Extended Thoughts on ‘Dumbo’
Directed by Ben Sharpsteen
Written by Otto Englander, Joe Grant, and Dick Huemer
We all assume that money can cure all our ills, from pretty much the day that we understand what money is. If we have money, we can buy anything we want, we can live in luxury, and we can make what we like, too. For the animators at Walt Disney Feature Animation, money is rarely an object that they even think about. Though they’re not always living high on the hog, they probably never need to worry too much about getting a budget increase on their latest project, as long as the Disney executives see potential merchandising moolah in the long run. We can bulge our eyes in surprise to see how much some recent Disney movies’ budgets were—Tangled had a $200 million budget, as an example—but that’s just the way things are these days.
But I wonder if sometimes, we need to learn a lesson from the history and production of 1941’s Dumbo. Here is a film with a budget of under one million dollars—and with inflation, that budget would still be well under 20 million today. Because 1940’s Fantasia did so poorly at the box office, despite being a major experimental leap for Walt Disney and his animators, they had to recoup their losses by making a cheap movie that would hopefully do well. Enter the little elephant with the oversized ears. Dumbo is well-known for its catchy and emotional songs, including “When I See an Elephant Fly” and “Baby Mine,” but it was also made dirt cheap, without seeming that way. Every so often these days, mostly in more independent films, we see filmmakers stretching their imaginations as hard as they can even if they don’t have massive budgets. Films such as Attack the Block become so memorable in spite of (or maybe because of) their low budgets, as they were created by people who knew how to use the money they had.
Dumbo is also very well-known for being very short. Depending on where you look and who you ask, it’s either 63 or 64 minutes long. Even when I was a kid, scanning the back of the VHS case, I knew this was a short movie. Something I’ve always done is get, weirdly, even more impatient with movies that are shorter than others. If I know your movie is under 90 minutes, I assume it will have a fleet, fast pace and if it doesn’t, I’ll be looking at my watch to make sure time isn’t moving backward. For the most part, Dumbo doesn’t inspire such a fidgety nature in me, but there are a few scenes where the only word I kept thinking of was “padding.” Movies as short as this one, movies that clearly couldn’t afford to spend a dollar more on themselves, shouldn’t ever make the audience think that scenes are meant to pad the running time.
Dumbo is a mostly enjoyable look at the world through the eyes of a child, which is what Disney films do best. Bringing us back to our inner child, as hokey as that might seem, is a primal experience. There’s no question that Dumbo invites such an experience, especially in the sometimes moving, sometimes jarring Baby Mine sequence. By the time this scene occurs, we’ve seen Dumbo—real name: Jumbo, Jr.—taken away from his mother, Mrs. Jumbo, after she lashed out at some obnoxious kids for using Dumbo as a figure of mockery. She’s now in her own padlocked cage and can only touch trunks with her little son, but the song that accompanies her swinging her son through her trunk is one of the great masterstrokes in the Walt Disney Pictures filmography.
The sequence set to that song, sung by Betty Noyes, is a little more distracting than I’d expected. Despite starting and ending the sequence with Dumbo and his mother, the Disney animators (lead by director Ben Sharpsteen) cut to the other animals in the traveling circus where Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo live. Here, we see happy animal families, not just the aching, open emotional wound that is the mother-son relationship of Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo. While I understand the point of this juxtaposition, I do think that the scene’s emotional power and weight is sapped just a bit by cutting to other animals. What’s more, with the exception of this scene, the opening sequence where storks deliver newborn babies to the various animals in the circus, and a short parade scene early on, we don’t really see other animals in the circus at all. If anything, having them in the Baby Mine sequence seems to be a shoehorned-in insertion that accomplishes nothing.
I suppose I’m on my guard when watching this movie, because I go into it thinking about how short it is and how cheaply it was made for. With only a certain amount of time and money to work with, I guess I assume or hope that the filmmakers know how to utilize both correctly. Though the Baby Mine sequence is, to me, a bit of a misstep, it’s nothing compared to the two scenes in Dumbo that are squirm-inducing to all but the biggest Disney supporters: the roustabout scene and the scene with the crows. The latter is, I think, a bit more obvious, but both make me uncomfortable. Of course, one of the things everyone knows about Dumbo is that he can fly thanks to those big ears of his. That it takes Dumbo 50 minutes to realize that he can do this is a bit strange, but neither here nor there.
Dumbo and his friend, Timothy Q. Mouse, fly up a tree after getting drunk on champagne one night. Once the morning comes, they’re quite hungover but visited upon by five crows, who jeer and mock them for being there. What’s more, the crows mock Timothy once he comes upon the conclusion that Dumbo must have flown them up there, cueing up “When I See An Elephant Fly.” All of this is fine, of course, but the problem is in how the crows are depicted. The leader, voiced by Cliff Edwards of Jiminy Cricket fame, is named Jim. Jim Crow. There is a character, voiced by a white man, named Jim Crow. What’s worse is that all of the crows are dressed up and sound like stereotypical representations of African Americans in entertainment of the time.
I’m not naïve: I know that plenty of other movies, TV shows, and more portrayed African American men and women inappropriately and in a potentially racist fashion during the 1930s and 1940s. I suppose it just hurts a bit more when it comes from, in some way, the man whose imagination seemed to have no end when he made movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia (though the latter has had its own racial-based controversies). I, and many other fans, know that Disney is better than this, so it’s just painful. Now, the crows in Dumbo aren’t fools; they mock Timothy, not Dumbo. You could explain away that scene, and while I still feel icky watching it, I can live with a counterargument.
Not so with the roustabout scene, which I still don’t know has a great reason to exist in the first place. In this scene, directly after the stork sequence and the Casey Jr. train song, most of the elephants and dark-skinned roustabout circus workers do their best to put up the big tent in a new city during a torrential downpour. The scene is accompanied by the “Song of the Roustabouts,” whose lyrics are as troublesome as the depiction of the men singing it. They tell us that they gamble their money away and are lazy. Here’s the kicker: there are white circus workers, too, but they get something the dark-skinned roustabouts do not: faces. Yes, the dark-skinned roustabouts are literally faceless. In a movie that’s barely over an hour, you assume that every scene serves a purpose, but for the life of me, I can only see negative reasons for this scene’s existence.
Again, Dumbo is a mostly successful film despite having those questionable scenes and feeling a bit padded and/or rushed. I appreciate how quickly this film was made (it took less than a year, for the most part) and that the Disney animators were working with a very tight budget. That doesn’t help me forgive the movie’s flaws, but helps me understand the majority of them. And don’t get me wrong: for a 70-year old movie, the Blu-ray for Dumbo is incredible. Though the roustabout scene’s content is disturbing for the wrong reasons, the rain that falls on the characters looks sharp and real, as if falling from the actual sky. The brilliant animation of the characters, especially Dumbo, as well as the psychedelia of the Pink Elephants on Parade sequence, is only heightened by this new format. Whatever qualms I have about the movie don’t eliminate the fact that Dumbo is still appealing and fun to the childlike nature in all of us.
– Josh Spiegel