One Man, One Woman, Eight Decades of Disney Animated Features watched in order, and the overly complex system they invented to grade them. These are our thoughts, rants, and observations.
This is Disney by the Numbers.
At first glance, Dumbo might seem like an unlikely candidate for a Disney adaptation.
Previous to Dumbo, Disney had adapted a well renowned fairytale, a children’s novel from the 1880’s, and various scenes from folklore and mythology set to classical music. Disney Animated Features hewed toward more dramatic, cultured subjects, most of which had multiple versions from which to mine story ideas.
Then there was Dumbo– an adaptation of an 8 page short story on a children’s novelty toy called a “Roll-a-book”. (cue the “One of things is not like the others” song.)
And yet Dumbo, unlike Pinocchio and Fantasia, was the first Disney film since Snow White to turn a profit. It came at exactly the right time and place to not simply be made into a Disney movie, but a classic. Dumbo was big for Walt Disney Productions. But is it big according to the numbers?
- Theme 3
- Tightness of Script 1
- Dialogue 2
- Use of Comedy 2
- Use of Drama 2
One might expect a movie adapted from an 8 page short story, including illustrations, to be a bit of a mess. Such sparsity in material to adapt suggests that there simply wouldn’t be enough story to stretch across a theatrical runtime. We’ve seen this play out in other adaptations.
But the major theme of Dumbo is taking your perceived flaws and defying expectations. No one expects to see an elephant fly (see the music section below for more about that!) but by the end of the film we’re cheering that very fantastical fact on. Similarly Dumbo excels in every story category.
As it turned out, because Dumbo‘s narrative was so loose, Disney storymen and animators could much more easily crack the script and plot things out. The storybook served as a vague rode map that gave Walt and his team the freedom to improvise scenes and characters as they saw fit. It’s the type of movie adaptation that doesn’t happen as much anymore but one that the best Disney movies excel at.
This freedom allowed for them to craft comedy with Timothy Mouse or heartfelt moments like the “Baby Mine” sequence, not to mention the brain blitz that is “Pink Elephants on Parade”. Just like Dumbo has a “magic feather” that seems to be the secret of his flight, the film’s runtime is the secret ingredient to what makes the film work. Easily the shortest of the O5 Disney films, it gives the audience just enough time to laugh, cry, or cheer before it wraps up.
- Lyrics 3
- Score 3
- Number of Songs 2
- Notoriety of Songs 4
Some songs stick with you because they strike an emotional cord within your heart. Others linger in your head because they’re just so darn catchy. Dumbo, like most Disney movies, has a nice list of songs but two stand out above the rest and they just so happen to be perfect examples of each of these song types.
“Baby Mine” brings in the sentimentality. It comes at the perfect time in the movie to both endear the film to you while at the same time giving you a solid body blow right to the feels (which for your information is located kitty corner to the cockles of your heart: Science). Luckily, having sat through Snow White’s and Pinocchio’s Deaths and resurrections my feels have slowly grown a tolerance to Disney related body blows…
Okay… okay… where were we?
While “Baby Mine” is the heart of the film, it’s not the engine, or even the keystone, or the glue, or any other number of vaguely construction themed metaphors I could be using to make myself clear.
That honor goes to ‘When I See An Elephant Fly’. All other songs in the film are great but they all hinge on this song and its ramifications for Dumbo’s high flying future. It’s so important that it not only gets one reprise, it gets two! (And we haven’t covered it yet, but reprises are a big deal in Disney films.) So it’s fortunate that it’s also the best song of the feature. Instantly recognizable and catchy, with probably the best wordplay of any song from this era of Disney, ‘When I See An Elephant Fly’ is the song you hum after the movie’s over.
And that’s pretty much all there is to be said about the music of Dumbo. Good stuff without a hint of anything…
Anyway, the thing about the animation in Dumbo is that as with the music, nothing weird or…
… bizarre… comes out of nowhere…
Right, nothing weird or bizarre come out of nowhere to make you question your very grasp of reality or give you…
… childhood trauma by serving you an extra large, thirst buster cup of Nightmare Fuel with unlimited refills.
Boy, I’m sure glad that nothing like that happens in this movie because if there was and we didn’t talk about it, that would leave a real Pink Elephant in the room.
- Fluidity of Animation 1.5
- Use Of Color 3
- House Style 3
- Character Design 3
- Breaks New Ground 3
There’s no questioning that Dumbo is a step down from the three films that came before. At times the animation looks like it might be from a really well done short. Other times it looks even shoddier. It lacks the depth, detail, and mood of Snow White and Pinocchio, nor does it have the grandeur of Fantasia.
And it was always bound to be that way. Walt spent so much money on the first three features, and saw a significant loss for two of them that by the time Dumbo flew in, there really wasn’t money left to lavish the movie; and all of this was before the animator’s strike stripped him of half his talent.
All that said, Dumbo isn’t a chore to look at, the colors are actually a bit more vivid and water color paints used on the backgrounds give it a beautiful storybook feel that only Snow White really does better.
Also since the characters are more cartoony animal types, the House Style is in full effect here. Dumbo is possibly the cutest animal character in a Disney Feature and Timothy Mouse is vibrant in his Ringmaster outfit.
However, because it’s a step back in animation it should technically gain no points in the “breaks new ground” category. But for some reason that I can’t put my finger on…
… there is something in there that stretches the boundaries of what animation could do…
… or something that plays with perspective, making you question which way is up…
Or something that plays with the relationships of design, movement, color and its relation to negative space in ways that would make Fantasia jealous…
I’m sure I’ll think of it.
- Character Interaction 1.5
- Importance To Overall Plot 3
- Complexity 1
- Pulls At Heartstrings 3
- Overcomes Obstacles 1
Let’s not fool ourselves here. Timothy Mouse and Dumbo make a great duo, and their antics provide the comedy and action of the movie. But the real relationship that matters in film is that between Dumbo and Mrs Jumbo. I’ve already mentioned that the “Baby Mine” sequence pulls at the heartstrings until they’re about to snap, but it isn’t just there to make you mist your eyes. The entire story revolves around it.
Dumbo is picked on because of his ears but plot doesn’t really pick up until Mrs. Jumbo is put in… Elephant Jail… for trying to defend him. After that, the rest of the movie is about Dumbo trying to be a success in the circus so he can spring her from the clink.
So while this is certainly an important factor to the film, it also falls prey to the problems Pinocchio suffered from:v our characters with the most important relationship actually spend the bulk of the film apart. One could argue that Dumbo pulls it off better because of sequences like “Baby Mine”, but either way it can’t garner full points in this category.
That said, the ending of the film, with Dumbo triumphantly flying to his mother on the train while ‘When I See An Elephant Fly’ reprises is a singularly joyful moment in early Disney movies, only rivaled by Snow White’s resurrection.
- Sidekick 2
- Charm 2
- Goodness 2
- Emotional Transformation 0
- Comedy 1
He’s a baby elephant.
You want me to critique a baby elephant? I should refuse on principal.
As stated before, Dumbo is perhaps the cutest Disney hero, and is a big contender for the biggest underdog. Who doesn’t love a good underdog story?
Everyone else in the movie that isn’t his mom or a mouse that’s who.
Because while the highlights of the movie are the emotional beats the songs manage to strike, the overwhelming pattern of the movie is to watch the world beat down on this poor kid.
In fact, technically his name is supposed to be Jumbo and it’s the catty elephants that rename him Dumbo because of the audacity to have overly large ears. It would actually be overwhelming if not for the occasional lighthearted beats… and for the sweet sweet revenge on those who slighted him.
- Evilness 0
- Comedy 1
- Sophistication 0
- Henchmen 0
- Poses A Threat 0
Whoa… it’s a bit lonely in here.
But there’s no real way to spin any characters into being true villains in this film. The other elephants are cruel and the clowns are loathsome, horrible, and vile.
But none of them really offer anything to really qualify. Sure, they’re all awful and when Dumbo gets back at them it’s nothing but satisfying. But you can’t really call them evil or sophisticated. The clowns offer an occasional bit of humor but they’re not particularly threatening.
In fact, nothing is especially threatening about any of the characters in this film.
- Comedy 2.5
- Inventiveness 2.5
- Clear Help Or Hindrance 1
- Strength of Relationship with Main Character 2.5
The Dwarfs in Snow White existed to supply comic relief, and in the case of Grumpy, add a little salt to Snow White’s saccharine sweetness. Jiminy Cricket’s duties include narration, comic relief, and serving as a literal moral compass to a wooden golem.
Then there’s this guy.
Timothy Q. Mouse fulfills many of the same duties as his predecessors; he’s funny, he’s a bit off color to counter act the Disney cuteness, and explains things to the audience. But he adds a key ingredient that the film would otherwise find lacking: Showmanship.
Dumbo, like the others before it, is about realizing your dreams and overcoming your obstacles. But since it specifically deals with the circus, and the scorn or adoration of the crowds, the film needs a big, bombastic, personality to build up the stakes, ramp the audience up, and entertain through sheer charisma.
Timothy gives Dumbo a voice where he doesn’t have one and he does it with moxie and pizazz. Without him you just have this mute but cute, baby elephant getting beat on by the world until he manages to win.
Now there’s also the crows, I’ve avoided talking about them because they’re a loaded topic that more qualified people than me have weighed in on. A bit later I’ll give my thoughts but what’s important here isn’t their social and cultural connotations but rather the part they serve as supporting characters.
In that role they further boost Dumbo’s score they’re funny, they advance the narrative, giving Dumbo what he needs to learn how to fly. And as mentioned, they supply the film’s best song. In spite of the controversy involved with them, they actually add a much needed boost to the film.
Disney Magic and Legacy
- Theme Park Presence 1
- Timelessness 1
- Impact On Culture 1
- Scope of Audience 2
- Disney Feels (Or Did It Make us Cry?) 2
Let’s be honest here. When your movie has this:
…You’re pretty much guaranteed that the it will do well in the Magic and Legacy category. In spite of being a smaller, in both scale and length, than its predecessors Dumbo, easily keeps pace. Those other films may have more gravitas but Dumbo has a baby elephant that can fly, and sometimes, that’s all you really need.
That said we have to address the crows. While they’re entertaining and important to the story, they’re understandably offensive to some. Like I said earlier, others have covered this ground better than I could, but in terms of assessing the film’s legacy and “timeless” status this is where it loses a point. While most of the film stands up, it’s pretty much impossible to look at the crows without seeing the stereotype.
What I would ask people to consider is that the film is nearly 80 years old and we have the benefit of looking back on it with decades of social progress. The animators and story writers that worked on that scene likely didn’t realize how offensive that was because they were raised in an ignorant, prejudiced society. Even back in the 40’s, Disney did their best to not be offensive as a business practice, so to include something like the crows meant that they most likely didn’t consider it to be so.
This doesn’t make it right, it’s just some context to consider when approaching things from the distant past that don’t stack up to modern standards.
That out of the way, it’s time to get back to the Pink Elephants I’ve been ignoring.
It gets a lot of attention because it’s so bizarre and weird, but people tend to forget that it isn’t at all the creepiest thing to come from Dumbo.
When looking at the “Pink Elephants” sequence, yes, it’s important to focus on the clever song, and the absolute madcap, out-of-a-fever-dream animation that brings it to life; it almost feels like the animators were trying to sneak in a little bit of that Fantasia flare into this much smaller flick. But more important than the actual substance of this piece is the legacy of “Pink Elephants”.
“Pink Elephants” will always remain one of the stand out moments in Disney animation. Early Disney Features have quite a few strange, frightening, and creative moments, but nothing quite as bizarre had been attempted before. Even Fantasia, with it’s lofty goals of being pure mood and theme, never cuts loose quite as freely “Pink Elephants”. The success of that scene would pave the way for things like “Heffalumps and Woozles” decades later and surrealist animation in general.
Beyond even animation, the term “Pink Elephant” has seeped into our very vocabulary as being synonymous with being drunk or hallucinating.
That’s got to be worth at least one magic feather.
Grand Total: 70
Before Dumbo came out. Disney needed a win.
In spite of the record breaking success of Snow White and the unquestioning artistic achievements of Pinocchio and Fantasia the Walt Disney Studios was struggling. Snow White had been a monster hit and broke all kinds of box office records, but Walt plowed all the profits back into the studio.
When Pinocchio and Fantasia turned out to be box office disappointments it put Walt and his studio in a tight position. Things only got worse when midway through Dumbo’s production the studio experience and animators strike.
With all that in mind, Dumbo was expedited in a way that none of the other films before ever had been. If Snow White was an experiment to see if an Animated Feature was possible, Dumbo was a trial balloon to see if one was viable.
In Dumbo‘s case that was a resounding yes. Dumbo turned a profit and in the eyes of many that didn’t care for Fantasia was a return to form. Dumbo provided much needed cash flow that allowed the Studio to finish their next project and to keep the doors open.
That alone would assure Dumbo’s place in history. What doesn’t hurt it at all is just how heartfelt, genuine, and entertaining it is. While Dumbo is certainly the weakest of all the Golden Age films in terms of animation and depth, it rises to be their equal through all of its many strengths. That’s the power of an underdog story, it becomes greater than the sum of its parts
Or in other words, even with all flaws, Dumbo soars!
Looking for more Dumbo goodness in your life? Make sure to check out MainStreetBaker’s Dumbo inspired dish over at ‘The Happiest Plates On Earth’: Cornish Game Hens with Popcorn Grits- Inspired by ‘Dumbo’