Saturday, March 22, 2014

DUMBO (1941)

RELEASE DATE: Thursday 23rd October 1941

Much to Walt Disney's heartbreaking disappointment, neither Pinocchio or Fantasia were financially successful on their initial release. Since this was long before merchandising and theme parks, the entire Disney company lived or died by its profits at the box office. Bambi was in production, but was taking a long and gruelling time to complete. Walt's solution was to take a small, simple story and make a small, simple movie. It would be made in a limited time and on a limited budget. It would not be anywhere near as reliant on special effects as the previous films. The backgrounds would be painted in watercolour. And at only 64 minutes long, Dumbo is one of the shortest Disney animated movies in the canon. (Although not the shortest... more about that soon...)

The aim was to create a movie that would make money, and save the company from its financial slump. Thankfully, Dumbo did exactly that. It was tremendously popular, and many experts claim that without Dumbo's success, the Walt Disney company would not have existed long past 1941.

The adaptation of Dumbo was handled by two of Walt's most trusted story men, Dick Huemer and Joe Grant. The two of them set about making a version of the children's story (originally written by Helen Aberson) that would not only provide lots of laughs and gags, but also moments of heartbreaking sadness. Film critic Leonard Maltin claims that Dumbo is his single favourite Disney movie of all time, and he is not alone.

Dumbo begins with the storks, those tireless deliverers of babies, flying through the sky.

They are delivering baby animals to the expectant parents in the circus that is travelling around America. An elephant called Mrs. Jumbo waits patiently, but no baby comes to her. The next day, the stork carrying little Jumbo Jr. is finding himself a bit lost...

Eventually he finds his way to Mrs. Jumbo and delivers her baby to her. The stork is voiced by Sterling Holloway, who would later go on to voice the Cheshire Cat (Alice In Wonderland), Kaa (The Jungle Book), Roquefort (The Aristocats) and - perhaps most famously - Winnie The Pooh himself.

Mrs. Jumbo is delighted with her adorable new little baby elephant, but it is soon revealed that Jumbo Jr. has somewhat of a standout feature...

His enormous ears are mocked and ridiculed by the other elephants, a gaggle of nasty, gossipy females. They give him his insulting namesake: "Dumbo." His mother however accepts him exactly as he is, and loves him regardless of his abnormality. The circus continues to travel around the countryside, led by its characteristic train, Casey Jr.

Everyone in the circus helps to set up the big top in a storm, even the new little elephant. When the crowds come to see the circus, a boy makes fun of little Jumbo Jr.'s ears.

Ever the protective mother, Mrs. Jumbo strikes back and attacks the boy. She is chained up and locked away, her precious baby stolen away from her.

With no mother around to look after him, poor little Dumbo tries to make friends with the other elephants, but they shun him, refusing to pay him any attention, purely because of his big ears. Meanwhile, a little mouse is watching the whole scene and says the words that the audience is all thinking: "What's the matter with his ears? I don't see nothin' wrong with them. I think they're cute."

This major character is never named during the movie, but eagle-eyed viewers might notice his signature at the end of the movie naming him "Timothy Q. Mouse." He decides to stand up for little Dumbo and help him overcome his life's obstacles. He starts by giving him a purpose in the circus. He visits the ringmaster in his sleep and convinces him to include Dumbo in a big elephant extravaganza. Unfortunately his ears trip him up and the entire big top crashes down. The outcome of this event is that Dumbo is made into a clown, the absolute shame of the elephant world. From now on, he will be completely disowned by the other elephants.

Sensing how sad and depressed the little elephant is, Timothy Mouse takes him to see his locked-up mother in the middle of the night. This scene, beautifully animated, is one that is sure to bring a tear to the eyes of the hardest-hearted person.

The following sequence is one of the most bizarre and brilliant segments in any Disney film. To cure Dumbo of hiccups, Timothy Mouse tells him to take a drink of water, not realising that a bottle of alcohol had recently been dropped in the water. Before long the elephant and mouse are quite inebriated, and begin to see things that aren't really there... Pink Elephants On Parade!!

The next morning they wake up with a shocking hangover... Only there's an unexplained mystery to be solved... What on Earth are they doing up a tree? (Who knew that Dumbo was a precursor to the "Hangover" movies?) A group of crows (a "murder," I suppose) wonders the exact same thing...

They joke that maybe Dumbo flew up the tree! Timothy Mouse suddenly realises the truth in this claim; Dumbo's giant ears act as perfect wings! The crows help him convince the little elephant (with the help of a "magic feather") that he can actually fly!

They head back to the circus and prepare for the greatest surprise the audience would ever see: Dumbo the Flying Elephant! He becomes a worldwide sensation, Mrs. Jumbo is released, and everybody lives happily ever after.

IRVYNE: With this movie's short length, there is a simplicity in the storytelling. Every part of the story is told economically, and it works remarkably well. Where this movie excels is in its fantastic collection of memorable characters.

WENDY: Isn't it interesting that the title character of the movie never speaks?

IRVYNE: I believe in the original story he did speak, but it was a very conscious decision to have him mute, and I think it was absolutely the right decision. Dumbo is a baby. There is an innocence and naivety to him that would not have worked if he'd been able to talk.

JOHN DARLING: How were the storks so accurate? They dropped every baby at exactly the right spot!

HAKU: More importantly, who brings babies to the storks...?

IRVYNE: Elephants.

WENDY: There were so many cute baby animals at the start of the movie, I thought I was going to explode!

PASCAL: That little baby elephant was just so cute I wish I could take him home!

IRVYNE: For all the characters in Dumbo, you'll notice that very little screen time is given to the humans. The ringmaster is seen from time to time, the men erect the big top during the storm, and we see the clowns and the bully boys in their one scene, but it's almost completely animals.
MICHAEL DARLING: The boy who was picking on Dumbo looked like Lampwick from Pinocchio!

IRVYNE: Did he...? Hmmm... I think you might be on to something there! I'd never noticed that before!

I suppose you could call the horrible gossip-group of elephants the villains of the piece. I think what makes them work so well is that most people know women just like them.

WENDY: The way they bullied poor little Dumbo was just horrible!

IRVYNE: The little elephant does find his champion though, in Timothy Q. Mouse. I think one of the wonderful things about the character of Dumbo is that we can all inject ourselves into his position. Everyone has something about themselves that makes them different; something that other people won't accept; something that makes them feel like they don't belong. But how fantastic is it in this story, where a strong and confident character comes along and takes the victim under his wing and says, "Don't worry. I'm going to look after you. If someone's going to pick on you, they'll have to go through me first." If only there were more people like that in the real world! I'm not sure why Timothy Mouse has a New York accent. I wonder if he was inspiration for Bugs Bunny...

NALA: Where did the mouse get his little clothes from? Does he have an act in the circus as well?

IRVYNE: I don't think the audience would be able to see him even if he did!

WENDY: The crows are great.

IRVYNE: The crows are black.

WENDY: They certainly are.

IRVYNE: There's obviously been a lot of criticism of the crows since Dumbo's release, in that they're caricatures of African Americans and whatnot. While that's most definitely true - their banter is based on African American radio shows of the time - I don't think there's anything inherently racist about their portrayal, apart from the fact that they are, quite literally, black characters.
But all up, this film has a very strong cast of characters who invoke a whole range of emotions in the viewers.
I suppose we can all thank our lucky stars that John Lasseter saw fit to cancel THIS...

The style of Dumbo matches the circus theme well: it's very bright and colourful. The line work is simple and much more "cartoony" than in any of the three previous films. With the focus on making the film quickly and cheaply, the artists could just focus on making the characters look and move well, and less focus was put on special effects.

Even with this more simplified look, where Dumbo really shines is in its character animation, particularly in the little titular elephant himself, largely animated by Bill Tytla, who had previously created the demon Chernabog in Fantasia. The range of emotions that could be shown on a little elephant who doesn't speak, is staggering. He is considered one of the greatest achievements in character animation by people in the industry.

WENDY: I love the bird's eye view of Florida.

IRVYNE: You can see the train travelling over the spot where they would build Walt Disney World 30 years later!

HAKU: There are some really strange fades to black in this film, which come at unexpected moments. After Dumbo is ripped away from his mother, the scene fades to black while the ringmaster's shot is still going, in the middle of the gag.

IRVYNE: I noticed that too. There's another one where the crows give the mouse the magic feather, and it does a full fade to black, before fading up on them trying to fly with the magic feather. I thought, surely a simple cut, or even a cross-fade would have been a better choice there. But anyway... And of course, we can't talk about the art of Dumbo without mentioning the incredible Pink Elephants sequence!

HAKU: I felt like that Pink Elephant scene was just filler; it was just wasting time.

IRVYNE: Are you serious...? Are you actually serious? Dumbo would not be Dumbo without Pink Elephants!

WENDY: No, I agree with Haku. It's absolutely not necessary. Babies getting drunk and tripping out in a family film? "There's a lot to learn from this film, kids! This is where babies come from! This is what happens when you drink the special water!"

IRVYNE: It's a masterpiece of surrealist cinema! Experimentation in animation! It's the Disney artists being let off their chains!

HAKU: But it goes on for far too long.

IRVYNE: It does not. It's only a couple of minutes long. And it's fantastic! The surrealist movement had become popular a decade or two before this. Lots of the animators would have studied the work of Salvidor Dali and his like, and here was a chance for them to create something nonsensical, non-sequential and just all-out strange! I love it! Not to mention, some of the animation is strikingly beautiful. For example, the bit where the elephants are ice-skating, but the only part you can actually see is their highlights! I think the Pink Elephants sequence is amazing, and it's one of the highlights of the movie for me.


Dumbo's collection of songs is fantastic. The songs were written by Frank Churchill, who had also written the memorable tunes in Snow White, as well as that virally popular song "Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf." Churchill had a genuine gift for writing melodies, which is made all the more tragic when you realise that he committed suicide only 7 months after Dumbo was released in cinemas.

There are a couple of scene-setting songs, such as "Look Out For Mr. Stork," the incredibly catchy ditty "Casey Jr." and "The Song Of The Roustabouts," which is sung during the storm. "Baby Mine" is a beautifully bittersweet ballad, and it has since gone on to be sung by many artists, decades after its original composition. "Pink Elephants On Parade" is eclectic and odd, perfectly fitting the bizarre visuals of the film. The big number towards the film's end is, of course, "When I See An Elephant Fly," the crows' song. Interestingly, this is the only song in Dumbo that is sung by actual characters. Most of the songs were performed by a group called The Sportsmen. "When I See An Elephant Fly" was performed by Cliff Edwards and the Hall Johnson Choir.

Every song in Dumbo has a catchy and singable melody, and it's definitely one of the better soundtracks of the early Disney era. The score was written by Oliver Wallace, and it is wonderfully suited to the style and setting of the piece. The score ended up winning the Academy Award that year, and although "Baby Mine" was nominated, it didn't win.

WENDY: Baby Mine is just beautiful, both the song and the scene itself.

PASCAL: The bit when they're reaching their trunks out to each other! Awwwww.

I feel that the reason Dumbo stands up so well is thanks to its wonderful cast of characters who audiences can easily relate to. Although it doesn't have the rich artistry of Disney's previous efforts, it achieved exactly what it set out to do: make money. It was made cheap and it was made quick. But the passion of the storytellers is still evident in every frame.

WENDY: It's not my favourite Disney film.

IRVYNE: I wouldn't say it's my favourite, but I have a very soft spot for Dumbo. I find it more watchable than Snow White, Pinocchio or Bambi. It's adorable. 


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