As the fourth animated feature released by the studio, Dumbo largely feels less ambitious and sophisticated than its predecessors – and it was intended that way.
In 1940, the year before Dumbo was released, the studio reported a loss of $260,000. Walt’s dreams and visions were paying off critically, and would go on to cement both him and his studio as timeless icons, but they weren’t going to keep the studio afloat if something wasn’t done about the financials. Fantasia turned out to be something of a financial disappointment, and soon Bank of America had to summon the Disneys, both Walt and Roy, to talk about cost-cutting measures.
This is where Dumbo comes in. While work was continuing to be done on Bambi, Peter Pan, and Alice in Wonderland, everyone at the studio they weren’t going to be done in nearly enough time to earn them some profit. They needed to get something out, and get it out fast.
When Walt came across the short story of a young elephant who learns his large ears can act as wings, he realized he had stumbled across the perfect story to rush through production. It was simple and straight-forward, the perfect saving grace for the studio. It didn’t require anything special or effects-driven, as the previous films had. In fact, Walt characterized the film as a “straight cartoon” and even said he would “deliberately make it that way.”
Ward Kimball recalls the time when Walt first told him about the animated circus film, and that it only took Walt five minutes to explain the plot, which is frankly quite a feat when it comes to most story pitches.
This is why, when you watch the charming film, it comes across as somewhat flat, at least in terms of animation. Characters were drawn in simpler manners, backgrounds weren’t given as much detail, Casey, Jr. the train and the map of Florida serve as scene transitions to carry the film along in easy ways.
It helped that, for the first time, Walt didn’t put the pressure of perfection on the animators. It shows in the film, but not in detrimental ways. It merely, just as Walt said, looks like a cartoon. Many newcomers were placed on the film, and rather than full layouts, a photostat (basically an early version of a photocopier) was used on story sketches.
Still, despite work being rushed on the film, it wasn’t going to be done in time to get them our of their financial hole – especially when most of the employees went on strike in 1941, the year of its eventual release. Labor unions had started to rise up a few years earlier, and while Disney could boast a relatively good working environment, cuts had to be made in order to keep the studio alive and employees weren’t not happy about these cuts. Many ended up joining the Screen Cartoonists Guild and went on strike, right in the middle of Dumbo’s production. A skeleton crew stayed on to finish the film, but things were not as smooth and streamlined as they could have been with the lack of manpower.
Productions certainly wasn’t helped by the change of in Walt’s attitude when the studio began operating again after five weeks of striking, with about 500 fewer employees. People who worked at the studio began to fear Walt, who stalked down the halls and showed off his prickly nature, full of vindictiveness and cruelty.
This is the environment Dumbo was released in, and the film couldn’t be more different in its nature.
It begins colorful and warm – which is how the animation is throughout – and immediately places an emphasis on family and a sense of belonging, as storks deliver various baby animals to their parents in a circus. It’s a sequence that can charm most anyone, especially as an elephant, Mrs. Jumbo, searches the sky sadly for her own little one as every other animal gets their bundle of joy.
When Dumbo is finally delivered to Mrs. Jumbo, what follows is a movie with a lot of heart, even if it gets distracted from time to time.
What wins me over with this film is its universality – the themes of discrimination, loneliness, anxiety, and searching for your place are concepts most anyone can relate to or empathize with. And Disney is able to convey them straight to your heartstrings with just a few strokes of animation and chords of music, which is something they’ve kept up in spades over the decades.
Dumbo is immediately met with scrutiny regarding his overly large, and totally adorable ears, most harshly from the fellow elephants of the circus in, particularly cruel ways. However, it’s when some human children mock and physically harass (because that’s what it is) Dumbo, that things go south. Mrs. Jumbo, in an attempt to defend her child, causes mayhem and is deemed unsafe, landing her in solitary confinement. Dumbo is then left alone, without anyone on his side.
This is where the film really shines, in its portrayal of Dumbo’s aching loneliness, which is made all the more painful by his pure warmth and innocence in a world around him that has only treated him with cruelty or, in the case of the clowns, as a commodity.
The story speaks to the strength and importance of bonds and support, both family and non-family alike (which is where Timothy Mouse, who believes in Dumbo and acts as his only friend and confidant, comes in). Undoubtedly the most effective and heartbreaking sequence of the film is “Baby Mine,” when Timothy takes Dumbo to visit his mom, though he can only see and touch her trunk through what are virtually jail cell bars. A bittersweet lullaby plays over a montage of other baby animals sleeping safe and sound with their own parents as Dumbo rocks in his mom’s trunk, with big, fat tears rolling down his face.
It’s this thread of the movie that works. However, overly long sequences, such as the clowns, muddle it occasionally. It’s the end of the film, unfortunately, which loses the film the most.
“Pink Elephants on Parade,” while a fun animated sequence, is far too long. The immediate scene that follows involves a group of crows (with one literally and awkwardly named Jim Crow) feels forced and completely inorganic within the context of the film. The scenes exist simply to get Dumbo to where he needs to be – realizing he can fly – but don’t feel natural when embedded into the rest of the film.
It makes the ending feel abrupt and while these are two of the most remembered scenes, arguably because of them depicting a drunk elephant and also having weird racial implications, they are not particularly good scenes. Once they’re finished, the film ends happily enough – with Dumbo, the amazing flying elephant, reunited with his mother – but not with the smoothest of landings.
Yet critics loved it and it shows in the various reviews which praise the film. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was effusive in his writing of the movie, calling it: “the most genial, the most endearing, the most completely precious cartoon feature film ever to emerge from the magical brushes of Walt Disney’s wonder-working artists.”
While I can’t go quite as far with my enthusiasm, it’s hard to argue on the endearing and genial fronts. It was a little, but effective film, and luckily a financial boon to the studio. It cost half of what Snow White cost to be made, and a third of Pinocchio. It ended up returning about $1.3 million to the studio, less than what Pinocchio returned, but still something to keep the studio going. Yet, despite picking up some of the financial pieces, the struggles and turmoil the studio had faced during this film’s production would change its future forever.
Next week, we’ll get to a film we’ve been talking about for a few articles now: Bambi.
The information and quotes from this article can largely be found in Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Michael Barrier’s Hollywood Cartoons, and the PBS special American Experience: Walt Disney.