The Walt Disney Company released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 to massive critical and commercial success. The money that they made on Snow White allowed them to produce their next two animated features, Pinocchio and Fantasia. Although these are both fantastic films, they were not nearly as successful as Snow White, especially Fantasia.
Fantasia was an incredibly ambitious film, but it was also a classic example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was released during World War II, meaning Disney could not release the film in a few of the very lucrative foreign markets. The film’s financial failure put Disney in dire straits, meaning their next project had to be a guaranteed success.
Released in 1941, Dumbo was Disney’s attempt at producing an animated feature that wouldn’t break the bank, and would be profitable for the company. Not only is it one of Disney’s shortest films (coming in at just over 60 minutes), it was also produced for less than a million dollars. However, just because Dumbo was produced on the cheap does not mean it isn’t a great film.
Dumbo tells the story of a newborn elephant being delivered to an excited mother. She falls in love with her child the moment she lays eyes on him, and decides to name him Jumbo. But when the mother’s fellow circus elephants see that the child has a giant pair of ears, they ridicule him and say the he’d be better off being called Dumbo, a name which he happily embraces.
At one of the later circus events, a child begins to bully Dumbo by tugging on his ears and tail. This causes the mother to rampage, leading to her being locked up in a cage for the rest of the film. This event leaves Dumbo all alone, as the other elephants are embarrassed by his ears, and frequently pretend like he isn’t even there.
Eventually, with the help of his friend Timothy and a bunch of sarcastic crows, Dumbo learns to truly embrace his imperfection, and uses his ears to take flight.
Dumbo’s best friend is Timothy Q. Mouse. Timothy comes into the film shortly after Dumbo’s mother is locked up, and wishes to make Dumbo happy again. He attempts to not only cheer Dumbo up, but to help him embrace his giant ears as something that makes him special, as opposed to something that he should be ashamed of.
Timothy also functions as somewhat of a mentor to Dumbo, as he frequently gives him tips to improve his circus routine, and always makes sure he is fed and has had his bath. He never hesitates to come to Dumbo’s defense either, whether it’s against the other elephants, or the (very stereotypical) crows.
Dumbo may have been produced on a smaller budget than its predecessors, but that does not mean its presentation looks cheap. After all, this is still a Disney production. While Dumbo does not have the breathtaking shots or beautiful backgrounds of films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it still has its moments of gorgeous animation. Special mention goes to the opening scene of the stork’s flying formation, the shot of the infant animals floating down into their home states and the scene of the circus workers and the elephants setting up a tent in the rain.
How could I talk about Dumbo’s animation and not mention the infamous Pink Elephants On Parade? At one point during the film, Dumbo and Timothy accidentally get intoxicated off of alcohol. This leads to one of Disney’s biggest “trip out scenes,” with Dumbo seeing incredibly weird images of technicolor pachyderms. I really can’t put this scene into words, it is something that simply must be watched.
The relationship between Dumbo and his mother may not get a ton of screen time, but I still feel like the film manages to portray an endearing relationship. Dumbo gets ridiculed by animal and human alike for his ears, but he always manages to smile through it. The only thing that truly brings him down is being separated from his mother, and the way the sadness on his face is animated really tugs at my little heart.
To briefly talk about Dumbo’s specific character animation, I think the animation team does a really good job with him; he may just be my favorite Disney animated animal. I love when he smiles and laughs, as he has this big goofy look on his face that just makes me want to hug him. In the same vain, whenever he puts on sad expression and begins to cry, I really feel for the little guy.
My favorite scene in the film is definitely the musical number, Baby Mine. In an effort to cheer up Dumbo after an awful day at the circus, Timothy takes Dumbo to his mother’s cage. The mother begins to sing an absolutely beautiful song about the love between mother and child, accompanied by various scenes of different animals asleep with their parents. As she rocks Dumbo back and forth in her trunk while the song approaches its end, I’m reminded that there is nothing more powerful than the love that a mother has for her child.
Dumbo may be a short film that was produced with a small budget, but it has rightfully earned its place as a Disney animated classic. It’s not a groundbreaking or innovative film, but not everything has to break the mold in order to be memorable. Dumbo presents a fun adventure with an excellent message of self acceptance, and provides a handful of really good musical numbers and action scenes. This one is definitely worth a watch (even if only for the Pink Elephants On Parade and Baby Mine scenes).