#528) Dumbo (1941)

#528) Dumbo (1941)

OR “The Wonder Ears”

Directed by Ben Sharpsteen (and a bevy of sequence directors)

Written by Joe Grant & Dick Huemer (and a plethora of others). Based on the book by Helen Aberson & Harold Pearl.

Class of 2017 

The Plot: While traveling through central Florida, a circus train is visited by storks delivering babies to all the animals. The elephant Mrs. Jumbo (voiced by Verna Felton) receives a baby boy named Jumbo Jr. The baby elephant, however, is born with very large ears, leading to the other elephants nicknaming him “Dumbo” and mocking his anomaly. Seperated from his mother, and with a mouse named Timothy (voiced by Edward Brophy) as his only friend, Dumbo learns to accept his differences, and eventually discovers that his ears give him the ability to fly. It’s a heartwarming Disney classic that’s sure to…oh crap I forgot about the racist crows! This is why we can’t have nice things.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “charming”, praising its “lovely drawing, original score…and enduring message”.

But Does It Really?: “Dumbo” can be endearing and at times quite heartwarming, but is unfortunately bogged down by some incredibly racist material towards the end. It’s a shame, because everything else about this movie still works 80 years later: the energetic score, the beautiful character animation, and the overall uplifting spirit of the movie. “Dumbo” continues to be a classic, but its racial insensitivity will be its eventual undoing for a modern audience.

Wow, That’s Dated: Well there’s no use ignoring it: let’s acknowledge the elephant…’s friends in the room. The flock of crows that help Dumbo fly are straight up minstrel show stereotypes, complete with offensive African-American dialects. It’s a tough watch, and they dominate the last portion of the film. “Dumbo” may be the number one reason Disney+ has that disclaimer about “outdated cultural depictions”.

Seriously, Oscars?: An instant hit with both critics and audiences, “Dumbo” received two Oscar nominations. Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace took home the prize for Best Musical Score, but “Baby Mine” lost Best Original Song to “The Last Time I Saw Paris” from “Lady Be Good”. Turns out “Paris” was not written specifically for “Lady Be Good”, leading to a rule change from the Academy.

Other notes 

  • With the financial disappointments of “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia“, Walt Disney needed a hit, and it needed to be made on the cheap. “Dumbo” was allotted a budget of $950,000 (roughly 2/3 the budget of “Pinocchio” or “Fantasia”). While typical animated films are in production for 3-4 years, “Dumbo” was written, animated, and completed in less than two years, during which production was interrupted by the Disney animators’ strike of 1941.
  • Of course a movie about an exploited circus elephant would be set in Florida.
  • Wow, Mr. Stork gets quite the intro: a dramatic narrator, a whole song. You know he’s not the main character, right?
  • This is the first Disney voiceover work for both Sterling Holloway (Mr. Stork) and Verna Felton (Matriarch Elephant & Mrs. Jumbo). Both actors would go on to voice a number of notable Disney characters in “Alice in Wonderland”, “The Jungle Book”, and many others.
  • I completely forgot about the circus roustabouts, all of them anonymous African-Americans. They don’t even have faces!
  • Even at 63 minutes, there’s a lot of padding in “Dumbo”. Most of it you don’t mind, however, because the animation is so good, especially the character work on both Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo.
  • Between the passive aggressive lady elephants and the super annoying kids, I side with Mrs. Jumbo on this one. Take them all out! Sympathy is very easy when every other character is literally the worst.
  • Timothy Mouse comes across as Jiminy Cricket’s cousin from Brooklyn, but he makes a good team with Dumbo. Also, it turns out the whole “elephants are afraid of mice” cliché is a myth. They’re more afraid of any small creature who suddenly darts in front of them.
  • If this circus is going to exploit its animals, why not exploit the fact that all of them speak fluent English?
  • This clown act has achieved the impossible: it’s actually funny. Shoutout to all the animators and story developers who came up with those gags. My one question: Where’s that clown that gets slapped all the time?
  • In a movie filled with sentimental moments, “Baby Mine” tops them all. It’s a simple, sweet moment between mother and child that gave me legitimate chills while watching.
  • Ah yes, “Dumbo”: the animated classic with underage drinking. Dumbo’s accidental sip of champagne leads to “Pink Elephants on Parade”, aka “Let’s sneak some surrealism into this movie”. It has nothing to do with anything, and it runs longer than it should, but it’s fun to watch these animators cut loose.
  • There are those who defend the crows for their sympathy towards Dumbo and the fun they have singing and dancing, but at the end of the day, they all talk like Stepin Fetchit. Oh, and the lead crow is voiced by Cliff Edwards (a White actor) and was originally named Jim Crow. Ugh.
  • The finale also gave me some chills. Watching Dumbo fly through the crowd is still a thrilling moment, and his reunion with his mother is the movie’s final successful heartstring tug. Now if only we could do something about those goddamn crows…

Legacy 

  • “Dumbo” was the hit the Disney Studios needed it to be, grossing over 1.3 million dollars. The film was immediately popular, with Dumbo himself slated to appear on Time Magazine’s cover as “Mammal of the Year”. The story was slated for December 8th, 1941, but major news from the day before bumped Dumbo off the cover.
  • Due to the film’s continued popularity, “Dumbo” is often used as a test subject when Disney is contemplating new entertainment mediums. “Dumbo” was one of the first Disney movies shown on television, one of the first released on home video, and one of the first to appear on a streaming service. Thanks to its home video releases, “Dumbo” has never been out of print in the last 40 years.
  • When Disneyland opened in July 1955, two attractions based on “Dumbo” were…almost ready. “Dumbo the Flying Elephant” was delayed a month due to technical issues, and while the “Casey Jr. Circus Train” appeared on the opening day telecast, it was closed immediately afterwards for safety testing, and reopened two weeks later. Both attractions are still working 65 years later, and can be found in Disney parks around the world.
  • “Dumbo” still gets referenced from time to time, typically in a general sense regarding elephants and/or big ears. My personal favorite among the homages: “Operation Dumbo Drop”, one of Disney’s more bizarre “Based on a True Story” movies.
  • Even “Dumbo” wasn’t safe from Disney’s live-action remake juggernaut. Despite the talents of Tim Burton, and an honest attempt to address issues of animal cruelty in circuses, the 2019 “Dumbo” failed to connect with audiences.
  • I have a soft spot for “Dumbo’s Circus”, the weird puppet/animatronic hybrid show that aired on the Disney Channel back in the ’80s. Dumbo Talks!
  • Despite the little elephant’s big theatrical triumph, Dumbo was loaned out to Maroon Studios in 1947 (along with half the cast of “Fantasia”). Allegedly, R.K. Maroon wanted Dumbo and the other characters because “they work for peanuts”.

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