Personal Overview: It’s one of the few Disney’s to be released at that time that wasn’t based on a better known or developed concept. It was based on a short story used for a novelty book type known as a ‘roll-a-book’.
It’s a fairly common story of an outcast or underdog using the very thing that gives them that status to make good. In fact there are a few similarities with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which I didn’t really pick up on until I started thinking about it for reviewing it this way. Intially the reindeer with the glowing red nose is ostracized and picked on by his own kind for the very thing that makes him different until he uses this difference for a useful purpose, it’s much the same with the baby elephant and his outsized ears.
The original was quite short and Walt and his animators had to pad like crazy to get a full length film out of it. I’m pretty sure the Pink Elephants on Parade and the Crow sequence were the result of that. Even then it weighs in at 64 minutes, which wouldn’t be accepted as a main feature now.
Overall it’s fairly inoffensive, although there are some problems with the portrayal of the Crows. However their song is one of the highlights of the film for me. Mainly because of the very clever lyrics which use deliberate double meanings and misunderstandings of every day words and terms like baseball bat, housefly and rubber band to make it’s point that even an elephant can fly.
It was actually the most financially successful Disney film of the 1940’s and helped the studio recoup some of the losses that Fantasia and Pinocchio incurred.
Hero/es: there are two really. One is of course Dumbo himself, who is unusual for the hero of a Disney movie in that he doesn’t speak. Elephants can speak in the film, in fact the older female ones are quite acid tongued. Dumbo’s mother Mrs Jumbo only says one word (her son’s name, actually Jumbo Jr), so maybe it’s a family thing, or possibly being an infant Dumbo is pre verbal. The other hero: Timothy J. Mouse, does most of the talking. He’s a mouse dressed in a red ring master’s suit and plays the role of the fast talking manager. He reminds me a lot of Bugs Bunny both in manner and action, although he’s far more altruistic than the Warner Bros rabbit. Of course there’s also the inversion of having Dumbo’s best friend be the pachyderm’s natural enemy; the mouse. I’m not actually sure if elephants are really scared of mice, but for their size and strength they are remarkably timid. I’ve personally seen a number in the wild being menaced by a mongoose and they were genuinely scared of it, despite the fact that anyone of them could have easily stepped on it and ended it.
Villain/s: Like Pinocchio, Dumbo lacks an actual villain. The other female elephants, while they’re pompous and malicious aren’t actually evil. The elephant matriarch was the first instance of Verna Felton working for Disney, she provided voices in five other films, including another elephant in The Jungle Book. The ringmaster is angry and venal, but again he’s not actually a villain as such and the same goes for the clowns. Clowns come off quite badly in the film. It makes one wonder if Walt Disney suffered from coulrophobia.
Cuteness Factor: Dumbo himself has this in spades. Baby elephants in real life are extremely cute and with his outsize ears and big blue eyes Dumbo accentuates this in the film. Of course there’s the reaction that the ears provoke and the mean nickname he’s tagged with and the audience’s heart melts. Funnily enough although it’s not really his name and it’s intended to be cruel, Dumbo does become his name and he never takes offence with Timothy refers to him using it. Timothy is also kind of cute, but he’s totally overshadowed by his young co-star.
Animation: you can’t mention the animation in Dumbo and not talk about the Pink Elephants on Parade sequence. Most of Dumbo’s animation is fairly crude to be frank, but they pulled out all stops with that sequence. It’s a dream that Dumbo and Timothy share when they both drink from a bucket of water which has been accidentally spiked by a careless and drunken clown. It’s psychedelic before the term had been coined. If I didn’t know better I’d swear the animators had been tripping on acid or magic mushrooms.
Final Words: it’s a cute little piece and I can see the appeal. It kind of set the tone for years for what people thought of when a Disney animated film was mentioned.