“Ah just seen abou' everything ... when ah see a elephant fly!”
Well, you can't argue about it, Disney's 4th feature-length animated outing is one of the most beloved films of all time. Told in the broadest and simplest of narrative brush strokes, the tale of a little baby elephant, christened Dumbo by his thoughtless peers, is as heartfelt and implicit as its animation is exuberant and influential. The Stork delivers Mrs. Jumbo an adorable little bundle of blue-eyed joy and, after some rites of passage trials and tribulations, the circus eventually learns to appreciate the skills and personality of a true one-off. The tale champions the underdog in a way that wouldn't be as sincerely treated until a certain Sylvester Stallone buffed-up and first entered the cinematic ring as Rocky Balboa. It is even tempting to think that Burgess Meredith's cajoling, confidence-boosting trainer for the Italian Stallion, Mickey, is actually a crotchety, liver-spotted take on Dumbo's diminutive mentor, Timothy Mouse - a, wait for it, “Mickey” Mouse, if you like.
After the poor receipts for Fantasia and Pinocchio, Uncle Walt needed a cash-cow to improve his studio's lot. A World War wasn't helping things as it prevented foreign sales, but something that would aid a frightened nation allay its concerns and allow it some blessed escapism, if only for just over an hour, would be a golden ticket to ensure Disney's survival. With Dumbo he got more than he ever expected.
Finding potential in Helen Aberson's and Howard Pearl's popular children's book, Dumbo - The Flying Elephant, Disney assigned some of his “old boys” to re-embrace the chaotic and ribald animation style of the studio's fledgling days, a distinctive vogue that would fully emulate and perfectly capture the riotous colour and overtly cheeky abandonment of the circus, the Big Top and the clowns. Every shape was thick and large. The environment was heightened and objectivity was divorced from physics in a way that the previous productions had strived determinedly to avoid. For a long time I couldn't take to this film for that very reason, couldn't get past the bulging larger-than-life artistic style that seemed to burst out from the confines of the frame and lend life to even the most innocuous of things, denying me the opportunity to see the uncomplicated soul of the story. As a child weaned on movies of all sorts, I had a massive love for Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book and The Aristocats, for example, but Dumbo always seemed to elude me with regards to that essential emotional connection. Because of this artificial and blatantly cartoonic barrier, it just left me cold. As such, I was never perturbed by Dumbo's mother being banged-up in the naughty wagon for pesky pachyderms after her rage-filled outburst. I never really felt any angst over the little feller's mistreatment, and I wasn't exactly surprised or especially heartened when he eventually came into his own and found redemption and well-earned respect once and for all. And then, as I grew older and sort of left Disney behind, Dumbo was the one entry that I knew for certain had the least chance of enticing me back into Walt's stable. But times and attitudes always change. What you once had no time for will, at some point, creep up on you and make you realise that, hey, you might just have been wrong all along. For whilst my devotion to vintage horror and SF films has never diminished (in fact, it has only grown stronger over the years), I now find myself absolutely adoring Disney's films from yesteryear with an altogether fresher and more unreserved joy than ever before. Having kids of my own obviously helped with this transition, but that is not the only reason.
More and more, these days, I find myself reaching for a Disney disc when the kids aren't even around.
Now, with the likes of the awesome latter-day entries like The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Hercules, The Lion King, Tarzan and, right now, The Princess And The Frog, that isn't a hard confession to make, but when you venture much further back to the true grandfathers of the form - the genuinely spooky Snow White, the hippy-trippy Fantasia, the heart-clutching Bambi and the infectious wit of Jungle Book, say - this becomes, for a film reviewer, something that smacks more of duty than of actual devotion. I'm far happier with blood and carnage than I am with moralistic reminders dressed up in fancy primary-coded ribbons, but even someone as perhaps jaded and cynical as me cannot help but be swept away by the lush visuals, earnest characterisations, frivolous scenarios and calming beauty of what Disney's finest sought to bestow. And watching Dumbo now, so many years after I had, to all intents and purposes, spurned it, has been nothing short of enriching. Just as James Whale and Tod Browning, Willis O' Brian and F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang informed my genre-tastes once I saw beyond Rainbow, Playschool and Pipkins, that is, the essence of what Disney produced in those early years is truly like capturing lightning in a bottle. Without these wild and rapturous fantastical adventures and hallucinogenic species humanisations, the world of cinema would simply not be what it is today. Thus, seeing these carnival-esque symphonies spruced-up in high-definition and restored to glories previously only dreamed-of is something of an epiphany for any self-respecting film-fan.
Dumbo, as sweet, as saccharine, as charmingly innocent and nostalgic as it undoubtedly, and inarguably is, now has a resonance that just has to be as vibrant, as enchanting and as moving as it would have appeared to those war-fearing movie audiences back in 1941. With a comparatively small team of animators and a budget that could barely stretch to Timothy Mouse's food-bills, the film, all tend to agree, was a blast to make. Unlike Fantasia, there were no pretensions, no desires to push boundaries and break with convention. Disney just wanted to give the public what they wanted - and that was an uplifting tale that oozed colour and fun. By his own admission, the story needed no modifications and no major adaptation ... it just seemed to tell itself. This, as a consequence, allowed the animators free reign to cut loose with ideas and flourishes - the fantastic song and dance routine of the crows being one, and the surreal Twilight Zone mind-warp of the Pink Elephants being another. By all accounts, this production was one of the happiest that Walt ever helmed, and this fact seems to shine through every frame of the film.
I find it ironic to note that one of my favourite films of the era, George Waggner's The Wolf Man for Universal (reviewed ad-nauseum, by me, elsewhere on the site), which revealed the “beast in man” and the outright shameful distrust that we have for freaks and the “unknown”, was released round about the same time, but suffered greatly in lieu of public attitudes to the World War that was threatening to engulf the nation whilst Dumbo, which revelled in the simple acceptance of what could be classed as a disfigurement and an unnatural ability, would find its way into the hearts of the masses with superlative ease. Both dealt with transformation, fate and acceptance, but Dumbo would would win the challenge and triumph at the Box Office. I know which I prefer, but it is not hard to see why the elephant beat the wolf.
One area where I might slightly disagree with the film's army of adorers is with the emotional aspect. Even with my newfound love for the movie, I don't actually find it all that upsetting. Dumbo's plight is disturbing, certainly, but the mistreatment that his shunned outcast receives is never particularly laboured on - which is something we should be thankful for. If you consider the terrible predicament that poor Simba finds himself in after his father has been lured to his death in The Lion King, you can see and feel just how catastrophic and terrible the deed and the situation are. Likewise the disgraceful loathing of the Beast until Beauty breaks the spell. But Disney keeps the gravitas of Dumbo's humiliation rather divorced from anything especially gut-wrenching, although it is clear that everyone watching the story unfold can certainly empathise with need to be accepted and to “fit in” with the crowd.
The bullying tactics of a precocious freckled visitor to the circus really aren't that harmful, though we certainly cheer when Dumbo's mum gets even with him. Much worse is the attitude of their own kind who close ranks on her and her outsize-eared son, the platoon of plum-gobbed pachyderms acting like members of the W.I. after a few too many afternoons spent guzzling iced buns. Again, though, what initially seems quite harsh treatment leaves no lingering resentment due to the comedic pomposity with which it is served. Bambi would push tragedy way beyond this, but the later films like Hunchback, Pochahontas and The Lion King would be the ones to find the right degree of lump-in-the-throat angst and despicably nasty deeds. No, for Dumbo Walt saves that necessary ingredient of darkness for the celebrated Pink Elephants On Parade sequence - and a more psychedelic fusion of Freudian obsessions and Dali-esque kaleidoscopic abstraction you couldn't hope to see. This garish, over-the-top melange of booze-fuelled nightmare and subconscious calling is certainly way more disturbing than any visual evocation of clown antics that the film has to offer. It is incredible just how frightening the imagery can be at times. Legions of phantom-phants criss-cross the screen, marching remorselessly through a collage of spiralling backdrops, their intentions dubious, their appearance partly drunken mirage and partly primal dream-surge. Menacing and fun at once, this becomes the Disney answer to a Saul Bass or Maurice Binder title sequence for Hitchcock (the former) or Bond (the latter). The Arabian twist followed by the neon-silhouetted ice-dance now seem like acid-dropped notions that were ditched, last minute, from Fantasia. But the whole set-piece becomes one of the studio's defining moments, as well as one of animation's, with the wacky potential that it bestwoed the entire medium.
But so much of Dumbo's unique animation is equally as indelible. The erecting of the Big Top in the midst of a furious tempest. The death-defying stunts of the elephant troupe - starched Madams to a one wobbling with the strain of a trunk-swaying pyramid. The floppy slapstick animation for the buffooning clowns as they tumble and prat-fall their way around the arena. The crows doing their perfectly harmonised and laconic Louisiana lullabies, shucking 'n' jiving down from the branches. Timothy Mouse and his pint-size pep-talks and, especially, his ability to rise to the occasion and confront those who would dare to belittle Dumbo. The fledgling flying lessons and the heartwarming sight of Dumbo wrapping his ears around his mother in a great big hug contrasted with the heart-breaking earlier shot of him taking hold of Timothy's tiny tail as they trundle off into uncertainty. The improvised air strike of peanuts that delivers some much-deserved retribution upon the gaggle of gossiping trunk-queens. And then there is the sheer delight of watching Casey Jones Jnr, the bouncy little circus train as he transports the whole entourage across an Americana-laced map of the States. The film may only run for an hour, but it packs a lot of rewarding and inventive animation in besides all that emotional wallop. Even the score is a belter. None of that teeth-rotting vintage crooning from Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, but some great musical passages - the main theme gets inside your head and never leaves - coupled with the best songs that Disney had to offer until Mowgli met Baloo in Jungle Book and learned about those Bare Necessities. The fact that Dumbo, himself, never utters a word doesn't even seem remarkable. It is impossible to think of an animated movie other than Pixar's WALL-E attempting to do the same thing with a central character these days, revealing a remarkable bravery on the part of Disney back then, as well as a total confidence that those baby-blues and sweet smile would do the trick.
So Dumbo saved Disney's day and has since passed into animation and movie history. Rightly hailed as one of the studio's most highly prized gems in a crown that is positively bulging with Tinseltown bling, the film is the last of Disney's Golden Age classics. After this, the style and the mood of their productions would change. Bambi, which followed in the wake of the little elephant's rise to fame, would showcase a design and detail ethic that would mark a massive evolutionary step in animation and storytelling, a bold step that not only guaranteed continued success for Uncle Walt, but set in stone the template for practically all of the animated films that came out from beneath his name to this day. Only the likes of the water-coloured Lilo And Stitch (which I think is an excellent and downright audacious movie, all round, and one that I could never tire of watching) would seem to fall back upon this “older” style, despite its SF sophistication. Revisiting Dumbo, therefore, is like reading a love-letter to the end of an era, as it were.
Please note that this UK release is region-coded to B and C territories.