Everyone remembers the great critical success of the earliest Disney movies like Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia, but many do not remember that, while Snow White definitely earned a lot of money for Walt and his studio, Pinocchio and Fantasia were initially considered box office failures. Sure, through their subsequent re-releases they have made back their budgets and then some, but back in the early ‘40s these two movies put the studio in some major debt. Their high production budgets, plus the fact that Disney was cut off from the lucrative foreign market due to the ongoing war, put the studio in some imminent financial trouble. Disney needed a cheap way to make a lot of money. Out of this need came Dumbo.
Based on a storyline written by Helen Aberson, Dumbo tells the story of the titular elephant who was born with oversized ears. After being dropped off to his new mother, Mrs. Jumbo, by an air-headed stork, Dumbo initially enjoys his time at the circus. However, due to some unfortunate circumstances, Dumbo’s mother is taken away from him, he gets a job he hates, and he is made the laughing stock of the entire circus. But, there is always a silver lining. For Dumbo, his silver lining is none other than Timothy J. Mouse.
Timothy takes Dumbo to his mother, gives him pep talks, gets him drunk (no, really, and It’s pretty awesome) and teaches him the secret of the magic, black feather. According to Timothy, this black feather will give Dumbo the incredible ability of flight! Of course, this black feather is nothing more than an ordinary feather, but with it, the coaching and confidence given by his little friend, and his fantastically large ears, Dumbo is able to take flight just when he needs it most. In the end, Dumbo’s ‘ear’-atically large mistakes are what give him, Timothy, and Mrs. Jumbo the ending they very much deserve.
So, years ago, before my head was filled with all of the Disney knowledge that it is now, I never would have guessed that Dumbo was a cheap, ‘lesser’ entry to the Disney canon. Sure, there are moments where there are some animation blunders and I think I saw the filmmakers re-use a few frames here and there, but it is nowhere as bad as it could have been. On top of that, Dumbo has the incredibly famous “Pink Elephants on Parade” segment, which is known to both the Disney obsessed and the casual animated film viewer. In all honesty, this scene frightened me when I was a child! I had no idea what was going on. Re-watching this scene for this article made my jaw drop at several moments. The amount of detail and inventiveness that was crammed into this short segment of the movie is completely outstanding. The Pink Elephants truly stand tall as one of the best and most memorable pieces of animation ever created.
As for the music, what can I say? I really like it. I think the score is appropriate and well used. There were many circusy type tracks played whenever Dumbo was around the circus, while there were also some tracks played that really seemed to increase in energy whenever Dumbo needed to believe in himself just a little bit more. However, there are two great, obvious standouts from the soundtrack here. First, is the music played during the “Pink Elephants” number. It simplistic, easy to listen to, catchy, and just a little bit creepy. It definitely adds to the overall experience when watching the scene.
Obviously, the best song in Dumbo is none other than “Baby Mine.” I can not help but shed a tear every time I hear this song. The lyrics are quite simple, as the song is just a mother telling her child that he should not be afraid because she will always be there for him, so it is okay for him to fall asleep. But when you add the sad yet strong melody, and the heartbreaking scene of Mrs. Jumbo swinging Dumbo back and forward in her trunk through her cell’s bars… Yes, this song has made many, no matter their age, cry.
Pushing everything that I have talked about so far to the side for a moment, it is easy to see what Dumbo’s crowning achievement is: its sweet, simple story. Yes, unlike the 3 movies that came before Dumbo, this film is a small one. There is no magic to use, no adventure to go on, and no Mickey Mouses to meet. Dumbo is simply about Dumbo and how he faces adversity in his life. Like many others, Dumbo was born with a physical trait that he absolutely hates and cannot hide from the world. While his ears do get him down for a little while in his life, he eventually comes to terms with who he is and how he was born. When he does that, he not only succeeds, he soars.
For me, Dumbo played an important part in my childhood. I was born with a decent sized mole on the left side of my face, underneath my nose. Throughout my early years, I was picked on for it and called many names (I will never forget Coley-Moley). At 64 minutes, Dumbo is one of, if not the, shortest animated movie Disney had ever produced at that time, so I was able to watch it multiple times without getting bored. And while it did not happen automatically after watching Dumbo (that kind of magic would have been cool), I did eventually learn to accept what I was born with and realize that it is a part of me, even if it couldn’t literally make me fly.
All in all, Dumbo is a special little film. It did just what Disney needed it to do at that time and, in my opinion, I think it still has a special place in the hearts of many who are different and need a little confidence to just be yourself. Because who knows what your unique aspect can bring you, those around you, and the world.
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes