Dumbo (1941)

dumbo

Remember, you come of a proud race. Why you’re a, a… a pachydoim! And pachydoims don’t cry!”

The Scoop: 1941 G, directed by Ben Sharpsteen, Samuel Armstrong, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts and John Elliotte and starring Edward Brophy, Herman Bing, Verna Felton, Noreen Gammill, Dorothy Scott, Sarah Shelby, Cliff Edwards, Jim Carmichael, Hall Johnson, Nick Stewart, James Baskett, Sterling Holloway, John McLeish and Margaret Wright.

Tagline: The One… The Only… The FABULOUS…

Summary Capsule: The bittersweet story of a tiny li’l elephant who can’t catch a break – until he does. ‘Cause Disney.

Deneb’s rating: 4.95 pink elephants out of five.

Deneb’s review: Hey there, y’all! Been a while since I’ve put up a regular review, hasn’t it? Yes, it has. There’s no gettin’ around it, it has been a long dang time.

Well, there’s no point in breaking radio (er, Internet) silence with just any old movie, so let’s do a big one – Dumbo. A personal favorite of mine, a Disney film (which people seem to like my reviews of), and a technical qualifier for my long-neglected ‘Tales of the VHS’ series (I’ll get into that later). Also, of course, a movie with a remake that (as of my posting this) is just about to come out, so now strikes me as a jolly good time to dip into the original, what-ho! (I’m not sure why I went British there; this movie is about as American as it gets.)

First, though, a little history. At the time this movie came out, Disney was in a bit of a bind, financially speaking. Although Snow White had done astoundingly well, and netted the studio many millions, neither Pinocchio nor Fantasia had made a profit, thanks in part to the war overseas cutting them off from the lucrative foreign market. Both had been cripplingly expensive to make, using up almost the last of the Snow White money, and as a result, the fledgling Mouse House found itself in dire straits. They desperately needed a hit – and not an expensive one, either. They needed something quick and cheap that would pay for itself many times over.

Luckily, Dumbo did precisely that. Made for a few hundred grand, it brought in well over two million, refilling Walt’s coffers and allowing him and his animators to face the coming war years with relative equanimity. It would not be exaggerating to say that it saved the studio – Disney as we know it would not currently exist if it hadn’t been for this one little movie.

So with proper fanfare, let us jump right into the plot. Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, I present to you – Dumbo!

As our story begins, Mrs. Jumbo, the circus elephant, is expecting a baby. She gets one, too, an adorable little pachy-tot named Jumbo, Jr. He’s a lively li’l fella, and his mother loves him very much.

There’s only one problem – he’s got big ears. Now, all elephants have big ears, of course, but these are enormous; you could lay out a picnic on ’em. Mrs. Jumbo doesn’t care – he’s still her baby – but her fellow peanut-eaters are not so kind. They mock the funny-looking new elephantlet, and rename him – the heck with Jumbo, Jr.; he’s not Jumbo anything, he’s Dumbo! And from then on, Dumbo he is.

Of course, Dumbo himself is largely oblivious to this. So long as he’s got his mama, he’s happy. But the teasing does not stop, and when Mrs. Jumbo loses her temper in the wake of a particularly dramatic incident, she’s locked away as a ‘Mad Elephant’. Poor Dumbo is all on his own.

That is to say, not completely on his own. He manages to make a new friend in the form of one Timothy Q. Mouse, an amiable rodent who sympathizes with the little elephant’s plight. Chin up, he tells his new pal – this is still the circus, and success opens doors, sometimes literally. If they can dream up a hot new act for him to star in, he’s sure to be reunited with his mom – who can say no to success?

Trouble is, success is still a long way off. Those ears get Dumbo in trouble at every turn, and far from rising to the heights, he remains pretty firmly at the bottom. They’ll need a miracle to get past this – but fortunately, miracles do happen every now and then, especially when aided by a little spilled champagne…

All right, before launching into my usual critiques, there’s something I should get out of the way first. My copy of Dumbo was recorded off TV for me by my parents when I was very young (which is why it qualifies for ‘Tales of the VHS’ status, as mentioned earlier). It’s almost as old as I am (literally, in fact – it still has the old ’80’s ‘Walt Disney Home Video’ logo in front of it, with the cool neon Mickey, which lasted through ’86. I was born in ’83). The picture is a bit grainy at this point, but it’s my grain, and at the point when the tape inevitably gives out, I shall replace it with a sigh of regret. (Sure, I’d like to see the movie in high-definition, but – I’ll miss that grain.)

What I’m saying here is, don’t ask me to be super-objective about this movie. I’ve watched it the-gods-only-know-how-many times, and at this point, it is almost as personal to me as if I’d made it myself. ‘Taking a step back’ from it is just not going to happen; one might as well ask me to take a step back from my own spine. I mean, I’ll do my best, but still, we’ve all got movies like that, and this is one of mine. Indulge me, please.

That being said, I’ve never been under the impression that this movie was perfect. It does have its flaws – pretty minor ones, if you ask me, but still, they are there. There are a few specific things that other people have found fault with, which I’ll address later, but for now let’s just focus on my own observations.

The main one is the pacing. I don’t think it’s bad – for most of the film, it’s perfectly fine – but taken overall, it’s slightly off. The beginning is just a little bit slow, and the ending is just a little bit rushed. Little bit here, little bit there. It’s nothing particularly noticeable (I mean, the beginning and ending are both great, regardless), but it is there. If you wish to be a perfectionist, it is there.

Also, for a circus where the wide variety of animals seems to be the main attraction, we don’t actually see very many of them outside of specific sequences. Sure, Dumbo’s plight is emphatically that his own kind rejects him, but wouldn’t it add a bit more punch to the notion if we also saw some of the other animals teasin’ him ’bout them there gargantuous ears? It wouldn’t have to be much – a cage full of monkeys pointing and laughing, the hippos sinking underwater when he approaches, that sort of thing – but as it is, one wonders why he doesn’t just pal around with the baby giraffe or something. It’s not so much a glaring flaw as it is a nit that is fairly easily picked – maybe elephants only associate with other elephants; I don’t know.

There are a couple of other things, as I said before – and they are, so far as some people are concerned, pretty big ones. But they can wait. Let’s talk about what makes Dumbo the legend that it is.

Well, ye gods, where to start?

I suppose the surface details would be a good launching point. This is old-school Disney in their golden age. Yes, it was made on the cheap, but ‘on the cheap’ by those standards still gets you a film made by some of the most talented American animators ever to set pen to cel, and overseen by ol’ Walt ‘visionary perfectionist’ Disney himself. No, it’s not as ridiculously lush and detailed as Pinocchio, or as artistic and ambitious as Fantasia, but it wasn’t trying to be – and frankly, if it had been, it probably wouldn’t have been as good.

What Dumbo boils down to, if you had to describe it briefly, is a very simple movie done very, very well. That is what the concept demands. It is a movie about… well, listen, I usually try to avoid spoilers in these reviews, as you know, but there is no conceivable way to do that for Dumbo. Even if I was that fanatical, there’d be no point – virtually every promotional image in existence for this film, dating back to the very first poster and the very first VHS cover a few decades later, have spoiled the ending. There’s an iconic Disneyland ride with four copycat incarnations across the globe, and they spoil the ending. People who aren’t even fully aware that the movie is a movie know what its ending is. Dumbo flies, OK? Those great big floppy ears can be flapped like wings, and allow him to soar aloft into the blue. That’s the twist. I’m sure you’re all shocked.

So, yeah. It is a movie about a flying elephant. Now, I’m not saying that a realistic film about a flying elephant would be impossible to make – nothing is impossible – but it is not exactly a notion that causes learned scientific gentlemen to stroke their beards thoughtfully and go ‘hmm… yesss….’ It is not inherently realistic, let us put it that way.

But by cartoon logic, it makes perfect sense. It’s like when a cartoon dog is after a scent, and his nose hops off his face and goes snuffling around on its own – a biologist would have an aneurysm, but your average watcher would just go ‘eh, I’ve seen Bugs Bunny do weirder’. Cartoon logic is not real-world logic – therefore, in order for Dumbo to work, it must exist in a cartoon world.

And oh boy, does it. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that Dumbo is the first standard Disney character to show up a few decades later in Who Framed Roger Rabbit – his version of reality already feels like a sort of nascent, worldwide Toontown. This is a world where babies are quite literally delivered via stork. It’s a world where an aerial view of the United States shows each state carefully labeled and colored just as they are on the maps. It’s a world where trains talk, elephants wear little hats, and circus clowns can defy reality for the sake of a gag, just like any good Toon. In short, it is a world where a flying elephant makes perfect sense.

It is also a world where simplicity is not only a good strategy, it’s the key to the movie’s success. By keeping everything simple, the animators didn’t just save time and money (which, let us not forget, was the entire point of the exercise), it also let them focus on what they were best at: animation. You can probably find more spectacular animation in just about any other Disney feature, but in terms of pure, cartoony expressiveness, I think you’d have a hard time finding something to equal it.

And a big part of all that is in the character animation. And that is as good a reason as any to start talking about the characters – the first of which, of course, should be the title character.

Dumbo is one of those characters that it would be very easy to get wrong. Why? Simple – he’s cute. I’ve never been one of those people who worship at the altar of cuteness, but there’s no getting around it, Dumbo is one durn cute li’l fella. He’s probably the cutest single character that Disney has ever created, which means he’s very, very, very, very, very cute.

And ‘cute’ can be a trap. ‘Cute’, if not properly modulated, can easily lead directly to ‘saccharine’. That’s what happened in the ’80’s with all those tooth-rottingly precious little shows about friendship in the cabbage patch or whatever – even the relatively good examples of that genre have more syrupy sappiness than a forest of maples. And Dumbo could very easily have turned into something like that. (Yes, I know TV animation wasn’t a thing back then; I meant in terms of tone. Don’t be so literal.)

He could have. But he didn’t. Why didn’t he? Because them there Disney folks are no dummies, and they remembered one very important thing: ‘cute’, when used correctly, is also a fast-track to ‘sympathetic’, and from there, ‘relatable’.

And we relate to him hard-core. It doesn’t matter who you are, everyone knows what it is like to be small and helpless. When we get our first glimpse of tiny little Dumbo, while most of your brain may be going ‘awwww’, a small part is saying ‘I used to be that’. Dumbo is cute because he is a baby, and babies plainly and simply are not equipped to deal with the world yet. This means that when the world turns against him, we are instantly on his side.

Which is good, because ye gods, this world doesn’t so much turn against him as spin madly. The poor kid is literally born unlucky – the very name we know him by is a cruel diminution of his given one handed out mere seconds after his birth. Sure, his mother loves him, deeply and affectionately, but he only gets a brief, sweet taste of that love – no more than a day or so, maximum – before it is snatched away from him. And what does he get to replace it? Snobbishness, intolerance, xenophobia and deep, soul-cracking humiliation. And all because his freaking ears look funny.

Throughout all this, Dumbo never says a word (of course he doesn’t; he’s a baby), and yet we are with him every step of the way, along one of the toughest roads that any Disney hero has ever had to tread. Dumbo is not typically ranked among the studio’s darkest films – and it shouldn’t be; it’s too basically bright and cartoony for that – but by the time the title character finally gets his happy ending, he has earned it, to the point where it is almost a physical relief for the audience to see it play out.

Mind you, he’s not alone. He has Timothy, who is an entirely different, yet entirely complimentary sort of character.

Starting with the most obvious differences, Timothy talks – a lot. Not that he’s a chatterbox or anything, but I’m pretty sure he has the most dialogue of any one character in the entire movie. And he should – he’s accompanying Dumbo, after all. If he were the strong-and-silent type, there’d be awkward pauses of great duration scattered throughout. (You might cite the later film WALL-E as a counter-example – after all, there’s no proper dialogue for large chunks of that one, and it works – but the difference there is that WALL-E can talk. He doesn’t have much to say, or even much that he can say, but he is an expressive little robot, nonetheless. He doesn’t need an accompanying voice. Dumbo does.)

If our Mr. Q. Mouse was just a structural convenience, though, he wouldn’t be anywhere near the great character that he is. In point of fact, while the plot and story arc are unmistakably Dumbo’s, there are times when Timothy comes close to running away with the whole movie.

Why? Well, for starters, he’s pretty fun to watch. He’s got a lively design, and Edward Brophy gives him a nicely engaging Brooklyn-esque voice. He’s a tough little guy, too, not letting anyone mess with him, even if (as is almost always the case) those ‘anyones’ are quite a bit bigger than him. Technically, I suppose he counts as comic relief, but he’s comic relief that is actually funny, and has a purpose besides.

But while all those things are contributors to Timothy’s greatness, they’re basically just surface details. The main thing that makes Timothy stick in the head is his relationship with Dumbo.

Timothy is exactly what Dumbo needs – a true friend. Moreover, he becomes his friend for an admirably uncomplicated reason. The devoted mini-sidekick is, of course, a long-standing tradition in Disney films, but normally either they have something to get out of it (like, say, Mushu from Mulan), or their relationship with the hero predates the start of the movie, so it doesn’t require explanation (most of them).

Neither of those apply to Timothy. He was doing perfectly well on his own, and he could have continued as such. He became Dumbo’s friend and advocate out of pure, honest compassion. He saw how lonely he was, went ‘hey, kid, need a pal?’, and that was it.

Together, the two of them have an interesting dynamic. I’d almost describe it as a good guy version of Pinocchio‘s Foulfellow and Gideon. Dumbo isn’t as outright dopey as Gideon, of course, but otherwise, he neatly fills the role of ‘brawn’ to Timothy’s ‘brain’ – and much like Foulfellow, Timothy has great ideas, but they’re not always as good as he thinks they are.

The main difference, though, besides the whole hero/villain aspect, is that Timothy honestly cares for his little elephant chum. Where Foulfellow uses his partner-in-crime as a stooge first and foremost, Timothy has genuinely thrown in his lot with his new companion. He sees his offer of friendship as a sacred bond that he must honor – and wants to honor, because it’s obvious that Dumbo needs him, and dang it, he likes the kid. Listen to that speech he makes in his defense – it’s not just melodrama on his part, it’s genuine, tearful empathy. Sure, he gets him in trouble a time or two, but it’s always an honest mistake, and ultimately, his plans do work – without them, Dumbo would probably never have gotten his happy ending. When you get right down to it, he’s the guy you want in your corner – someone who will never give up on you, even when the going gets super-tough.

(Also, one last Pinocchio comparison – some have accused Timothy of being a Jiminy Cricket rip-off. There may be a slight something to that, but consider this: Pinocchio and Dumbo are both wide-eyed innocents, but Jiminy can never get that darn puppet to listen to him until it’s too late, while Dumbo always listens to Timothy. I won’t draw any conclusions from that, but… well, one of these two is clearly better at his job.)

That doesn’t quite do it for the good guys – there are the crows (but we’ll talk about them in a minute), and, of course, Mrs. Jumbo, but except for ‘good mom’, there’s not a whole lot to say about her. So this would normally be our cue to move on to the villains – except there aren’t any. Not really, anyway.

Dumbo’s ‘villain’ isn’t any one particular character; instead, it’s the world in general. Sure, he has antagonists, plenty of them, but none of them are directly plotting his downfall. The other elephants are pretty nasty towards him, but it never really raises itself above a sort of small-town gossip/playground politics nastiness – it makes his life miserable, and they certainly go too far with it, but it’s basically just a reaction on their part to ongoing circumstances (and it looks like they do come over to his side by the end). The Ringmaster is sometimes painted as the villain, but it’s pretty easy to see things from his point of view – Mrs. Jumbo really was causing a disturbance and tearing up the place; he had to do something about her, and as for what happened next… well, yeah, he may have scapegoated Dumbo a bit after that, but it really was pretty bad. As for the clowns, the worst you can say about them is that they’re insensitive – they don’t wish our hero ill; it simply doesn’t occur to them to wish him anything at all.

All right. So we’ve talked about the characters and such, and there are a few more nice things I’d like to touch on, but alas, now comes the bit that every modern Dumbo reviewer, it seems, must address at some point, and those are the aspects of the film that modern audiences – or some of them, anyway – have termed offensive.

Which means that – among other things – now is the time to talk about the crows.

Sigh.

Look, I’m going to be upfront about all this and say right here and now that none of what I’m about to talk about offends me. Yes, that probably has something to do with rose-colored glasses, but there are a few older books and such which are similarly dear to me that I am perfectly willing to admit contain some offensive aspects, and which I would only cautiously recommend to people. As I’ve said before, rose-colored glasses don’t mean you’re blind or anything; they just make you a little more willing to forgive or pass over things which, by modern standards, stand out in uncomfortable ways.

And yet, I see none of those in Dumbo. I honestly don’t, and the fact that bits of it consistently wind up on ‘Most Racist Moments EVER’ lists on YouTube has not so much changed my mind as convinced me that the people behind said videos are either extraordinarily sheltered or have simply put little to no thought into them. We live, unfortunately, in the era of the ill-informed snap-judgment, and poor Dumbo has borne some of the brunt of that.

But, that being said, everyone has different standards, people get offended by different things, yadda yadda let’s get on with it. Time to talk about the crows.

For those of you who don’t know, there are some crows in this movie. Their voices and mannerisms are pretty clearly supposed to be ‘black’ – as in African-American sort of black.

And ye gods, do some people hate them for that!

If I recall correctly, it more or less got started back in the ’70’s when someone wrote a book about racism in film and accused the crows of being racial stereotypes – and it’s only snowballed from there. I’ve heard them described as ‘minstrel show characters’. I’ve heard terms such as ‘shockingly racist’ thrown about in reference to them. I’ve heard people describe them as the one bit that ruined the film for them. I’ve heard parents talk about what a shame it is that The Crows *roll of thunder* are in Dumbo, because obviously they can’t show that sort of movie to their kids.

I don’t get these people. I don’t get them at all.

But let’s try and analyze this. As best I can tell, one big thing that the anti-Dumbo-crows faction cite as a reason that they’re obviously racist is the name of the lead crow.

It’s ‘Jim Crow’.

Yeah. I will admit that kind of shocked me a bit when I first heard about it.

But you know why I had to hear about it, instead of, you know, knowing it from the beginning? In the actual film, none of the crows have names. They’re not even listed by name in the credits (because Disney didn’t list its actors in the credits back then). ‘Jim Crow’ only got that name because it was slapped on him by the animators so they could call him something while they worked on makin’ him move and such. I’d personally always thought of him as ‘the head crow’, or ‘that crow with the cigar’. His name appears on model sheets – that’s it. You could go the rest of your life without knowing that his name is ‘Jim Crow’; that’s how little of a deal it is.

Was it a tasteless label for them to slap on him? I suppose it was. But great gumballs, people, it was 1939 when they started making this thing; to put it mildly, folks were just not as sensitive about these matters as we are now – especially considering that, in all likelihood, no one not involved with the picture was ever expected to know about it. Cut the poor animators some slack already.

So yeah, never mind names. How, taken purely as themselves, are the crows?

They’re fine. They’re great.

Cards on the table here; in my opinion the crows are some of the best, liveliest characters in the movie. They’re funny, they’re irreverent, they’re (ultimately) helpful, they’ve got one of the best songs, and each and every one of them has a distinct and interesting visual presence. They’re only onscreen for a scant handful of minutes, but that handful contains some of the film’s most memorable moments. Whether you like ’em or hate ’em, you will never forget these birds.

Also, just to clarify something? They have nothing to do with minstrel shows. According to direct testimony from the folks who made ’em, the crows’ wisecracking personas were inspired by the ‘band chatter’ that used to show up on jazz records, where the musicians joked around with each other between songs. It’s not the movie’s fault that time’s moved on and you don’t hear that sort of thing much anymore; chances are, most people back in ’41 would have gotten the reference immediately.

So that’s the crows dealt with. Just one more ‘offensive’ thing before we move on, and that would be one particular sequence – the ‘Song of the Roustabouts’.

While I can kind of see the logic behind people being offended by the crows (even if I don’t share their opinion), I am straight-up dumbfounded by how many people seem to consider this sequence an unpardonable sin. There are folks I’ve met online who have no problem with the crows, but ‘Song of the Roustabouts’ drives them to full-on, sputtering outrage.

Why? Well, the roustabouts in question are black – at least, as best can be determined – and mention how they’re ill-paid and have little education.

Now, as I’ve said, my copy of Dumbo is A: on VHS and B: recorded off TV, so for a very long time, I didn’t even notice that the roustabouts were dark-skinned – it’s a very murky scene under those circumstances. However, I have subsequently sought out higher-quality versions of it on YouTube, and yeah, OK, those guys are probably black. Maybe not all of them, but at the very least, the majority of them are most likely black.

That being said, I have two basic reactions to this. First – you’re telling me that underpaid low-level manual laborers in the 1940’s were often black? Holy crap, what a surprise!

In all seriousness, folks, a lot of roustabouts back then probably were black. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that dark-skinned Americans of any type had it pretty bad during that period of American history, and many of them didn’t have much choice but to work at that sort of back-breaking job – if they wanted to put meat on the table, that’s what was on offer. I don’t think the filmmakers were making a statement so much as reflecting the realities of the time.

Second, listen to the lyrics – do these guys sound like they’re being made fun of? The entire song is about how they’ve got to put this circus tent up come hell or high water, no matter that they’re bone-deep weary and will get little reward at the end of it. It’s the middle of the night and there’s a freaking thunderstorm going on; any sane person would be home in bed, but these poor dudes have to get the tent up because it’s their job and they can’t get a better one. If the film is making a statement here, it’s probably something like ‘wow, being a circus laborer sucks’.

Aside from that, the scene actually has little to do with them – yes, they’re the ones singing, but the scene itself mainly features Dumbo and his fellow elephants. I kind of doubt you’re supposed to supposed to focus on the roustabouts when their actual presence is so minimal.

And honestly? I’ve always loved this sequence. It’s awesomely atmospheric, what with the rain and the lightning and such, and the song’s great, too (true story – my parents used to sing in the local chorus, and after they chose ‘God Bless the Outcasts’ from Hunchback of Notre Dame as one of their song selections, I tried to get them to sing ‘Roustabouts’ next, ’cause hey, also a Disney song, right? It didn’t work). Frankly, I think people kind of project racism onto it simply because it’s old and has black people in it – everyone has a right to their opinion, of course, but… still.

All right, that just about does it for the touchy bits, but before I get into the wrap-up, I need to briefly mention ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ (because… I have no other place to mention it).

If you’ve heard of one thing about this movie besides the stuff I just talked about, it’s probably ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’. Everything you have heard is true. It’s a great song, it features some of the most hallucinatory imagery those Mouse-Housers have ever dreamed up, and it’s catchy and freaky and brilliant – and yes, it would never be made today, but for me, that’s part of its charm. All hail the Technicolor Pachyderms!

And speaking of which, I’ve just mentioned an awful lot of songs without ever talking about the music, haven’t I? How’s the music? It’s pretty good. It’s very circus-y, overall – lots of brass and fanfare and so forth – and while the songs may not be some of the most memorable in the Disney canon (there’s a whole lot of competition for those spots, after all), they are not at all bad on their own merits. Of course, there are the ones I’ve already covered, and they’re great, and there’s a bunch of little mini-songs, and they’re not half bad – so I guess that just leaves ‘Baby of Mine’.

‘Baby of Mine’ was nominated for ‘Best Song’ that year. It didn’t win, but it should have, dammit, because it’s one of the best tear-jerking movie songs I’ve ever heard. I’ve seen this movie about a million times, and that scene still gives me the sniffles a bit. It’s just so freaking poignant – never has a mother’s love for her child been expressed so tenderly in lyric form. Not by Disney, anyway. In the category of ‘tragically touching’, this is their best song.

Does that do it? Let’s see… talked about the songs… talked about the animation… talked about the characters and the controversy… Got the background covered… Yep! That just about does it!

So… Dumbo. Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Well, from me, as you’ve probably gathered, it is most definitely a thumbs up. I love this movie. I don’t know if it’s my favorite Disney film or not – that position tends to shift around a bit – but it’s definitely the one I’ve seen the most times, and the one I’m most likely to pop in when I’m feeling blue and need cheering up. It’s simultaneously one of the studio’s saddest movies and one of its brightest and most cheerful; it’s got enough cuteness to count as weapons-grade material, but it’s leavened with a surprisingly dark edge and a decidedly eccentric outlook. It’s cartoony and wacky, but at the same time it shows the absolute limits of just what a cartoony film is actually capable of. It’s the story of a little elephant who learns how to fly. It’s the life and death of the Magic Feather. And yes, for some people it’s racist, although I’m firmly convinced that those people are A: wrong, and B: need to take a good, hard look at their life if they’ve been reduced to picking on cartoon elephants. It’s Dumbo, people. There’ll never be another one like it.

Now, let’s see, how to end this? Well, it’s circus-themed, so… ‘Entrance of the Gladiators’, anyone? Lovely. Doot-doot doodle-oo-d’doot-doot doo-doot, doot-doot doodle-oo-d’doot-doot doo-doot, doot d’d’doot-doot, doot d’d’doot-doot, doodle-oodle-oodle-oodle-oodle-oodle-oo-doot…

Though his pride would never allow him to call it quits, Timothy had a sinking suspicion that he was about to lose the staring contest – and soon.

Intermission!

  • In order to cut costs, Dumbo‘s backgrounds were all painted in watercolors instead of the more costly oil paints. It is the only Disney film to get this treatment, which gives it a feel more reminiscent of the Silly Symphony shorts.
  • At one point, Disney started referring to Jim Crow as ‘Dandy Crow’ in Dumbo-related materials, presumably as an attempt to deflect the backlash from the original name. I guess it didn’t work, because they shortly went back to calling him Jim – but again, he technically has no name at all in the actual movie, so you can call him ‘Dandy’ if you prefer. (Or make it a nickname – “Dandy Jim” Crow. Or “Jim Dandy”. His real first name can be James. James Crow. Now isn’t that better?)
  • Technically, Timothy’s name is never spoken; however, it is in the movie, as at one point you see his signature. Also, the name was used in one of the movie’s taglines.
  • Walt Disney was originally dubious about Dumbo‘s potential as a film. In order to keep him interested, story men Dick Huemer and Joe Grant came up with a clever plan – they presented the story to him as a series of mini-chapters, each ending in a cliffhanger, one of which they would leave on his desk every morning. Eventually, Walt’s curiosity got the better of him, and he went down to the story department to ask them what happened next – at which point, presumably, the full pitch happened. He would ultimately consider Dumbo to be the best film his studio ever made.
  • The line “Lots of people with big ears are famous” refers to Clark Gable. This is not the only contemporary reference; the song lyric “remember those quintuplets and the woman in the shoe” refers to the Dionne Quintuplets, who had received great publicity not long before as the first known set of quintuplets to all survive the birthing process.
  • The character of Dumbo was animated by the legendary Bill Tytla, who is best known for animating characters of immense strength and power, such as Monstro the Whale from Pinocchio or Chernobog from Fantasia. He partially modeled the little elephant after his infant son, who was then about two years old.
  • In the scene where the clowns get out of costume after the show, one of them is clearly removing a Goofy mask.
  • Aside from Jim/Dandy Crow, the crows’ names, as given by the animators, are Fats, Deacon, Dopey and Specks. This gives the film the unique distinction of being the only one in the Disney canon (that I’m aware of) to reuse a name (Dopey) from a previous film.
  • The name of the circus Dumbo belongs to is apparently the ‘WDP Circus’, according to a sign glimpsed briefly at the beginning. This is a pretty obvious in-joke, as ‘WDP’ stands for ‘Walt Disney Pictures’.
  • During production, there was an animator’s strike that held things up for several weeks. This was a significant event in Disney history, as it caused a rift between Walt and his employees that never fully went away afterwards. While there’s no proof one way or the other for this, it is speculated that the clowns (who sing about ‘hitting the big boss for a raise’) were designed as caricatures of some of the strikers.
  • Herman Bing, the actor who voiced the Ringmaster, is not putting on an accent – it’s his own. He started his career in Germany as a production chief before going to America with F.W Murnau (the director of the original Nosferatu) to act as his translator and assistant director; he ultimately stayed and became a prolific character actor. Dumbo was his last big film, as German actors became very unpopular in Hollywood after America’s entry into WW2.
  • Four of the crows are voiced by members of the Hall Johnson Choir, an African-American choral group. Jim Crow is voiced by Cliff Edwards, the same actor who voiced Jiminy Cricket.

Groovy Quotes:

Prissy: After all, who cares about her precious little Jumbo?
Catty: ‘Jumbo’? You mean ‘Dumbo’!

Song lyric: Look out for Mr. Stork/and let me tell you, friend/
Don’t try to get away/He’ll find you in the end/
He’ll spot you out in China or he’ll fly to County Cork/
So you’d better look out for Mr. Stork!

Clown: Pour it in me slipper, Joey!

Timothy: Y’know, lots of people with big ears are famous.

Ringmaster: Ladies and gentlemen, we will now present, for your entertainment, the most stupendous, magnificent, super-colossal spectacle! On this tiny, little insignificant ball, we will construct for you a pyramid! Not of wood, not of stone, not of spoons, but a living, breathing pyramid of ponderous, pulsating, pulchritudinous pachyderms!

Song lyric: Baby mine, don’t you cry/
Baby mine, dry your eye/
Rest your head close to my heart/
Never to part/Baby of mine.

Catty: Just look at those… those… (whispers to Giddy) E-A-R-S.
Giddy: Those what? (Beat) Oh, ‘ears‘!

Narration: Through the snow and sleet and hail,
through the blizzard, through the gale,
through the wind and through the rain,
over mountain, over plain,
through the blinding lightning-flash,
and the mighty thunder-crash –
ever faithful, ever true;
Nothing stops him.
He’ll get through!

Clown #1: Elephants ain’t got no feelings!
Clown #2: No, they’re made a’ rubber!

Timothy: Remember, you come of a proud race. Why you’re a, a… a pachydoim! And pachydoims don’t cry!

Song lyric: What’ll I do?/What’ll I do?/
What an unusual view!

Jim Crow: Well, hush my beak!

Ringmaster: I step out – I blow the whistle – the tarum-pa-ta, ta-rum-pa-ting! And now comes the climax!

‘Mama Elephant’ Clown: Save my poor baby clown! Save my chee-ild!

Elephant Matriarch: Out of my way, assassin!

Song lyric: Casey Jr.’s comin’ down the track/
Comin’ down the track, with a smokey stack!
Hear him puffin’, comin’ round the hill/
Casey’s here to thrill/every Jack and Jill!

Every time his funny little whistle sounds/
Everybody hurries to the circus grounds/
Time for lemonade and cracker-jack/
Casey Jr.’s back! Casey Jr.’s back!

Specks: They’s dead, isn’t they?
Fats: No – dead people don’t snore. (Beat) Or do they?

Timothy: That’s a pretty shtrick shlick!

Elephant Matriarch: Let us take the solemn vow. From now on, he is no longer an elephant.

Crows: Let’s go! Let’s go! Heave ho! Heave ho!

Timothy: ‘A proud race’! Overstuffed hay-bags!

Roustabouts: (singing) Muscles achin’/
Back near breakin’/
Eggs and bacon/What we need/
Yes, sir!
Boss-man houndin’/Keep on poundin’/
For your bed and feed/
There ain’t no let-up/
Must get set up/
Pull that canvas! Drive that stake!/
Want to doze off/Get them clothes off/
But must keep awake…

Catty: Girls, girls, listen – have I got a trunkful of dirt!

Timothy: You oughtta be ashamed of yourselves – a bunch a’ big guys like you, pickin’ on a poor little orphan like him! Suppose you was torn away from your mother, when you was just a baby. Nobody to tuck ya in at nights – no warm, soft caressin’ trunk to snuzzle inta. How would you like to be left out alone, in a cold, cruel, heartless woild – and why? I ask ya – why? Just because he’s got those big ears, they call him a freak! The laughin’ stock o’ the coicus! Then when his mother tried to protect him, they t’rew her inta the clink! And on top o’ that, they made him a clown! Socially, he’s washed up!
…Aw, but what’s the use of talkin’ to you cold-hearted boids. Go ahead – have your fun! Laugh at ‘im! Kick him now that he’s down – g’wan! We don’t care.

Song lyric: Chase ’em away!/Chase ’em away!/
I’m afraid/Need your aid/Pink elephants on parade!

Timothy: Oh-oh; boy, I stepped in it that time.

Jim Crow: You want to make the elephant fly, don’tcha? Well, you gotta use a bunch o’ ‘chology; you know, psychology.

Timothy: The very things that held ya down, are gonna carry ya up, and up, and up!

Repeated lyric: I seen a peanut stand/Heard a rubber band/
I seen a needle that winked its eye/
But I’ve been-done-seen ’bout everything/
When I see an elephant fly!

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Edward Scissorhands
  • Fun and Fancy Free
  • Melody Time

4 comments

  1. I recall a very awkward conversation between Mumma + my four-year-old self wherein she tried to explain just how drunk someone would have to be to hallucinate pink elephants + why I should stop pretending to.

    • Ah, she should have let you have your fun. I think at this point, the movie has worked its way into our culture enough that anyone seeing a small child running around yelling about pink elephants is going to think ‘oh, they’ve just seen Dumbo’ as opposed to ‘delirium tremens! The shame of it! Where’s a social worker?’ I mean, they play the song at Disneyland, for cryin’ out loud.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s