You know, technicolor pachyderms really might be too much for me. Today I’m gonna be talking about the 1941 Disney animated classic, Dumbo. It features the voice talents of Edward Brophy, Verna Felton, Cliff Edwards, and Herman Bing and was directed by Ben Sharpsteen.
Dumbo was only Disney’s fourth animated feature film and tells the story of a baby circus elephant named Jumbo Jr. who is mockingly nicknamed Dumbo because of his very large ears. After being subjected to relentless ridicule, he’s separated from his mother and befriends Timothy Q. Mouse, who helps him achieve his full potential. I love Disney movies. Growing up in the 90s, movies like The Lion King, Mulan, Hercules, and Pocahontas were my go-to’s, but I also watched older Disney movies all the time too.
I especially loved all the animal-centric Disney films, but for some reason, Dumbo just wasn’t even that appealing to me. I certainly still watched it a lot, but it didn’t get close to the number of plays as most of my other clamshell VHS tapes. The handful of times I’ve rewatched Dumbo as an adult, I can’t help but still feel the same way about it. But, whereas when I was a kid, I couldn’t quite verbalize my reasoning, I think I’ve finally figured it out now. I like movies with a plot. With a narrative structure and a story with some interesting characters. And we don’t really have that with Dumbo. Although there’s a very basic story, with a start and an end, everything in the middle just doesn’t seem very contributive.
Really, the meat of the story could easily be compressed down to maybe ten minutes. And all of the iconic moments that people associate with the film happen in literally the last four minutes. Everything else is really just that Fantasia-vignette-fluff style of visual storytelling used a lot by Disney in the first few decades of their output. The other thing I could never quite put my finger on as a kid, but can clearly see now is how utterly downbeat this movie is. Everybody remembers the baby animals and how incredibly cute and adorable Dumbo is. The final few minutes of the movie leaves people with a happy, triumphant feeling. And, it seems like somehow that’s what people come away remembering about this movie. But, those types of happy or upbeat moments are really few and far between in this film.
The vast majority of the runtime is spent alternating between oppressively sad and excessively mean-spirited. Really, just about any scene that involves Jumbo is depressing as hell and any scene that involves the pachyderm peanut gallery, any circus employee, or any circus-goer is mean as hell. It’s a near-constant barrage of negativity that’s actually kinda unpleasant to watch. Some of it’s a bit buried under jokes and slapstick physical comedy, but it still leaves me feeling like crap. Even the happier moments in the film are pretty bittersweet and, at least to me, never feel truly happy. Timothy Mouse, for instance, is kind to Dumbo, but there’s this weird underlying motive of selfishness there that taints even that relationship in the movie. Another thing that I had forgotten about this movie that really struck me on this rewatch was just how dark and creepy it is.
There are several storm scenes that are kinda intense, and a lot of the animation with the clowns was drawn in an offputting way. Casey Junior, the anthropomorphic train, is another example of this creepiness. I always loved the tune of his song, but the face in the engine and especially his train-whistle voice is incredibly unsettling. Speaking of unsettling. The pink elephants on parade. That sequence used to low-key terrifies me as a kid. I’ve always liked horror, even back then, so it wasn’t something I disliked about the movie, but it definitely was something that used to creep me out a lot.
It was the kinda thing that made me sit cross-legged on the couch so my feet weren’t dangling or made me do that run and jump into bed from halfway across the room thing so that the soulless dead-eyed elephants under my bed couldn’t grab my feet. Even today, as soon as the sequence’s trumpet intro started, I immediately got goosebumps. Not gonna lie, I pulled my feet up and sat cross-legged on the couch. Something about the combination of that music and those abstract technicolor pachyderms is still incredibly creepy and unsettling to me. Alright, so let’s talk about the pros and cons. My first pro is the Pink Elephants sequence. Although it’s creepy as hell and really random, it’s also one of the more engaging parts of the movie.
It’s also a nice reprise from the depression and anger that the rest of the film evokes. Plus it features the most memorable and nightmare-inducing song in the movie. That’s a nice segue to my second pro: the songs. Dumbo doesn’t really feature a ton of memorable music. These songs never pop into my head or immediately jump to mind when I think about Disney songs. That being said, when I hear them, I know that they’re Dumbo songs. So I guess they’re less memorable and more recognizable, in the context of the movie. Pink Elephants on Parade, When I See An Elephant Fly, and Casey Junior are the standouts for me, with Baby Mine falling into the recognizable-but-too-sad-to-be-pleasant category.
The third pro is the film’s length. At a mere 64 minutes long, Dumbo is Disney’s shortest feature-length film. And considering the incredibly thin plot, I think it works in the movie’s favor. As it is, the storyline is already stretched pretty thin to hit the hour mark anything more and it would’ve been noticeably weak. As far as the cons go, my number one issue is that thin plot.
There’s isn’t much of a story to work with here, so the majority of the film is made up of musical numbers or unnecessary fluff segments that do little to contribute to the actual plot. Despite its very short runtime, Dumbo is a film that drags a lot and does anything but, dares I say, ìfly by. The second con is the tone of the film. It’s all over the place and altogether unpleasant vacillating between numbingly sad and incredibly mean. As I said before, even the more positive moments are overshadowed by this bittersweet melancholy that kinda negates the happiness. Con number three is one that is pretty universally recognized now and that’s the overt racism.
For a movie whose themes deal with the concept of racism and stereotyping, in the context of Dumbo and his ears, it’s amazing how steeped in stereotypes and racism a big chunk of the rest of the movie is. The first blatant instance of this is the roustabout sequence. Not only does it feature literally- faceless, black men doing manual labor in a thunderstorm alongside elephants, but the song is ridiculous. It talks about them ìthrowing away their pay and has lines like ìWe slave until we’re almost dead and ìGrab that rope, you hairy ape. But that’s not the extent of it you still have the crows that Dumbo and Timothy encounter.
That sequence is played for humor more so than the roustabout one, but it still features really prominent racial stereotypes. Yeah, the movie was released in 1941 and we’ve gotta keep that in mind, but it doesn’t make watching those scenes now any easier. I’m gonna give Dumbo 2 out of 5 paws. Ultimately, this is the story of an African elephant getting delivered to a circus full of Asian elephants, but it’s just too sad and means to be enjoyable. I recognize its status as a classic and its role in bringing Disney animation back from the brink of financial failure after Fantasia flopped, but it’s just never gonna be one for me. I would recommend Dumbo to fans of early Disney animation.
If you prefer simplistic visual storytelling over character development or narrative plots, then you’ll like this one. It has a lot of moments that feel like they could’ve been repurposed deleted scenes from Fantasia, so if you like that style, you probably won’t be disappointed here. If you liked Dumbo, I’ve got three movies to recommend, all for different reasons. My first recommendation would be Disney’s Pinocchio. They were released back to back, within a year of each other and there are a lot of similarities. Both feature outcast characters who are ridiculed for some inherent quality, both have side-kick animal characters that guide the main character, and both have really intense, kinda scary sequences.
I would also recommend Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for its basic plot similarities. Both feature characters ridiculed about some physical characteristics, only to eventually be heralded for a talent they possess as a result of that characteristic. My third recommendation is Operation Dumbo Drop. It’s live-action and has a very different story, but fans of Dumbo will appreciate the various Dumbo references throughout and it’s just a fun movie. Okay, a couple of questions for you guys.
Number one: Have you seen the original Dumbo? If so, what’d you think of it? And number two: Are there any movies from your childhood that you remember having a more upbeat and positive tone than they actually do when you rewatch them now? Be sure to leave your answers in the comments below so we can get a discussion going.