johnlink ranks DUMBO (1941)

My son, Quinn, picked DUMBO out from the library. So, we watched it. I imagine there will be plenty of animated kids movies on the blog this year thanks to him. Hopefully at least a good portion of them have the pedigree of this Disney classic. I’m counting this as a first viewing because I may have seen this when I was three (like Quinn!) but I remember absolutely nothing about it whatsoever. I say this only, dear reader, because I know you care desperately about such OCD driven minutiae.


I watched DUMBO (1941) on 1.7.14. It was my first viewing of the film.

DUMBO was the 1941 Disney release made with the hope of bailing the company out of the financially unsuccessful features PINOCCHIO and FANTASIA. It has elements of those films, with one dream sequence amazingly reminiscent of the whimsy of FANTASIA.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The story of DUMBO is beautifully simple. A baby elephant is delivered to his mother. His ears are too big, so he is ridiculed. Defending his honor, his mother gets into a rage and is isolated by the circus ringmaster from her son. Dumbo befriends a mouse who tries to help. Dumbo nearly wrecks the circus and becomes even more of an outcast. He has a psychedelic drunken fantasy (as baby elephants do) and then learns to fly. The end. Oh. Spoiler alert. Whoops.

So what happens here is fairly straightforward. How we get there is unorthodox and would never be the result of a commercial, overly produced, modern corporate engine. The reasons for this are multiple.

For one, this movie transitions animation styles from the first act to the second and beyond. The opening is abstract and whimsical. A stork sits in a cloud figuring his elephant baby drop. He looks down on the US and sees the map, with Florida clearly marked as his destination. A train movies through the country behind a painted layer of hillside. Plenty is wasted in the name of artistic creativity. It is certainly interesting. Once Dumbo is introduced and we enter into the oppressed elephant story-line, things become more standard (well, until the champagne-induced bubble elephants pillage their young minds).

Racism is either prevalent or ridiculed, depending on your lens. Does the fact that there are no faces on black people who help build the tent offend you? It feels like it should. When the elephant ends up in the wrong part of town (up in a tree) is it questionable that he is confronted by a group of African-American voiced birds who inform him that he doesn’t belong there? It seems like it in the moment. But then Dumbo himself is ‘other’ here. He is the elephant with big ears. He works alongside those faceless people building the circus. He is ultimately celebrated by the birds who first derided him. There are certainly questionable still photos to be pulled from the feature. Yet, it would seem, DUMBO’s thematic thrust seems to be that one of celebrating what is not like you. Seems obvious in 2014, probably felt like something only mainstream films of animation could get away with in 1941.

The alcohol induced bubble fantasy in the last 15 minutes of the film would never fly today. Are the visions a hallucination? Are they reality in a fantasy world? Who knows. The images are relevant enough to have inspired the Genie’s first song in ALADDIN. The song, regarding pink elephants, is the only song in the film I felt was familiar. Something about it works, even if it is entirely out of place in the narrative. This is another thing that Disney of 1941 would consider necessary in a 65 minute feature which modern Disney would never even consider in a 120 minute film.

Ultimately, this is a better film than movie. The creation of character is mostly nice, particularly in the use of colors on the female elephants to help distinguish their surprisingly nuanced viewpoints. DUMBO is important in the history of animation, and it is still relevant in terms of bucking narrative structure. It is not, however, as streamlined as a modern movie might be. If they made this today, it would probably be told in a 42 minute version filled with commercials. That might be more entertaining, but it would also be infinitely less meaningful.


When considering an animated film, the acting score measures the ability to create character both through voice and through animation.




~ by johnlink00 on January 7, 2014.

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