“Dumbo” is another Disney classic I didn’t have much experience with until recently. Aside from glimpsing it a few times in my childhood, I first saw “Dumbo” in summer 2017 and I enjoyed it a lot as a rustic, down-to-earth film, but after rewatching it for this review it’s risen even further in my estimation. It’s pretty easy to overlook “Dumbo”, since it doesn’t test the limits of what animation is capable of like “Pinocchio” or “Fantasia”, or try to be a grand story of life and death like “Bambi” (in fact, “Dumbo” was released to turn a profit during a tough time for the studio between several expensive projects), but something that stands out about “Dumbo” is just how fun, simple and stirring it is as a short standalone. It’s a movie about acceptance, a movie about circus life, and a movie about the love a parent and child have for each other, and that’s all it really needs to be to be enchanting.
Something I always enjoy about revisiting the golden era of Disney animation is the tone and style of these films. At the time, Disney was still accustomed to doing the theatrical shorts that gave the company it’s start, and their first handful of movies felt like flashy extended shorts, with all the fairy tale, storybook vibes that came with them. The universe “Dumbo” takes place in is zany and bizarre, with actual storks delivering babies to people, living trains carting people around, and a scene where an elephant unashamedly starts flying with only his large ears to propel him; it’s the sort of thing you probably wouldn’t see in an animated film these days because it wouldn’t work as well in the 21st century, but in the golden era, when the line between reality and fantasy was a lot more blurred, there’s a real charm to it.
The film devotes a lot of time to zany circus hijinks and situational comedy involving the various types of animals the circus has on hand, and of course there’s some trademark golden era frights (though not as many as other films). One scene that stands out is when some punks start messing with Mrs. Jumbo’s baby, which causes her to lash out, and when other humans try to restrain her she goes red-eyed with fury and starts wrecking everything nearby. That’s some classic mood whiplash for you. Lastly, this is another Disney film where I’d argue the character relationships are the main selling point, more than anything else. There’s really only two of them (Dumbo & Mrs. Jumbo and Dumbo & Timothy) but they are precious.
Dumbo is an innocent and naive newborn elephant born to a circus pachyderm, a playful kid who’s just learning how the world works under the tutelage of his mom. Dumbo is born with the birth defect of overly large ears that weigh him down and hinder his ability to walk. Dumbo can adapt to them well enough, but it’s not Dumbo’s own opinion of his ears that’s the problem. Because of his ears, his undignified demeanor and his habit of getting into trouble, Dumbo is regarded as a freak and a disgrace to his herd and shunned by other elephants. He’s treated cruelly and callously by humans and animals alike, and eventually stripped of his mother, forced to face all the mockery and jeering alone.
I appreciate that Dumbo isn’t portrayed as being unflappably cheery or optimistic in the face of adversity, which would be an easy enough route for the movie to take. He’s a young boy who’s unfairly lost his mother and is dealing with a lot of crap at the moment, mostly from people who are supposed to be adults and should be much more mature than they are. Dumbo may not know much, but he does know his life sucks currently, and as the film progresses we see him grow increasingly melancholy and dejected, slipping into un-childlike bouts of depression and pessimism. Ironically, Disney devoted way more time to Dumbo feeling sad about his mom being in elephant jail than they devoted time to Bambi feeling sad about how his mom got murdered. What makes all this character depth even more impressive is that Dumbo never has a single line of dialogue (since he’s not old enough to speak yet), and all of his emotions are conveyed non-verbally by the animation throughout the film.
I have a great deal of fondness for the dueteragonist of this film, Timothy Q. Mouse – the circus rodent with an eye for show business. Since Dumbo can’t speak, his buddy Timothy is given the task of carrying most of the movie, and he does a fine job of it. Timothy can best be described as blokish and down to earth, very much an everyman character for this movie’s era, but also kindhearted. He can be such a tough little mouse and a spitfire at times, but sensitive and supportive at others, knowing just when to alternate between the two as he works with a special needs kid. Timothy is one of the few characters in this movie who actually seems to have a sense of empathy and recognizes that picking on a kid (even a kid several times his size) is pretty messed up.
He offers Dumbo his friendship at a time when he needs a friend the most, and takes the elephant under his wing as a brash big brother figure, unlike Jiminy Cricket who was more of a father figure to Pinocchio. As Dumbo’s older partner, he coaches him on how to survive circus life, tries to help him make plans for the future and helps him sneak out to see his imprisoned mother, though he also makes his share of bad judgment calls. We also learn, from his confrontation with the crows, that Timothy can lay on one hell of a good guilt trip when he wants to. Timothy tries his best to offer Dumbo encouragement and keep his spirits up but they’re both well aware that the abuse is only getting worse and they’re still the circus outcasts, until they stumble upon the idea of Dumbo being able to fly and latch onto it immediately. They make what had previously been a weakness of Dumbo’s a strength and finally find themselves a way out of their awful situation.
Mrs. Jumbo is a rare sight in the Disney canon; a mother who has a strong, healthy relationship with her offspring who also survives to the end of the film. She spends most of the movie in elephant jail, but she survives, y’all. Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo have one of the most pure, loving portrayals of a mother / son relationship you’ll see in the Disney canon. At the start of the film, having a child is clearly something Mrs. Jumbo has wanted for a while now, and when she finally receives her son he’s her pride and joy. She tries to be a gentle, guiding hand; she teaches him how to walk and shields him from the scorn and cruelty of others, and all the love she gives her son he fully reciprocates.
When Mrs. Jumbo attacks some humans who are harassing her son (these kids are insane by the way. The number one of rule of interacting with animals, that everyone knows, is that you never mess with someone else’s kid. A human woman would mess you up for doing it, a wild animal would probably kill you. You really want to provoke something ten times your size?), the circus deems her unstable and a threat to their customers so they lock her away for the rest of the tour, and while what they’ll do to her afterwards is left rather vague, the implications are pretty grim. Being separated for most of the movie naturally hurts Dumbo and Jumbo both, and takes quite the toll on their spirits. The mother / son feels come to a head in the song, “Baby Mine”, where Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo try to make their most of the limited time they have during Dumbo’s visit and find a way around being separated by bars. Dumbo gaining fame and notoriety is nice and all, but it’s clear that Dumbo’s greatest victory in this film is being able to save his mom at the end and reuniting with her safely and happily. I like that as sweet as Mrs. Jumbo is, the movie never forgets to give her an important, establishing character flaw, and one that seems fitting for an elephant – she can be quite hotheaded.
The rest of the elephants in Dumbo’s troupe are total bitches, partly because they’re all the catty, gossiping, backstabbing older woman stereotype you used to see a lot in films, as well as your typical, high society class snobs who travel in packs but really probably can’t stand each other. The elephants don’t cause all of Dumbo’s and Mrs. Jumbo’s problems, but they certainly signal the start of them and exacerbate them. They have no problem taunting, shunning or bullying an infant, they’re very snide, bullheaded and tribalistic towards anyone outside their circle, and they turn their back on Dumbo’s mother (who’ve they supposedly been friends with for years) awfully quickly. Basically, if the elephants were characters in a stereotypical high school movie, they would be the mean girl clique who love to exclude others and trample their spirits. This one in particular, who I think is named Prissy, is annoyingly smug and has a face you love to hate. The comeuppance they receive, at the hands of Dumbo, during the elephant pyramid scene is as unexpectedly grand and brutal as it is hilarious and oh so satisfying. The elephants bringing down the big top is seriously one of the highlights of the movie.
In addition to spending a lot of time with the animals, the film also gives some insight into the human performers and workers, and the behind-the-scenes process of the circus – like the theatrical, long-winded ringmaster trying to think up new acts for his animals every night or frustrated, overworked, underpaid roustabouts erecting the big top. After a disastrous pyramid act, Dumbo winds up reassigned to some slovenly, loud-mouthed clowns who are a real pain; their scenes are the only ones that drag, but thankfully they only have three of them (Disney had a worker’s strike going on at the time, and the clowns make a subtle nod towards that).
The circus’ audience members are neutral characters, though they aren’t portrayed in a particularly kinder light than the workers – since they’re shown to enjoy watching animals be put into incredibly dangerous situations for their entertainment, and laugh at said animals’ humiliation. “Dumbo” doesn’t shy away from how dehumanizing circus life can be for animals when simple ‘entertainment’ is taken too far (not to mention, how bratty kids can be). The early scenes in the movie involve enjoyably silly appearances from storks delivering people’s kids, including a scatter-brained one voiced by Sterling Holloway in his first of several appearances in the Disney canon. I find the stork scenes do a great job of drawing people into the movie, especially since the narrator fakes the audience out, building them up to see a titanic, unstoppable force only to reveal it’s just a flock of hard-working birds.
Towards the end of the movie, some quirky, talkative black crows show up (in more ways than one) to give young Dumbo flying lessons. Since I’m black, I guess I ought to weigh in my thoughts on these characters. The crows are neutral characters and they straddle the line between being amusing & charismatic and being irritating initially, since they’re another group of characters heckling Dumbo, but after Timothy chews them out and makes them aware of just how harmful their teasing is, the crows perform a heel-face turn. Becoming Dumbo’s friends and allies for the rest of the film, they grow on you fully as rough and hearty, salt-of-the-earth type men.
The crows being portrayed as jive, southern black men as well as a flock of close-knit birds doesn’t really bother me, considering this film’s day and age, and the fact that many Disney characters during this era were basically walking stereotypes and archetypes. The crows don’t really do anything offensive and are arguably the only characters who learn from their mistakes in a manner that feels earned (unlike the other two-faced animals back at the circus (I’m looking at you, elephants)). As far as potentially racist Disney moments go, “What Makes A Red Man Red?” from “Peter Pan” is much, much worse. Something that does make me squint though, is the fact that the lead crow is apparently named ‘Jim Crow’. The only reason you would name a character ‘Jim Crow’ was if you were either trying to be funny and failing, or if you wanted to piss someone off. So whoever gave the crow that name, trample off.
The animation, naturally, is pretty pristine. As mentioned, it especially shines when it comes to fleshing out Dumbo’s character and showing his progression from happy-go-lucky kid to depressed loner throughout the movie. Despite being a more low-key outing for Disney, the movements are all very fluid and refined, and some fun things are done with the characters’ perspectives, since there are animals of all different sizes present in this film. For example, there are quite a few bird characters in “Dumbo” and all of them are done justice, with the delightful visual oddity of Dumbo joining the crows in soaring through the skies in the last fifteen minutes of the movie.
I like that there are a few shots where the human characters are kept as shadows backlit in their tents, showing that while they’re an integral part of the circus they’re completely separate from the animal world and completely uninterested in everything that might be happening there. I like how convincingly queasy the character animation can get occasionally when the animals are rattled, which contributes to some of the more disoriented or gloomy scenes in the movie; and the animation in general is probably at it’s most ornate, detailed and creative during the Pink Elephants sequence, which I’ll talk about in a bit.
One more thing I enjoyed about the golden era were the occasional, elaborate sequences that would seamlessly blend animation and score (penned this time by Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace) together to try to create something special and captivating. “Dumbo” has a few of those moments, like the first scene of the storks flying in formation under a full moon (“Mr. Stork”), or the hearty, bracing and somewhat fearsome song the roustabouts sing when they and the circus elephants construct the big top in the middle of a fierce, oncoming storm (“Happy Hearted Roustabouts”). “Casey Junior” is a fun and peppy road song that will surely get stuck in your head; the standout number is probably, “Baby Mine”, which manages to be quietly heartbreaking and memorably tender as Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo comfort each other at night; and “When I See An Elephant Fly”, performed by the crows as a sign of their camaraderie, is pleasantly folksy.
I think the song and sequence I have the most mixed feelings about is “Pink Elephants On Parade”, one of the first Big-Lipped Alligator moments in the Disney canon. It’s also an extended visual pun on the old, outdated phrase ‘pink elephants’. When Dumbo and Timothy unwittingly drink beer and get smashed (which is a pretty funny scene), the plot stops dead for about five minutes so we can see the psychedelic products of the animators’ imagination – hallucinatory pink elephants doing random, spooky things that wouldn’t seem out of place in an acid trip. Needless to say, this scene is pure filler and could easily be trimmed, though it does have it’s charm for being highly experimental and sporting some gorgeous animation.
“Dumbo” is a short but sweet film that manages to have fun, tell an engaging story and unwittingly act as a time capsule for a different era in history. It’s one of those great times where a Disney film has pleasantly surprised me, and I consider it to be another one of the studio’s early gems.
* When you listen to them, the lyrics for “Mr. Stork” seem just a bit sinister.
* “Casey Junior’s coming down the track, coming down the track with a smoky stack! Hear him puffin’ coming round the hill, Casey’s here to thrill every Jack and Jill!”
* “Sign here, please”.
* Nicely done.
* “We don’t know when we get our pay, and when we do we throw our pay away!” Since it’s the 1940s, I really doubt that.
* “Muscles aching, back near breaking! Eggs and bacon’s what we need! Yes, sir! Boss man houndin’, keep on poundin’ for your bread and keep! There ain’t no letup, got to set up! Pull that canvas! Drive that stake! Want to doze off, get them clothes off!”
* I think the roustabout song is tied with “Baby Mine” as my favorite song in the film, partly for the parallels drawn between the poor working class men and the circus animals both having to work in such awful conditions. Underneath this cute story about a mother and son pachyderm, there’s some rather biting social commentary in this film about life in the 1940’s, including (but not limited to) the mistreatment of animals.
* “You’re not afraid of little old me, are you?” *Dumbo nods head*
* “I knew he never had nothing”.
* “I’ll be back in a minute Dumbo, I’m gonna take care of your future!”
* “Your pyramid of elephants are standing in the ring waitin’ for a climax! You are now getting that climax!” Timothy gave the ringmaster some sweet, sweet dreams.
* “And who is your climax? The little elephant with the big ears! The world’s mightiest midget mastodon! Dumbo!”
* “Baby mine, don’t you cry. Baby mine, dry your eyes. Rest your head close to my heart, never to part, baby of mine. Little one when you play, don’t you mind what they say. Let those eyes sparkle and shine, never a tear. Baby of mine“.
* Dumbo apparently has quite the talent for blowing bubbles; he can even do this. That should have been part of his act.
* Dumbo is a bit too young to be getting wasted and hungover.
* “Dead people don’t snore… or do they?” I’m pretty sure they don’t.
* “Say, look here brother rat-” “Brother rat?! Now listen, I ain’t your brother and I ain’t no rat, see?!” TRIGGERED.
* “I can see it all now. Dumbo, the Ninth Wonder of the Universe! The world’s only flyin’ elephant!”
* “But I be done seen ’bout everything, when I see a elephant fly! But I be done seen ’bout everything, when I see a elephant fly!!!”
* “And on top of that, they made him a clown! Socially, he’s all washed up!” This movie really does not like clowns.
* Similar to Pinocchio’s nose growing, Dumbo flying is considered the signature scene of this movie, and ironically it occurs in the last fifteen minutes of the film.
* Timothy decides to have Dumbo test his flying abilities by jumping off a cliff. This is a terrible idea. They still don’t even know if Dumbo can actually fly yet, let alone doing something crazy like this.
* “Boy, those city folks sure are in for a surprise!”
* Dumbo gets his ears insured, for a million dollars no less. This movie is so weird.
* I see those other elephants are on Team Dumbo now. There’s literally only a minute left in the movie; it’s too late for that, ladies.
* “So long, glamour boy!”
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- The Dumbo In Love by VeronicaToon7.