Dumbo (1941): The First Disney Film to Fall Short

In the wake of Fantasia flopping, Disney needed a cheap and conventional money-maker; they found it in a novelty toy book (“Roll-A-Book”) children’s story about a flying elephant. They restricted themselves to 63-minutes, their shortest feature yet, and used cheap sound recording technology and quick-and-easy watercolors for the backgrounds, instead of the more laborious oils. Partway through production, there was a labor union strike, which destroyed the atmosphere of the “Disney family.” Made under these circumstances, does Dumbo find a little joy in its cash-obsessed, calculated life? It does. A little, anyway.

One of the first things I notice about the original Dumbo, which I haven’t seen since I was young enough to be scared of it (more on that later), is how 40s it feels. The opening song, “Look Out For Mr. Stork,” and others including “Casey Jr.,” feel like the era in which the movie was made. I don’t get this impression so much from “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Those songs feel old-fashioned in a different way: they feel sprung from a fairytale rather than a radio. I don’t know if this is true, but with all the other ways in which Dumbo was changed not as a matter of aesthetics but convenience, is it possible that timelier music was chosen to make the movie seem more current? Here’s the real form of my question: was Dumbo made by people who remembered to believe in fairytales?

There are many times when it feels like it was. The silent introductions of all the animals recalls Disney’s great work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and later on Bambi, to give us visual impressions of personality using nothing but form and expression. None of the animals have to talk and you know that tigers are arrogant, hippos are placid, elephants are proud. This character-building becomes the film’s message when Dumbo is at its best: the movie asks us to consider how people assign themselves personality based on their idea of themselves. It’s a pretty deep thing for this movie to be about, and it’s pretty clear that the intention is to teach its audience to stop performing proudness, just because you think you’re an elephant, or to stop marketing everything in existence, just because you think you’re a human. It really wants the little elephant in the center of all this to self-express a little.

The movie shows us this with visual contrasts. After a grueling, mythic struggle to assemble the circus tent in the rain (this is where the watercolors really shine), the movie transitions to shiny crowds and smiling horses. What something appears to be in Dumbo is not always its true nature. A proud elephant can be a zealot on the inside. A well-spoken circus master can be a bumbling idiot when the lights go out. A freak of nature can be a sweetheart.

This aspect of the movie – observing the contradictions between how we act and how we hope to appear to be acting – is where Dumbo gets downright good, or where it could have. Where it falters, where the magic fizzles out, is where it starts trying to explain itself.

This is most evident in the character of the talking mouse, named Timothy. As soon as he enters the picture, the movie has this ongoing commentary track that denies the basic appeal of a character like Dumbo, which is our ability to know exactly what he’s feeling, without him saying a single word. “Dere he goes, not a friend in da woyld,” Timothy says. We can plainly see this: Dumbo is dragging his ears, his tail is sagging, the columnar legs of the other elephants are turned away from him as he slinks into shadow. We don’t need an auctioneer constantly making us bid on our own feelings. Dopey was brilliant in Snow White, partly because no one explained what he was thinking more than what his actions told us about it. This is even more important in a film where the silent character is the protagonist, and I wonder if the animators disagreed with my appeal for silence or if it was the necessity of cranking this movie out quickly that created the character of Timothy Mouse. What I’m suggesting would require more animation and less explanation, and that may not be what they were going for.

Dumbo is a pretty film, and possibly well-meaning. Why criticize the cute mouse character? If someone thinks that I’m being awfully particular, then I’d suggest they imagine the mentality that would look at Wall-E and say that it needs Mike Wazowski chattering about how the little robot feels. Dumbo’s most effective emotional scene is the song “Baby Mine,” partly because of the sentiment, and partly because it’s one of the rare times Timothy isn’t telling us about it.

The movie’s habit of explaining what it’s about becomes even weirder on a thematic level. When Timothy scares the bigoted other elephants, he scoffs, “Proud race. Huh!” But when Dumbo is down on himself, he assures him, “Remember, you come of a proud race.” This is confusing. It means that according to Dumbo, the elephants that are scared or bigoted aren’t living up to their race, as though that’s something they should do. This is weird because I think the movie hopes to be about the idea that thinking you’re biologically destined to be proud is problematic in the first place, hence the incredible parody of old-fashioned pride in the elephant matriarch (voiced by Verna Felton, the lady who later played Cinderella’s fairy godmother). This creates a weird cross-purpose: a movie that hopes to be about a little guy making it big in the city and impressing his family, and also a movie where the “city” is really the company in which the hero’s race is slave labor.

Ultimately, it’s not really that great for Dumbo to make it big at this idea of the circus. Timothy tells him the movie’s message, “The very things that held ya down are gonna take ya up and up!” But to what? Ear insurance? Hollywood movie deals? Defense force contracts? (These are all in the movie.) Since Dumbo makes the circus profitable, everyone seems to forgive him for being such a freak. They don’t accept him – they condone him, and the most important thing about any story about someone who’s different is that they don’t need anyone else’s approval to be so. The missing element is that Dumbo never thinks anything of himself: he's just a baby. He's never ashamed of who he is, or proud either. So the only people he really has to prove anything to, are all the people who aren't worth it. Doesn’t Dumbo deserve better, if the whole point is to make kids feel good about who they are? It’s like if Pinocchio ended up signing an employment contract at Stromboli’s.

Now, is any of this apparent to the kids that watch Dumbo? No. But this review isn’t for them either. I don’t hope to kick a pretty movie while it’s down, but I do hope to hold it accountable to the weird things that don’t seem very thought-out. It may seem callous to point out this stuff in the face of beautiful animation, but none of this conflict exists in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, or Bambi, around which Dumbo is sandwiched. And that doesn’t mean these other movies aren’t about those things, or that Disney movies can’t tackle big themes: Bambi is mostly about how animals act according to their nature. But it was brave enough to not make that seem like such a wonderful thing: even the loving interactions in Bambi are tinted with sadness. Everything in that movie is in the proper context.

In other words, as much as Bambi is about life in a way that challenges our idea of being happy and forces us to find joy in even the saddest things in life, Dumbo is about some pretty sad stuff and forces us to think it’s all in fun. And some of it is fun: I’m convinced that watercolors freed the animators to get emotions more easily out of their little creations. Perhaps no Disney character can make me laugh or cry as easily as Dumbo, particularly in my personal favorite scene, in which Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo play around after his bath exactly like an eternally sassy mom and a bountiful little baby boy. It’s a total treat. But it ends up being a pretty small portion of a movie that even at an hour long is full of scenes that it doesn’t really need.

Take, for instance, the darkness inherent in some of the scenes in Dumbo. This is something I have to explain. I’ve always believed that fairytales need a little darkness: the only way to feel total joy is to overcome some kind of fear (this is ultimately the difference between Bambi and, say, Ice Age). So when I say that I don’t think the scary parts of Dumbo work, I don’t mean it in the sense that this is a “kids movie” and kids movies shouldn’t challenge or excite or tempt its audience. I don’t think that at all. I mean that these parts don’t work because they have no corollary in the movie’s themes, and are scary in a way that I’m not even sure was intended. Did Disney know how creepy this movie is? The clowns in Dumbo freaked me out as a kid. I’m not even that scared of clowns: when I saw the monster in It, all I could think was, “Thank God he’s not the Dumbo clowns.” They have big teeth and beady eyes, they cross-dress and change form, they sneer and look right at the camera … it’s all just so unsettling as a kid. And I really wonder if the animators meant it that way; they honestly remind me of those antique store dolls (You know the ones? You see them and you think, “Oh god, did kids really used to play with these?”). They have that vintage pedophilic weirdness to them. They are not jolly or magical or funny even one time. But, you say, maybe they’re supposed to be abusive and cruel and creepy. But then the movie needs a better ending than Dumbo making them a bunch of money.

And then there’s the “Pink Elephants on Parade” scene, in which Dumbo and Timothy get drunk and hallucinate a bunch of black-eyed, bipedal, shapeshifting elephant monsters. Clearly, there’s a generational difference here: Leonard Maltin called this scene, “A reason that Dumbo is a delight to watch.” But I don’t get that. One of the monsters is just a stack of sneering elephant heads with black eyes, animated to lumber straight at the camera. Another is a belly dancer whose stomach turns into a realistic human eye that opens and fades away. This scene comes right after the mother’s lullaby, and to me this is like putting “A Night on Bald Mountain” after “Ave Maria.” Despite being beautifully animated (one part in particular shows two elephants dancing, formed only of their highlights, which recalls Norman McLaren’s beautiful work in pixilation), this scene gave me nightmares as a kid. And I’m not sure if that’s what they wanted.

But what’s important about that? I mean, there are other scary things in Disney movies: two examples that come to my mind are the donkey transformation in Pinocchio and the mother’s death in Bambi. It’s significant that the scene in Dumbo is the only one of these to give me nightmares: I think it’s because the scene has no meaning. It doesn’t represent something for the hero to overcome, not even in themselves (they accidentally get drunk; they did nothing to deserve it). It doesn’t introduce adversity in their life, as death might, or present a new challenge. It’s self-indulgent animation that serves as a plot device to get Dumbo up in a tree. And because Dumbo doesn’t even really react to this stuff (we see him only briefly during the sequence), we can’t even share the scariness with the protagonist: when I was little, it seemed like that elephant monster was coming for me. I honestly think that the phrase, “seeing pink elephants,” was just a pun someone said one day, and the animators spent months creating this incredible sequence of interrelated figures and transition animation, like “Heffalumps and Woozles” by way of Aeon Flux, just in the service of a pun.

And this is sort of what happens to all of Dumbo. It’s a movie that makes you believe an elephant can fly, but not that its creators knew why that was important. They’re basically Timothy when he says, “Dumboooo the Great! The great what?” They don’t really seem to know what he represents. Ironically, Dumbo was created in real life for the same purpose that he serves in the movie: to make a company a bunch of money. Of course, there’s more to it than that; I’m not indicting Disney as a whole or the industry as a whole. All movies are made as a balance between business and art, and there’s some beautiful animation in this business to make us believe that the balance is entirely possible. There’s even a bit about Dumbo believing in himself: that’s probably what most people got out of it. But it seems to me to take its upbringing too close to heart. It was made to impress people quickly, divert their attention, and convince them to come to the next movie, please and thank you. Any heart that’s in it, may be just the heart that they couldn’t help but put in it, with all these wonderful artists and creatives drawing animals and wondering how they feel about themselves. Dumbo ends up believing he can impress a bunch of terrible people but what difference does that really make? In the end, he’s reunited with his mother in an aside that lasts less than two seconds; the only conclusion we care about feels like a post-credits scene. You can just tell that this whole movie was on the clock.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Ben Sharpsteen (Supervising director)

Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Bill Roberts, Jack Kinney, Samuel Armstrong (Sequence directors)

Otto Englander, Joe Grant, Dick Huemer (story)

Helen Aberson, Harold Pearl (characters)

Timothy Q. Mouse Edward Brophy
Elephant Matriarch Verna Felton
Jim Crow Cliff Edwards
The Ringmaster Herman Bing
Casey Junior Margaret Wright
Mr. Stork Sterling Holloway
Crow Chorus The Hall Johnson Choir

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3 thoughts on “Dumbo (1941): The First Disney Film to Fall Short”

  1. I agree with a lot of your assessment. The most heart wrenching scene of the film, and the one that conveys the most is where you just experience the love between mother and baby and no narration is necessary. The character of Timothy dates the film for me, with it’s stereotyped Brooklyn accent making me think of an Abbott and Costello bit. The movie, nonetheless holds its place in history as being a lovely film and one that excels in story telling in my opinion.

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