Dumbo (1941)

Directed by: Supervising director: Ben Sharpsteen
Sequence directors: Norman Ferguson/Wilfred Jackson/Bill Roberts/Jack Kinney/Samuel Armstrong

Written by: Otto Englander/Joe Grant/Dick Huemer

Based on book by: Helen Aberson/Harold Pearl

I’ve always thought of Dumbo as being the most boring of the early Disney flicks. Still good, but just not much going on. On this viewing, I certainly didn’t think it was boring…but it was definitely weird. The whole feeling of the film was different from any of the others.

Dumbo, of course, is the story of racism and ableism in America. An elephant is born in the circus to a sweet-natured mama elephant. She names him Jumbo, Jr, after his dad (who’s never seen, if I remember right). But when his giant ears unfold after a sneeze, he’s dubbed “Dumbo” by the cruel ladies who share Mrs Jumbo’s pen.

Of course, Dumbo is teased by everyone. A bunch of boys start to tease and torture him and Mrs Jumbo rails on them. She stomps and throws and charges, eventually being locked away in elephant solitary. The only way she can see her beloved son is through a little window that she can only reach her trunk out to touch him. This is where the saddest of all Disney songs, “Baby Mine” is played.

Separating a child from its mother is never a good thing.

Like Pinocchio before him, Dumbo has a conscience, of a sort. Timothy, a circus mouse who helps him get through some rough times. He comforts him when his mama is taken away and helps him get a starring spot in a clown big routine. Unfortunately, that routine goes horribly awry. Elephants get injured and tents come toppling down. Dumbo is relegated to the clowns. He and Timothy accidentally drink some water with alcohol in it and get super drunk. (“Pink Elephants On Parade.”)

The next morning, Dumbo and Timothy are in a tree. Whut? How? Well, time to get down.

Turns out, Dumbo can fly! A crew of crows (one voiced by former Cricket, Cliff Edwards) make fun of the situation, but then he proves them wrong by actually flying. They help him and he and Timothy make a plan.

Of course, everything ends happily and Dumbo is reunited with his mama. (Let’s hope things go as well for other kids separated from their mamas.)

Dumbo is a sweet little movie. It’s the second shortest Disney feature film at just over an hour long, but it packs an emotional wallop. The scene where Dumbo goes to visit his mama is just heartbreaking. And then, the drunk scene is a surreal masterpiece. So weird and so good.

As I was watching the movie and the crow scene came up, I thought, “Oh, man. Here’s the racism. This is kinda awful.”

But I just read some opinions on it and they made sense. The main crow (named Jim Crow in the script, but unnamed in the film) was voiced by former Cricket, Cliff Edwards. The rest were a group of African American singers called the Hall Johnson Choir. The characters are probably the smartest of all of the characters in the film. They never make fun of Dumbo. They’re making fun of Timothy and his belief that an elephant can fly. But, as soon as they understand that he CAN fly, they turn right around and encourage him. They’re all about self-confidence. They’re kind of the heroes of the story! Whoopi Goldberg has gone on record as saying that they should be marketed like every other Disney character.

I’m not here to say “This is racist and this isn’t.” Make up your own mind. But there’s an interesting argument.

This movie was…weird. It’s great! No doubt about that. But the animation is, compared to earlier Disney films, kinda pedestrian. That’s because a) they were doing things on the cheap, so the animation isn’t as lavish as past productions and b) there was an animators’ strike in the middle of production. (The clowns are based on the strikers.) After this, the company was no longer a “family.”

The result, though, is a weird production that looks like an 80s Don Bluth film. It doesn’t look like a Disney film at all. It’s the beginning of the simplification of their features. They would pop back with a few that were lavish and complex here and there, but those would typically be the exception, not the rule.