THE ONE… THE ONLY… THE FABULOUS…
In 1941, Disney was in financial trouble. Their two latest films, Pinocchio and Fantasia, may now be considered the pinnacle of the studio’s achievements, but they did not make a lot of money. Some thought Fantasia in particular was too artsy for the crowds. Disney needed to go back to what made the studio successful in the first place. Perhaps not dumb it down, but make a picture that appeals to a broader audience – and it had to be cheaper. That’s how Dumbo came about, a film that cost less and had a simpler story and a very short running time, but nevertheless wowed everyone.
The movie was a hit that put Disney in the black and showed us how brilliance doesn’t always need a fancy budget.
A special delivery for Mrs. Jumbo
The story begins with Mr. Stork making a special delivery to Mrs. Jumbo, an elephant who belongs to a circus. The baby turns out to have huge ears and is quickly nicknamed “Dumbo” by the other elephants. One day, the youngling is being tormented by a group of boys and his mother loses her cool. The circus managers consider her mad and dangerous; she’s locked up and Dumbo is left to fend for himself. He does however find a friend in a circus mouse, Timothy, who feels sorry for him and tries to turn Dumbo into a star at the circus. The first attempt is unsuccessful and Dumbo is forced to join the clown troupe where he constantly suffers pranks in front of an audience. Dumbo is sad, but Timothy tries to cheer him up by taking him to his mother for a visit.
That becomes the starting point for a series of events that will show the elephant his own capabilities…
Never utters a word but wins us over
One of the cost-effective measures that Disney took was using watercolors in the animation, but the film certainly doesn’t suffer for it. What does look simpler is some of the other aspects of the animation, such as humans who look sketchy… but that’s perfectly acceptable since this is a story about animals. They’re given proper characterizations and are very charming. Young Dumbo is truly a lovable tyke; he never utters a word, but his eyes and ears do plenty to win us over. His best friend, Timothy, talks for the both of them and Edward Brophy gives the mouse an irresistible streetwise, New Yorky touch. Other memorable characters are the crows, which in later days have stirred up controversy because they are clearly African-American stereotypes. One way of defending that creative choice is to point out that the crows are key players in the film, smart, independent and very entertaining characters that help Dumbo realize his value. They also offer the movie’s most spirited musical moment, “When I See an Elephant Fly”.
Other musical highlights include the touching “Baby Mine” (that received an Oscar nomination) and “Casey Junior” that opens the film, a fun song that accompanies the circus train as it starts moving across Florida. That whole sequence is immensely creative, both visually and musically, and matches a later number in the film when Dumbo and Timothy accidentally get drunk and start seeing pink elephants that form a parade; colors and a general playfulness go hand in hand.
My absolute favorite part of Dumbo has to be the scene where Casey Junior is struggling up a hill, repeating “I think I can” over and over in a way that turns it into a chugging noise, which is followed on the way down by the even faster “I thought I could” over and over. That’s just brilliant beyond words, one of the best examples of how sound and music can be used in a film. Dumbo may pale in comparison with Pinocchio and the following year’s Bambi, but it should not be missed.
Dumbo 1941-U.S. Animated. 64 min. Color. Produced by Walt Disney. Directed by Ben Sharpsteen. Screenplay: Joe Grant, Dick Huemer. Novel: Helen Aberson, Harold Pearl. Music: Frank Churchill, Oliver Wallace. Songs: Oliver Wallace, Ned Washington (“Casey Junior”, “Baby Mine”, “When I See an Elephant Fly”). Voices of Sterling Holloway (Mr. Stork), Edward Brophy (Timothy Q. Mouse), Verna Felton (Mrs. Jumbo), Herman Bing, Cliff Edwards.
Trivia: Remade as a live-action film, Dumbo (2019).
Oscar: Best Music. Cannes: Best Animation Design.
Last word: “The climate of the times was a little more pronounced. Somebody brought up the fact about the crows, and I said, ‘Well, you’ve got to put yourself back there.’ When we did ‘Dumbo’, that was approved, to have a Jim Crow, and ‘yowsah, boss,’ and all that [sort of] thing. I said, ‘Don’t forget, we had Blacks, with great glee, doing the soundtrack.’ There were ethnic jokes everywhere you went, and all of a sudden it was a no-no. For years, ‘Dumbo’ couldn’t be shown because of the crows.” (Animator Ward Kimball, MichaelBarrier.com)