Film Review: Dumbo (1941)

*All reviews contain spoilers*

Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation. All screencaps are from Disneyscreencaps.com.

Cast

James Baskett – crow

Herman Bing – the Ringmaster

Billy Bletcher – clown

Edward Brophy – Timothy Q. Mouse

Jim Carmichael – crow

Cliff Edwards – Jim Crow (dear god, that name…)

Verna Felton – The Elephant Matriarch and Mrs. Jumbo (Felton made many appearances in later Disney films)

Noreen Gammill – Catty the Elephant (in green/yellow at the start)

Eddie Holden – clown

Sterling Holloway – Messenger Stork (Holloway, too, will pop up in lots of other Disney films later on!)

Malcolm Hutton – Skinny (lead boy of the bullies)

Hall Johnson – crow

Harold Manley – boy (one of several who taunt Dumbo)

John McLeish – narrator

Tony Neil – boy

Betty Noyes – singer of Baby Mine

Dorothy Scott – Giddy the Elephant (in blue at the start)

Sarah Selby – Prissy the Elephant (in orange at the start)

Billy Sheets – clown and Joe (the elephant trainer, who talks to the Ringmaster about using Dumbo as a “climax”)

Nick Stewart – crow

Chuck Stubbs – boy

Margaret Wright – Casey Jr.

Sources of InspirationDumbo, the Flying Elephant, a 1939 “Roll-A-Book” by Harold Pearl and Helen Aberson

Release Dates

October 23rd, 1941 in New York City, New York (premiere)

October 31st, 1941 (general release)

Run-time – 64 minutes

Directors – Ben Sharpsteen (supervising), Samuel Armstrong, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts and John Elliotte

Composers – Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace

Worldwide Gross – $1.6 million

Accolades – 3 wins and 1 nomination, including one Oscar win

1941 in History

Glenn T. Seaborg discovers plutonium

Tatyana Ustinova discovers the Valley of the Geysers

Germany invades Yugoslavia, Greece and the Soviet Union (the latter is Operation Barbarossa)

Popular cereal Cheerios first appears

Citizen Kane premieres in New York City

German battleship Bismarck is sunk

The Holocaust begins

Construction begins on the Pentagon in the US

Pearl Harbour is attacked; the USA enters WWII

Births of Hayao Miyazaki, Neil Diamond and Faye Dunaway


After two expensive failures in 1940, the Disney studio had to make some money fast in order to complete the equally expensive Bambi. Dumbo was a short, cheaply produced little film based on an obscure contemporary book, and was created for that purpose. The unassuming fourth entry into the Disney canon became the biggest success the studio saw in the entire 1940s, making back the losses of the previous films as well as its own paltry budget, which was just over $800,000 (well, it was paltry by Disney standards, at least).

Walt was initially uninterested in the project, and scrapped it after beginning pre-production work on it. Storymen Joe Grant and Dick Huemer used storyboards to drum up his enthusiasm again, by leaving one on his desk each morning until he was so hooked that he came in to ask them what happened next. It would go on to become one of his favourite films from the studio, and it’s not hard to see why.

Dumbo is a simple story, but a very effective one. Although its plot is so brief Walt was able to expound the entire thing to Ward Kimball in the studio parking lot in just three minutes, the emotive animation and lively music have ensured the film is rightly remembered as one of the greatest animated features of its day.  However, though the production was shorter and cheaper than a typical Disney feature and thus gave the animators more creative freedom, it was not without controversy. Towards the end of production, in 1941, a strike broke out at the studio – I’ve detailed this below:

The Disney Animator’s Strike

The turmoil of the Depression led to the development of the Screen Actors Guild in 1933 – which led to the unionisation of many Hollywood studios

After the Fleischer Strike of 1937, the Screen Cartoonist’s Guild came about, too, targeting animation studios

Pay discrepancies and a rigid staff hierarchy at the Disney studio were causing tensions and ill-feeling

A February ’41 speech by Walt attempting to justify his resistance to unionisation made things worse

An attempt to fire top animator Art Babbitt in May ’41 was the final straw, kicking off a 5 week strike, just after the completion of rough animation for Dumbo

Walt left on his Goodwill tour; in his absence, a federal mediator was able to resolve things. However, Babbitt, Bill Tytla and T. Hee, among others, left the studio, and the familial atmosphere of the place was gone forever

Despite the problems all this caused, the film was successfully completed and released to wide praise later the same year. It remains a beloved favourite of many today, so let’s take a look at it to find out how it’s managed to endure so well for so long.

 

Characters and Vocal Performances

Our pachyderm protagonist in this film is a baby, which explains why he is largely silent, save for a few honks and hiccups. His extreme youth makes him seem more helpless and vulnerable, inspiring the same protective instincts in the viewer as in his mother. It also makes his various tormentors seem that much more despicable and in fact heightens the emotional power of all his interactions with the other characters, be they good or bad. Dumbo, like many Disney leads, is essentially a cypher; things happen to him, but he doesn’t have much power over his own fate – even his flying is largely the work of Timothy and the crows. Still, he works well as the central figure of the story – Bill Tytla’s expert animation of him has you rooting for him the whole way through. It’s really heart-breaking to see his fright and confusion during the many circus stunts he’s forced to go through, and he’s too young to understand that the taunting boys are mocking him, not playing with him.

Clown dumbo terrified

One thing I always wondered about was why the elephants’ derisive moniker “Dumbo” actually sticks – it’s not his name! In Mrs. Jumbo’s only line, she actually names him “Jumbo Jr.,” although if this is supposed to be a reference to the famous Barnum & Bailey pachyderm then it is a misplaced one; that elephant died in 1885, fifty-six years before this film takes place, so he could not be Dumbo’s father! Interestingly, the line “lots of people with big ears are famous” was rumoured to be a reference to Clark Gable (of Gone With the Wind fame) – in reality, however, Dumbo’s ears might actually have killed him, as elephants use their ears to regulate their body temperature by radiating heat from special blood vessels, so Dumbo’s would have put him at risk of freezing to death!

Baby Dumbo

Despite lacking a father, Dumbo has an ideal mother figure in Mrs. Jumbo. Her character can best be summed up by critic John Grant: “Mrs Jumbo is the least strongly characterised of all the elephants in the film… she is a symbol rather than a specific individual.” Although I would argue that some of the gossipy elephants are less well defined than her (can you tell them apart?), I do see his point. Mrs. Jumbo functions largely as a goal to drive the plot forwards; reuniting with her is Dumbo’s (and Timothy’s) mission. Still, she is very sympathetically portrayed – right at the start of the film, her hopeful expressions as the storks deliver their baby bundles quickly fade to disappointment as she is passed over, in a painful echo of miscarriages. We are on her side when she spanks Skinny for taunting her baby (he’s lucky he’s in a Disney film – a  real elephant might well have killed him) and the tears soon start flowing as she struggles to cradle her baby from behind bars in the famous Baby Mine sequence. Seeing the pair together again at the end is a very, very satisfying ending after all Dumbo is put through.

Mrs Jumbo with Stork
Mrs. Jumbo with the Messenger Stork on the day of Dumbo’s arrival

Timothy Q. Mouse (whose name is only revealed at the end of the film) fills the same role as Jiminy Cricket did in Pinocchio, but I think he does a better job as guardian than the rather fickle Jiminy did. His introductory scene, where he makes use of that famous elephantine musophobia to terrorise the elephants who’ve been picking on Dumbo, is a fantastic way of setting up his character. Yes, he does sometimes get Dumbo into more trouble (i.e. getting him drunk, or destroying the elephant pyramid), but he’s always on hand with a plan to get him out of trouble again. I particularly enjoy the scene where he uses a sort of Dumbo version of Inception on the Ringmaster, to plant the pyramid idea in his head! He can get a little melodramatic at times, like when he’s speechifying for the crows, but he’s generally an enjoyable character and a much-needed friend for Dumbo in this “cold, cruel, heartless woild.”

Timothy Q Mouse

The other characters can basically be broken down into Dumbo’s supporters, and his, well, haters. The biggest haters of the lot (literally) are the four other elephants he and his mother share their quarters with. God, I hate them. They’re the bitchiest characters Disney have ever done, and most of their gossip and malice is aimed at a baby! It’s dreadful. I suppose it’s a mark of effective characterisation that they come across as so hateful – and at the end, there they are singing Dumbo’s praises, now that he’s popular again! It’s so two-faced. The pompous Matriarch is the easiest one to spot, as she’s the biggest and the angriest, but the others can be easily mixed up. Officially, going by the colours they wear in their first scene (which change throughout the film), Giddy is the blue one, Prissy is the orange, and Catty (the worst of the lot, I’d say) is the greenish-yellow one.

The catty elephants
From left to right: Catty, Giddy, Prissy and the Matriarch

We also have the Messenger Stork who delivers Dumbo at the start of the film, a fun early role for Sterling Holloway, who went on to appear in many more Disney films all the way up to the 1970s. I love his scatty rendition of Happy Birthday as Mrs. Jumbo is impatiently trying to unwrap the bundle. Of course, by far the better-known avian characters in Dumbo are the crows. Now, let’s just get this out of the way right now – the crows are not racist. At least, I don’t think so. They’re certainly less racist than the “roustabouts” anyway. Although they are initially sceptical upon finding Timothy and Dumbo in a tree (wouldn’t you be?), they soon warm up to the pair and go out of their way to help boost the little elephant’s confidence. They also get one of the most lyrically inventive songs in the whole film! The group were played by Cliff Edwards (Jiminy’s voice actor), Hall Johnson and members of his choir – with the exception of Edwards, all of them were African-American actors. Casting opportunities for black actors in the 1940s were few and far between (remember Hattie McDaniel’s famous quip, “I’d rather play a maid than be one”), so Disney’s decision to cast them here in positive roles was actually quite progressive.

It must be admitted, though, that the name “Jim Crow” for the leader was insensitive – it’s a decision that can only be explained as a being a product of its time. The infamous segregation laws of the same name were still in place at the time of production, and in those pre-Civil Rights days, it probably seemed a fairly harmless “gag” to name one of the crows this. To be fair, the name might actually have been inspired by the popular Thomas D. Rice minstrel character “Jim Crow” of the 1830s, which came about forty years before the Jim Crow laws. Although that character did involve blackface (cringe), it was at a time before blackface was being used to mock African-Americans, and was instead used more as a way of representing them at a time when they were often overlooked entirely. Wherever Disney’s Jim Crow got his name from (and he’s only referred to as Jim once onscreen), he is a funny and supportive character in a film filled with catty, ignorant ones, so his presence is much appreciated, despite the name.

The crows surprised

Of the remaining characters, there’s not too much to be said. The clowns are famously said to be caricatures of the striking animators, done by the non-striking ones, though this had been disputed by some who were there, such as Art Babbitt. Notably, it is their carelessness with their alcohol during the Hit the Big Boss scene which leads to the spectacular delights of the Pink Elephants one, so we owe them that! The taunting schoolboys are annoying, as they should be, and certainly more “villainous” than the rather bumbling and inept Ringmaster, who is sometimes inaccurately described as the film’s villain for separating Dumbo and his mother (from his perspective, he actually does the right thing, protecting his patrons from a seemingly unhinged elephant). Casey Jr. is clearly based on the popular story of The Little Engine That Could, published in 1930 (he also predates Thomas the Tank Engine by a good five years).

 

Animation

While the animation of Dumbo does have a charm to it, it is, for the most part, unremarkable. This was deliberate, remember; the studio was trying to cut down on costs, so they weren’t trying to do anything ground-breaking here. The special effects build on those used in earlier films, with more clever usage of storms, rain and reflections – my favourite effect used is probably the “peanut machine gun” that Dumbo does with his trunk as revenge on the catty elephants near the end. The parade which Dumbo appears in has several fun moments, like the gorilla who “angrily” rattles the bars of his cage before accidentally pulling one out – looking sheepish, he gently fixes it back into place, revealing his rage as part of the act. There’s also an appearance by a hippo who looks suspiciously like Hyacinth from Fantasia, though without her grace or poise! There are a few slight hiccups in the animation here and there (such as one part when Timothy is scurrying up and down Dumbo’s trunk and seems to “pop” from one point to another), but overall, even Disney’s cheaper animation of the time is impressively done.

There are three standout moments, from an animation perspective. The animation of the elephant pyramid sequence is hilariously effective, with liberal use of the squash and stretch principle (it’s no mystery why elephants were such a popular character for Disney in those days) as the “proud race” stumble and tumble all over the Big Top before finally bringing it crashing down. Then, there is the lovely Baby Mine scene, featuring more outstanding work from Bill Tytla, who animated Dumbo himself. It was an unusually delicate and emotional assignment for Tytla, who was otherwise known for his bombastic, dramatic animation on characters like Stromboli and Chernabog, but he does it great justice – it’s easily the most moving scene in the picture.

Baby Mine

Of course, the scene we all think of first when we think of Dumbo is Pink Elephants on Parade, and for good reason. Weird, wacky and more than a little unnerving, this zany scene features some excellent animation from Howard Swift and Hicks Lokey, in what has come to be known as a “Disney Acid Sequence” (at least to fans of the website, TV Tropes). That name comes about because of the myth that the animators must have been on drugs when they made it; it certainly wouldn’t be hard to believe. As the elephants dance and morph into a variety of crazy forms, you can’t look away – the animation has to be seen to be appreciated:

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I always wonder why the elephants have black, empty eyes, it’s very creepy. The whole scene builds and builds to a raucous finish, before the many elephants fly into the centre of the screen and explode, coming to rest as clouds in the dawn sky in one of the cleverest transitions in the film.

To quote Christopher Finch, “Dumbo is a delightfully unpretentious picture, relying almost entirely on charm and humour rather than on special effects.” This, I think, is the secret to its enduring popularity.

 

Plot

After three features based on classic fairy tales, novels and music respectively, Dumbo was the studio’s first foray into the contemporary. It is set in then-present day America and based on a short story released mere years earlier (which, curiously, nobody seems to have seen since the 1940s). The film is known for being unusually short; distributor RKO, in a reversal of their opinion regarding the lengthy Fantasia, wanted Walt to extend Dumbo to at least 70 minutes before release, but he held his ground – some stories simply cannot be made any longer without suffering for it. It was a sound decision; Dumbo has frequently been praised for its tight and simple plot, and the handling of its central theme is very well done. Indeed, the moral is actually surprisingly “modern” – it’s a classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer story about being an outcast and learning to make the best of one’s disadvantages. In today’s world, it could even be taken as a story about a disabled child learning that he doesn’t have to be held back by his condition, which is an excellent lesson for any child who feels like they don’t fit in. To quote from critic Grant once again, “Dumbo might not have the richness of a Snow White, a Pinocchio or a Bambi, but what it did have was a simple and emotive story well told.”

A few trivia titbits for you: the circus Dumbo and his mother are a part of is apparently called the WDP Circus, which stands for Walt Disney Productions. The myth of storks delivering babies is a well-known one, but was popularised by a Hans Christian Andersen story titled, simply, The Storks, from an 1839 fairy-tale collection. The crows, so often criticised as “racist,” actually fit the “clever crows” trope better than any racial one, as they are aware of and able to effectively use the medical/psychological concept of a “placebo,” when they use a supposedly “magic” feather to give Dumbo the confidence to fly.

Circus ring

Racism is really not the film’s biggest problem nowadays. The most dated aspect of it from a 2017 perspective is actually the glorification of circuses. Although Dumbo’s experience at the circus is not a happy one, this is shown largely to be down to the animosity of other characters than because of the nature of circus life itself. In Walt’s day, a trip to the circus was nothing more than a fun day out for the family, but in the decades since attitudes have gradually begun to change. In the wake of various high-profile animal attacks, including the 1994 Tyke incident in Hawaii, the 1991, 1999 and 2010 deaths involving Tilikum at SeaWorld, the 2003 Montecore tiger mauling, and the 2008 and 2009 attacks by Rocky the bear and Travis the chimp, people have gradually come to realise the harmful effects “performing” can have on animals. With lawsuits and protests cropping up all over the world, perhaps culminating in the 2013 exposé Blackfish, circuses and similar establishments have begun to fall out of favour with the public. Seeing little Dumbo and his mother struggling to erect the Big Top in a storm has rather unfortunate implications of forced animal labour.

The drunkenness is also something of a surprise to first-time viewers of today, especially given Dumbo is a baby! There’s nothing really wrong with the scene, of course; it’s a lot of fun, and it’s rare to see a Disney character waking up with a hangover after getting wasted like this. The presence of the Pink Elephants scene serves as a funny snapshot of what the attitudes of moviegoers in the 1940s were like.

Oh, one other note: this would be a good film to skip for anyone with coulrophobia! The clowns in this film are not the most pleasantly designed, with old-fashioned slit-eye makeup and a habit of harassing little Dumbo. Following the 2016 clown sightings, it’s quite funny to imagine running into one of the Dumbo clowns in a dark alley.

 

Cinematography

As with the animation, the cinematography here has less grandiose roots than its predecessors. There are some nice shots and angles used at times, with frequent use of silhouettes in scenes with the clowns and Casey Jr. (perhaps harkening back to the early, cut-out days of animated films). Lighting is used to great effect in some of the more dramatic moments, with negative colour for the storm in which the animals set up the Big Top, and gradually darkening lighting combined with lots of close-ups to heighten the drama of Mrs. Jumbo’s capture. To help convey the parallels between Mrs. Jumbo’s reaction to this and her son’s, a dissolve is used showing them both standing and rocking forlornly, unconsciously mirroring one another in their separation. Simple storytelling tropes are used to convey information quickly; at the end, the “Spinning Paper” tells us about Dumbo’s rise to fame and also provides Timothy’s name. It’s also interesting to see a Floridian map in a Disney film with no sign of Walt Disney World! (Of course, the film predates the park by precisely thirty years).

Florida MapCasey Jr going down the trackThe Baby Mine sequence is well staged, with contact between Dumbo and his mother limited to just their trunks – only Mrs. Jumbo’s doleful eyes can be seen in the darkness of the interior. A close-up of Dumbo breaking down as he snuggles into her trunk heightens the emotional punch, which is driven home more bluntly with the following montage of happily united parents and children throughout the circus. Pink Elephants, by contrast, is very wacky and all over the place, reflecting the surreal, dreamlike nature of the scene. There are lots of long, tracking shots of the elephants as they move through their bizarre choreography, with flashing backgrounds and dramatic lighting as the scene builds to its climax.

Artistically, Dumbo is a fairly unambitious feature – there’s little of the German expressionist influence felt so strongly in the previous features, and it doesn’t borrow much from other cinematic works either. It is in fact a remarkably original feature, and one which the artists clearly relished making; for once, they could add more of their own creative touch to the film as it progressed, not constrained by trying to imitate some previous artist’s style. For research, the artists studied real elephants and other animals at the Cole Bros. Circus (which is largely defunct as of 2016, following persistent pressure from animal rights groups). The artwork was done in watercolours, like Snow White had been, as opposed to the more expensive gouache and oils used on Pinocchio and Bambi. This style would be emulated by Lilo & Stitch more than sixty years later, which was another film made during a financially difficult time for the studio and, like Dumbo, proved to be one of the biggest successes of its decade.

 

Soundtrack

I would argue that the soundtrack for Dumbo is the best of the Golden Age Disney films (aside from Fantasia’s classical masterpieces, of course). The songs here are clever, catchy and circus-y, fitting the tone perfectly, and several of them are part of the film’s most celebrated sequences.

Look Out for Mister Stork is probably one of the weaker ones, though, coming as it does after the wonderfully hammy narration at the opening of the film. It has the gentle feel of a lullaby, but in a film with one of the best lullabies of all time, it suffers somewhat for this, as it feels unnecessary. This could have been a jazzier song like the crows get; it would have fit Holloway’s stork better.

Casey Jr. is amazingly catchy – I still find myself humming it a week after watching the film! It is followed shortly by Song of the Roustabouts, which I find far more racially insensitive than the crows, personally. A group of faceless, dark-skinned circus workers sing rather mournfully about being illiterate and irresponsible with their pay, while helping the animals to erect the enourmous tent in a thundering gale. Definitely one of the most unpleasant scenes in the film, for multiple reasons.

The roustabouts

Hit the Big Boss is best remembered as the famous “striking animators” parody; it’s short but enjoyable, ending with a hilariously dated melismatic note from one of the clowns (“we’re gonna hit the big boss for a raAAaaaAAAise!).

Baby Mine has become iconic, and has been covered by various artists in the years since the film’s release. The original version heard here is performed tenderly by Betty Noyes, who also performed Debbie Reynolds’s numbers in Singin’ in the Rain. It is a heartfelt ballad featuring a female choir and beautifully supports the scene it plays in; those final harmonised notes as Dumbo waves his mother goodbye always hit me right in the heart. In hindsight, it seems like a travesty that this didn’t win the Academy Award for Best Original Song – it was nominated, but ended up losing it to The Last Time I Saw Paris from Lady Be Good.

Pink Elephants on Parade is the other highlight of the soundtrack, with its haunting minor key and the weird wordplay of its lyrics. All of the lyrics in the songs here are the work of Ned Washington, and I think these are some of his best songs from Disney. Although the song is quite hammy, it has become the signature scene of the film for obvious reasons – just watch it to see what I mean. Fun fact: at the time, “seeing pink elephants” was a long-established euphemism for drunkenness. Also, if you think the lyrics to the English version are creepy, you should read the Spanish ones – in that version, the pink elephants are said to be relatives of Satan!

The lyrics to When I See an Elephant Fly are even more inventive than those of Pink Elephants, with lots of clever wordplay based on the often-nonsensical rules of the English language. As an English graduate, this is one of my favourite songs from the film – I can’t help laughing as the crows run rings around the frustrated Timothy, having such a great time messing around with word combinations. There’s also some fun jazz and scat influences at times, too.

The writing for the film is generally kept tight and clever, like the rest of it. One particular thing that keeps making me laugh is the repeated use of the word “climax” to describe Dumbo. The gutter-minded of today could have a field day with lines like, “Dumbo, you’re a climax!” and “You are now getting that climax!” It’s similar to watching The Flintstones, with everybody singing about having a “gay old time.” I do love it when innocent words take on new meanings over the years.

 

Final Verdict

Dumbo was a welcome addition to the Disney canon. Despite being released just months before Pearl Harbour (which knocked it off the cover of TIME magazine), it still managed to turn a good profit and went on to enjoy successful re-releases in 1949, 1959, 1972 and 1976. Since its first VHS release marked its home media debut in the ‘80s, it has never gone out of print. It is beloved by animation fans like Leonard Maltin and John Lasseter, and has garnered more surprising fans like US Army general Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, who was depicted (by an actor) watching the film in Spielberg’s feature, 1941.

The film’s legacy remains strong to this day. John Lasseter blessedly cancelled a planned sequel to the film in the early 2000s (thank goodness), and in Disney parks across the globe, Dumbo the Flying Elephant is a popular ride. There is even a species of octopus (Grimpoteuthis) named after the character! Original cels from the film are also highly prized by collectors; due to the exuberance of the animators, who used to enjoy skating on them after the film was “in the can,” not many have survived, making them some of the rarest and most valuable in the industry.

I would definitely recommend finding a copy of this one if you haven’t seen it yet – it’s very short, but very sweet, and is well worth any animation fan’s time.

 

My Rating – 4/5

 

References

I consulted my own books to research for this review, as well as some standard web sources:

The World History of Animation (2011) by Stephen Cavalier

The Art of Walt Disney (2011 ed.) by Christopher Finch

Once Upon a Time: Walt Disney (2007) edited by Bruno Girveau

Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters (1998 ed.) by John Grant

Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (1981) by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas

Disney’s Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Hercules (1997 ed.) by Bob Thomas

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3857518 – credit for film poster

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dumbo – Wiki article

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0033563/ – IMDB Profile

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Disney/Dumbo – TV Tropes page


If you’d like to read more, here are some of my other reviews:

Film Review: Fantasia (1940)

Film Review: Pinocchio (1940)

Film Review: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

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