Dumbo (1941)

  • Release date: 23 October, 1941
  • Run time: 64 mins
  • Director: Ben Sharpsteen, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Bill Roberts, Jack Kinney, Samuel Armstrong
  • Cast: Edward Brophy, Verna Felton, Cliff Edwards, Herman Bing
  • Inspired by: Dumbo, the Flying Elephant (Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl)

“What’s the matter with his ears? I don’t see nothin’ wrong with ’em. “

By 1941, Disney needed a hit and fast. While Pinocchio and Fantasia would go on to great acclaim in later years, both flopped on their original releases owing to the Second World War; elsewhere, Walt’s animators were still trying to finish off Bambi – at one time pencilled in as the studio’s second film after Snow White, it eventually took nine years to complete. Disney needed to bring in some revenue quickly. The idea was to create a low budget, tightly scripted cartoon that could be turned around in a short space of time. Promoting some fresh faces from earlier films (who, incidentally, would eventually become some of the most respected artists at the studio, earning themselves the nickname from Walt himself as Disney’s Nine Old Men), the team were tasked in creating a classic on time and on budget. As it turned out, it was a task that they were more than capable of doing…

Original idea? The original story was written for a novelty toy called a ‘Roll-a-Book’; children would turn a knob and the story would scroll through. In its original form, it only lasted eight pages – which included the illustrations. Somehow it was turned into a 102 page outline, which is some going when it comes to padding it out. However, other than the opening of the storks delivering the baby animals, and the pink elephants scene, very little was changed from the original story aside from some minor character alterations (Dumbo’s mum became Mrs Jumbo rather than Mrs Ella in the original story). Given how little there was to work with, then it was some going to pad it without really adding any new material.

While Disney had first bought the rights to the story in 1939, after being shown the Roll-a-Book idea, Dumbo wasn’t top of Walt’s ‘must make’ list; in fact, for a while, he wasn’t really interested in it at all. It was only when writers Joe Grant and Dick Huemer began leaving the next chapter of the story on his desk each morning, that he finally became intrigued (after a few days, he is said to have run into the writing room and asked his two story men “What happens next?”).

Family situation? Is there a better mother than Mrs Jumbo? I very much doubt it! Her relationship with Jumbo, Jr (Dumbo’s actual name – Dumbo is the rather nasty nickname given to him by the other elephants) is a thing of beauty. He becomes Mrs Jumbo’s entire world and she will stop at nothing to protect her young child from being maltreated by anyone. From smacking the female elephants for their derogatory comments, to hitting the boy who ridicules her baby for the size of his ears, her selflessness in standing up for him knows no bounds. Is there anything more heartbreaking than when she is dragged away after attacking the children who mocked Dumbo? Well, yes there is – his visit to see her in her tiny cell as the song Baby Mine plays over the imagery…well, try to keep a dry eye with that one! This is truly heart-rending stuff – and a brilliant portrayal of the bond between a mother and her child, and lies at the very centre of all that makes the film so successful.

Y’know – for kids? Of course this is for kids. I mean aside from the emotional impact of a child being ridiculed by adults, forced into dangerous situations by his work colleagues and being torn from his mother; underage excessive drinking; and a gang of crows who come dangerously close to being racial stereotypes…ok, so maybe this isn’t one for the children.

We’ve already dealt with the emotional impact of Dumbo and his mother, so let’s look at the others one at a time: we’ll start with the elephant in the room (pardon the pun) and turn our attention to the attitude that the film has towards people of colour. Now, I’m not going to deny that I wasn’t a little uncomfortable watching them as an adult – and I know Disney has come under fire in recent days for refusing to edit some aspects of it out of the movie, ready for its showing on the new streaming service. However, the problem was not the crows, who have been singled out as being offensive to African-Americans. Bearing in mind that this was made at a time when black actors were often being sidelined with roles as either slaves or lesser sidekicks (Hattie McDaniel had to defend herself for taking on the – as it happens Oscar-winning – role of slave Mammy in Gone with the Wind), there is nothing that I can see which suggests that this is the role that the crows are playing. Rather, aside from Timothy Mouse, they are the only ones who have any faith in Dumbo and are instrumental in teaching him how to fly. Whoopi Goldberg has even suggested that toy versions should be made available. Now, I am not a person of colour, so I have no real idea of what it means to see and hear them in this movie; I would be interested to hear the thoughts from someone of an African-American background. But I would suggest that a positive view of the crows can be taken for the role they play in Dumbo’s story, given that their appearance represents one of the few times when Dumbo isn’t being made fun of or being used for someone else’s personal gain.

The same cannot be said for the Song of the Roustabouts. Although set at night, the characters who come out to set up the circus tent are clearly African-American – and their ‘song’ leads a lot to be desired. The lyrics (which I won’t be repeating here) play to a highly offensive view of people of colour – and one which cannot be easily dismissed. The song and scene may be brief, but it leaves a decidedly unpleasant taste in the mouth, giving the entire film a nasty edge that it cannot shake. While the crows may or may not be racist, this scene is blatantly a nasty portrayal of the workers and their race and the film needs to be called out for it. I don’t even want to spend too much time on this; I feel dirty just knowing that it is in the movie.

The other big issue around the film’s family friendly position is the Pink Elephant scene; one which is clearly using abuse of alcohol for comic effect. Actually, it’s not even that comedic – if anything, it’s likely to result in years of therapy for a child. There is something incredibly sinister about the entire sequence; the way the elephants merge together and split apart, before turning into camels, snakes and (perhaps most worrying of all) alluring belly dancing elephants. On the one hand, it is a brilliantly animated surrealist sequence; on the other, WHAT THE HELL IS IT DOING IN A KIDS’ MOVIE?! It makes no sense and, other than being a tool to get Dumbo and Timothy up into a tree, there is no reason for it being here. But, hey, parents, if you want to take a lesson from this movie, leaving alcohol lying around for youngsters to consume probably isn’t the best one.

Lastly, the whole concept of animals at the circus is now frowned upon. This is one of the few times when I would argue ‘different times’ – it was acceptable at the time when this movie was released. While we need to remember to point out to children that this is no longer something which we would condone, we can still watch it and teach them that this was not always the case. I don’t feel a letter to PETA is on the cards (it’s a cartoon, after all – they aren’t even real); I just feel the need to acknowledge that it is not something we would expect to see now.

Princesses, villains and comedy sidekicks? So once again, this doesn’t fit neatly into the traditional aspects of heroes and villains; I guess the real bad guy here is society and its failure to accept Dumbo for who he is. It says something of the complexity of this film that it doesn’t need to create stereotypes for it to get its message across – that we need to be not just tolerant of others, but actively encourage them to be their best (unless you’re a Roustabout, apparently…).

Sing-along a showtune? For such a short film not known for its musical numbers, there is a surprisingly high number of great tunes. Aside from the heart-breaking Baby Mine, there is the fun music of Casey Junior’s journey along the railway tracks (“I think I can…”); the surreal chorus of Pink Elephants on Parade; and, of course, the fab When I See an Elephant Fly. It’s definitely a toe-tapper – even if I never really think of it as a musical.

I have questions: Ok, so I have a number of unresolved issues. Firstly – and I know I’ve covered this – but what are the Pink Elephants all about? Also, why was Mrs Jumbo released from her cage at the end? Sure, her son is now able to fly – making him something of a sensation, I guess – but why does that mean Mrs Jumbo gets out? She did attack a child, after all, and this in no way makes up for it. Also, given that this is about accepting who you are, isn’t it a little ironic that Dumbo essentially ends up as some sort of carnival freak show because of his ability to fly with his enormous ears? Is that what we’re telling kids now – if you’re a bit odd-looking, don’t worry because you might be able to make money from it. He’s still essentially a prisoner in the circus, for goodness sake! His life is not really any better than it was before! Does he not realise this? Perhaps Dumbo really is the right name for him…

Feel-good factor: This is another Disney movie where my instinctive answer is different from my final answer. There is lots to hold against the film – not least the underlying racism. But, that said, it still manages to be a sweet picture to watch, not least because of Dumbo himself and his endearing attitude to life. From his relationship with his mother to his friendship with Timothy, this is an elephant who carries with him a certain joie de vivre – even when he is at his lowest, he is still able to pick himself up and try again. With such a loving, gentle hero, it is hard not to feel better for having spent time with him. So, even with all its faults, I’m going to give Dumbo a feel-good rating of 8 out of 10.

You can see the trailer below:

Next movie: Get ready to blub as we head to the forest for Bambi (1942)…

Published by Ben Evans

Film fan; music lover; avid reader; culture snob.

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