Release Date: October 23rd, 1941 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Ben Sharpsteen Actors: Edward Brophy, Cliff Edwards, Jim Carmichael, Verna Felton, Sterling Holloway, Herman Bing
r. Stork and his crew of flying birds soar through the skies to drop cuddly babies (in diapers with tiny parachutes attached) into the dens and habitats of the various traveling circus animals (with incredibly smooth animation and fluid, rhythmic movements). As Casey Jr. (the train) transports the troupe to the next town, Mrs. Jumbo the elephant is the only one not blessed with a special delivery. But Mr. Stork himself (voiced by the inimitable Sterling Holloway) finally catches up to the elephant car, carrying in his beak Jumbo Jr., a beautiful, blue-eyed baby boy (pachyderm, that is). The other matronly elephants all think he’s impossibly cute, until he sneezes and reveals enormous, floppy ears. Cruelly, he’s dubbed “Dumbo”; but it couldn’t matter less to his tremendously proud mother.
During the next stop, rowdy kids ostracize Dumbo, causing Mrs. Jumbo to fly into a fit of rage to defend the little creature. The ringmaster quarantines her as a crazed monster, leaving Dumbo alone with the gossiping, ignorant, remaining cows. When they purposely disregard him, minute critter Timothy Q. Mouse (Edward Brophy) steps in to befriend the big-eared anomaly. Like Jiminy Cricket, Timothy serves as the voice of reason (a vocal subconscious), general guidance, commentary, and exposition – and an amusing mockery of the oversimplified relationships between gentle giants and mischievous rodents.
The catalyst for Dumbo’s eventual pariah status is an elephant tower trick that was ludicrously never rehearsed. It’s a catastrophic disaster that brings down the entire Big Top and sends patrons fleeing for their lives. His punishment is banishment from the circle of elephants and a shameful, painted face for an embarrassing firefighting clown act (in this company, the clown is at the very bottom of the food chain). After an undeniably heartfelt farewell to his mother and a drunken, hallucinogenic episode, Timothy and Dumbo discover that the key to his success is the same as his source of rejection – his mighty ears enable him to fly.
Several songs are played in the background as narration for the storks arriving, the erection of the colossal tent, the “Elephants on Parade” sequence, and touching moments with Mrs. Jumbo in solitary confinement. Although Mr. Stork sings a custom birthday song and a group of black crows croon a tune full of ebonics (how is this not too racist for Disney?), the characters themselves don’t sing, which marks a break from Disney’s usual structuring in which each major role performs their own theme song. The first half of the film barely contains any dialogue, as Dumbo grows up without any need for conversation – he actually never speaks throughout the film, while the ringmaster counters by being a source of obnoxious caricature and exaggerated accent.
This fourth Walt Disney animation has a record running time for a feature-length cartoon (clocking in at just 64 minutes), with much of it used on gags for younger audiences. The elephants perform a complex stunt, as do the clowns, and Timothy and Dumbo gaily blow bubbles after accidentally imbibing champagne – which quickly turns into a frenzied, psychedelic Technicolor dream sequence (or nightmare) that utilizes rapid transformations, seizure-inducing flashes of light, and bold colors. Some of it is reminiscent of “Fantasia’s” more impressionistic segments. In general, the animation is simpler and lacking in the details of previous ventures.
For children, the themes of bullying and seeing the inner beauty of those with physical imperfections are obvious (“Elephants ain’t got no feelings,” insist the partying clowns). For adults, there’s a more endearing, charming tale of bravery and confidence that resonates with the climax of personal accomplishments and mild avengement. While “Dumbo” is not one of Disney’s most ornamented pictures (never qualifying for their elite label on DVD/Blu-ray releases), it’s still quite memorable and an important historical entry in their canon of hand-drawn features.
– Mike Massie