Written by Otto Englander, Joe Grant, and Dick Huemer
Directed by Ben Sharpsteen
Walt Disney Animation Studios’ catalogue began with an artistic bang when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio were released to audiences. While not the commercial successes the studio fantasized about, both demonstrated the sharp if simple storytelling and, arguably more impressive, a quality of animation that seemed unparalleled at the time. The issue, alas, was the lack of monetary success (especially with the company’s other 1940 release, Fantasia), a result that discouraged Walt Disney from swinging for the fences with his next outing, Dumbo. As far as the script is concerned, Dumbo performs some extraordinarily unorthodox circus acts to tell what is an extremely simple story, which compensates for the lower quality of the visuals, even though the latter is not quite as bad as it seems upon first glance.
The story begins in Florida, where a traveling circus is making the rounds, inviting guests to pay witness to amazing feats performed by clowns and a host of animals. The female captives are expecting, although not the traditional sense as most would understand it. No birds-and-the-bees business around these parts, as storks come deliver the babies wrapped in blankets from above. Tigers, kangaroos, and hippos are gently deposited, as is an infant for Mrs. Jumbo (Verna Felton) the elephant. Much to her surprise and the dismay of her elephantine colleagues, Jumbo Jr. is graced with abnormally large ears. Scorned by the others of his kind and a laughing stock for every passerby, Jumbo, nicknamed Dumbo, will need the help of a circus mouse filled with gumption named Timothy Q. (Edward Brophy) to show the world how special he is.
In similar vein to Pinocchio, Dumbo is the type of Disney adventure that takes far-reaching liberties in creating its internal universe, bridging the gap between the real world and fantasy. There are humans and places anyone will recognize but, woven into the fabric of normalcy are trains that express signs of fatigue and excitement, overhead shots of the southern tip of the United States that look like a map from a children’s book, and side effects of alcohol consumption akin to those of ecstasy. For the unsuspecting viewer, such demonstrations of otherworldly feats can catch them off guard, breaking any trust they put into the rules that dictate the film.
However strange said rules are, the artistic decisions made by the creative team do provide life and meaning to the many things people take for granted, thus creating a wonderfully heightened, exaggerated depiction of reality. A train whistles, requires repairs and rest, and its engines must work harder when traveling uphill. Supervising director Ben Sharpsteen and the animators creatively visualize these realities of locomotive mechanics by anthropomorphizing the circus train carrying the troops from one scheduled stop to another. Certain words are audible when listening to its excited whistling upon departure, its mechanical limbs are clearly struggling more when the tracks take it up a mountain, and so on. Dumbo is blessed with a multitude of whimsical touches that articulate the mood the movie wants to set. In the aforementioned mountain scene, the time of day shifts from afternoon to night in a single shot, the transition occurring as the locomotive traverses a tunnel, disappearing from view for but a few seconds. Small, outside-the-box moments of imagination largely make up for the evident simplicity in animation quality.
Story-wise, Dumbo is as familiar as they come. It ostensibly relates to how everybody has a purpose in life, even those that are different. Physical limitations (or what are perceived as physical limitations) will make achieving Dumbo’s goals more difficult, but it is possible with the right mindset and encouragement. In true classic Disney form of the early period, the filmmakers tell this simple story by way of unexpected, at times shocking plot developments. There was definitely something in the way the creative teams at Disney thought up the story arcs to the original classics that speaks to the very liberal, open-minded brainstorming that must have dominated pre-production meetings.
Consider the facts. When the story of Dumbo’s rise to fame is taken as a whole, one can make the case that the poor little guy never would have been set on the course to success had his mother not been put in captive solitude following an outburst of rage that erupted when, what else, visitors mocked and harassed the infant’s ears. More than once, it is suggested that Mrs. Jumbo is a very protective mother. This is natural, of course, especially under the circumstances. Even so, it stands to reason that Jumbo’s staunchly defensive posture would have distorted the course of history. The acquaintance of Timothy would have transpired under vastly different circumstances, if at all. Timothy is a very interesting character. Clearly unperturbed by the youth’s deformity, he simultaneously comes to the outcast’s comfort while trying to concoct a lucrative way to utilize Dumbo’s God-given ears. He remains the nicest individual Dumbo has the good fortune of meeting, second only to his mother. There is nevertheless an unmistakable, underlying sense that he lusts for cashing in on the elephant’s potential. Despondent after a few attempts at inserting the protagonist into some acts have made no more than a mockery of him, Dumbo and Timothy go for a fresh drink of water one night following a show.
This is where things get really crazy for the final 20 minutes. As happenstance would have it, liquor has found its way into the bucket of water the two friends seek for refreshment. After a single gulp of spiked water, dear little Dumbo enters a staggeringly inebriated state, blowing cubical bubbles out of his snout and, not before long, both he and Timothy lose their faculties to drunkenness by jointly experiencing the same hallucinations involving troops of parading pink elephants chanting a song fit for a child’s nightmare. Said monstrosities sneak into a bedroom, walk on upside-down staircases and belly-dance beside the Egyptian pyramids, just to name a few bizarre rituals. Tonally and visually, the sequence comes out of left field. That said, as a stand-alone piece of animation, it is superbly imaginative and once again is a testament to the freedom with which the filmmakers were allowed to tell their version of the story (a free-spirit quality that reached its apex in Disney’s motion picture event Fantasia). This adventurous gamble is all the more flabbergasting considering that it is the result of a single gulp of alcohol.
Dumbo has a couple more surprises up its sleeve that end the picture as a nice, tight little package. First is the arrival of black crows, as in African American crows of the southern United States, complete with a swinging, stereotypically jiving attitude. Witnessing the sequence is not the shock to the system as one might expect given what just transpired beforehand, but it would contend for a top five spot of Disney’s weirdly racist attitudes towards non-Caucasian Americans in its earlier films. Better still, the crows discover Dumbo and Timothy sleeping off their hangover on a tree branch, suggesting that while drunk, Dumbo went flying with Timothy until they crash-landed into the tree, an accident eerily similar to a drunk-driving car crash! Minutes later, after the crows have sung a song about how ridiculous the idea of a flying elephant is, Dumbo at long last defies his naysayers and flies to his heart’s desire, thankfully sober this time around. Gliding effortlessly among the birds, Dumbo has reached his true potential.
Everything discussed in the preceding paragraphs may have some think Dumbo is among the lesser entries in the Disney cannon. Unbelievably, nothing could be further from the truth. The movie is an example of Disney making for the lesser animation quality when compared to its two predecessors by giving audiences something fresh. The character designs and behaviours go above and beyond. Dumbo would never ended up where he does without deformed ears, a mother who loses her cool in a fit of psychosis, the help of a benevolent money-seeking mouse, a night of drunken stupor and the defiance of racially stereotypical crows. Anybody claiming that that is exactly what they expect out of Disney animated family entertainment is out of their right minds.
History has proven the filmmakers right. Dumbo is heralded as being among the studio’s finer efforts. Dumbo would never be made the same way today if the studio aimed for a remake; all the more reason to enjoy and be mesmerized by what its makers left us.
— Edgar Chaput