casey Junior) but it has more of an edge to it than their other numbers, which allows for the song to sound less specific to its era.
When I See An Elephant Fly was our unanimous favourite. Strangely enough it sounds as though it has been recorded in a different sound booth from the other songs. Sung by Cliff Edwards and the Hall Johnson Band, it is a catchy jazzy little number that is enjoyable to listen to, particularly as the crows are choreographed skilfully in relation to the song.
Artwork and Imagery:
The diminished budget is very noticeable when the artwork is compared to Disney’s three previous feature length releases. The design is far more reminiscent of the Silly Symphonies that Disney had specialised in prior to the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which is unsurprising, as many of the artists who worked on the film had started out on Silly Symphonies.
The cheaper production values result in fewer of the picturesque backgrounds which were so prominent in the previous films. Everything is much more basic in design and detail – the film cost less to make, and it shows. A lot of shortcuts are taken: many human characters have no faces; crowd scenes are significantly less detailed; and fewer colours are required during scenes in which human characters interact in silhouette.
We are not usually sticklers for continuity errors, but some of the mistakes in this film stick out like a sore thumb. This is most apparent during the scene in which the elephants are piled up on top of one another and their caps keep changing colour. The number of bitchy elephants also fluctuates between four and seven depending on the requirements of the scene (seven elephants are needed for the big pile-up show even though there are normally only four).
The colour schemes are very bright and gaudy, which reflects the palettes that are associated with the circus, but as a result the film does not look as visually appealing. It looks a lot closer in style to Disney’s short cartoons such as the Silly Symphonies. Funnily enough when the film goes into darker territory, both in mood and colour scheme, some great stand-out moments happen:
Clever moment when they allude to Nosferatu – also one of their inspirations for Snow White
Character movements and expressions are some of the better aspects of the film’s design. In terms of acting (animators are somewhat like actors with pencils), the expressions and body language, particularly for the main characters, are really effective and often moving.
Pink Elephants On Parade has practically become part of popular culture; even people who have not seen Dumbo are aware of the infamous pink elephants. They are hallucinations brought about by Dumbo and Timothy getting drunk on spiked water. Allegedly Salvador Dali was fond of this sequence, calling Walt Disney one of the great surrealists! It is one of the strangest scenes we have seen; it is a long scene that does not further the plot in what is already a super short film and yet it is given so much attention in terms of detail. It is several leaps ahead of the majority of the film quality-wise. The sequence has either given viewers nightmares or bedazzled them in terms of its bizarre excellence. The elephants are unnerving; they have empty eye sockets:
It is as if the animators just went wild, still hot from Fantasia, the sequence almost seems like a parody of their Fantasia segments!
Based upon a children’s story written by Helen Aberson, Dumbo is an underdog story about a baby elephant, mocked and taunted for his big ears and when he finds that he can fly using his ears like wings, everyone suddenly likes him. That’s the story in a nutshell. It is Disney’s first film set in America, as the previous films were based on European folklore and fairytales. It has a modern setting and appears in a heightened version of the real world. So it is venturing into new territory for Disney.
When the film focuses on the story, it does fine job of telling it. What makes the film stand out in terms of narrative are the scenes between Mrs Jumbo and her son, which have a wonderful emotional arc that carries from beginning to ending. Unfortunately Mrs Jumbo is absent for nearly two thirds of the narrative, and most of what it left is packed with filler: the Casey Junior sequence, the drunk scene, the Pink Elephants sequence, and the Circus acts are only some examples. Ironically, the scenes that are narratively and emotional impactful tend to be short and abrupt, while the filler scenes are really stretched out length-wise, meaning that the narrative feels unbalanced. In a way, the structure gives the impression of a string of short features thrown together, at times veering into ‘Baby Elephants Do The Funniest Things’. It was originally conceived as a thirty-minute feature, and this may have worked well as the story could easily have been told in that length of time. For a Disney film, Dumbo is very short, but because it was originally going to be half the length, the pace can drag and feel laboured, meaning that it seems longer, and not necessarily in a good way.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has scenes that could be considered as filler, but the difference is that the animation and artwork are so visually engaging and those scenes involve the Dwarfs rather than veering off into superfluous supporting characters. The short length and diminished artistic merit could easily be overlooked if the film had a stronger story as its driving force, but unfortunately this is not the case. Had they focussed more tightly on mother and baby, its strongest facet, and not wandered off so frequently, we may not be as harsh in our criticism. The film gets a lot of praise for its emotional scenes, and this is deserved because they are done very well, but contrastingly they draw attention to the film’s weaker qualities.
Before watching Dumbo I already knew that the film was made on a much smaller budget than the previous Disney animated features, so the reduced quality in animation was not a factor for me. What was a factor (a significant one) was the sheer amount of filler that is used to pad out the already short running time; this film is barely over an hour in length and yet so much of the running time was spent on meaningless set-pieces, which seemed to exist purely for the purpose of stretching the film out to a length that was just about acceptable for movie theatres. It is not surprising to learn that this film was originally intended to be a thirty minute short, because the story only really fills half the running time. As a result the film is very messy, with interruptions to the story occurring every few minutes.
The Pink Elephants On Parade sequence, while visually impressive, eats up a good five minutes, while scenes that are more important to the story – such as the imprisonment of Dumbo’s mother – get cut short. The story itself does not really get going until the fifteen minute mark (by which point the film is already a quarter of the way through). One of the most frustrating aspects of all this is the fact that the ending to the film feels incredibly rushed, the release of Dumbo’s mother is never even shown and all the loose ends are (supposedly) tied up in about a minute, through some newspaper headlines and a reprise of a song that had been performed less than ten minutes previously.
Dumbo is a likeable character, and the scenes between him and his mother were done very well: the Baby Mine song was used well to create an effective scene, although I was surprised that it was never made clear if the mother was actually singing the song or not. I felt bad for the poor baby elephant, who seemed to receive abuse from almost everyone in the film. This was another reason why the ending seemed very rushed; once Dumbo became famous everyone suddenly decided that they liked him, with no questions asked!
My main problem with the film, is that it does not really feel like a film at all, more like a selection of animated shorts that have been cobbled together (at times quite clumsily). The story is very thin, and the majority of the supporting characters are just mean. Timothy and the crows provide some much needed relief and energy, but it does not fully compensate for the film’s substantial shortcomings.
When I watched Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, I was surprised as I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would, and I was impressed by its artistic prowess. In the case of Dumbo, it was the opposite in the sense that I initially expected much more from the film, and consequently I was a bit disappointed. The last time I had seen Dumbo was as a young child, so I was really interested in seeing it. Many animators and film critics perceive this film as excellent, and while I see that there is a lot of merit to the film, it fell short for me overall. I love the relationship between Dumbo and his mother; I could have watched even more scenes between that pair and likely been delighted by them. Mrs Jumbo speaks only one line and Dumbo never says a word, but they are engaging to watch because they are both animated so well. Parent-child relationships in most films tend to make me feel emotional (if I ever make a ‘Saddest Film Moments List’, it is guaranteed that it will be packed with parent-child situations) and this particular relationship is easy to invest in because it is so believable and honest. One moment that particularly stands out is when Mrs Jumbo is imprisoned and she rocks slightly from side to side; the shot immediately cuts to a shot of Dumbo also rocking from side to side, as both mother and son are overwhelmed with grief, pining for each other. I wanted to see them both reunited. Overall, the way in which the characters’ emotions are projected is what I appreciated and enjoyed most about the film.
However, at times I found watching Dumbo a bit of a headache. The colours are so gaudy and bright, the narrative is quite choppy, and the ugly clowns jumping and bouncing around just felt grating. I agree with David that Dumbo, for a short film, is packed with a lot of narrative filler / set pieces that awkwardly deviate from the central plot, and yet the ending is ridiculously rushed. Apart from the fun When I See An Elephant Fly and the tragic Baby Mine, the other songs were a tad bland with often dubious lyrics. While Pink Elephants is a visually impressive sequence, it could be quite dizzying and of course it is impossible not to wonder, ‘WHY?’ during that scene. I am not a person who seeks out continuity errors but it was hard not to notice them in Dumbo, as well as the many faceless characters. I am aware that many people appreciate Dumbo for its bolder, cartoonier look, but so far in The Disney Odyssey, I have preferred the softer, more detailed presentations of the previous films. It did feel like a work-in-progress film or an animated short that had been stretched out too far, but still not long enough to seem like a feature film. From my perspective, if they had tidied up the story in terms of narrative structure, and had more money to contribute to meticulous detail in the animation, it may have been a better film. But it is a story with heart!
In spite of World War II (and our own misgivings), Dumbo was both a critical and financial success, earning $1.6 million at the box office. Its budget was substantially lower than the previous Disney films, at $950 thousand, thus it made a profit. It was the film that was essentially responsible for saving the studio. Without it, Disney’s future may have been uncertain. It received mainly positive reviews and many of the critics happily perceived it as a return to the form of the beloved Disney animated shorts, by the film’s focus on anthropomorphised animals and for featuring bright colours. Perhaps Dumbo felt a lot more accessible and familiar to mass audiences at the time, particularly in the advent of the USA entering World War II. It was the first of the Disney animated classics to be set in America. Again Dumbo contributed to keeping Disney afloat and was popular with audiences. Dumbo would go on to have cinematic re-releases and influence later animated features, most notably Lilo and Stitch for its use of watercolour backgrounds.
However, in the aftermath of all the ugliness brought about by the strike, the morale at the studio and Walt’s personal involvement in the feature films was never quite the same after Dumbo. Many animators were let go in hard times, some were fired or left the studio on account of the strike and those that did return were not trusted by Walt Disney. Walt Disney felt as if he had been betrayed by his employees, began to distrust all of his animators, letting his bitterness affect his judgement and thus the spirit and camaraderie at the studio was broken. Dumbo is approaching the end of Disney’s ‘Golden Age’, which will be concluded with Bambi, the next film on the list.