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Disney Classics, Film Reviews

Disney Classics No.04: Dumbo

Well… this took forever…

dumbo_02A Short History

Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia had all been expensive projects, a matter not helped by the latter two films failing to recoup enough to cover their negative costs. The next project that Disney was fully interested in, Bambi, was deep in production, but at the same time, a smaller-scaled movie about a baby elephant with outlandishly large ears was taking flight.

Dumbo’s production is interesting, it was based on a short story – apparently found in a cereal box as a free gift – that wasn’t well-known (presumably because of the aforementioned). It found its way into the studio as a project in a series of low-budgeted movies, the first of a two-tier system that Walt Disney had planned.

The basic premise behind this was that the company would make two types of movies. Top tiers would follow in the wake of Snow White, Fantasia, Pinocchio and Bambi. High concept art pieces that would move the medium of animation forward as an art form. Lower tier movies would be standard to small-scale productions designed to help recoup potential losses and make the money that the higher-costing films were shown to suffer from receiving. To his end, he had several low tier projects in the works, including a film starring Mickey Mouse based on Jack and the Beanstalk, codenamed Happy Valley, and films based on various stories like Peter Pan and The Wind in the Willows.

Dumbo was the first of these “Low Tier” projects to achieve feature-length. The other projects were later either reduced to parts of the studio’s later package films (Happy Valley), put into proper production after the war (Peter Pan) with the tier idea abandoned; or scrapped altogether. Even still, Dumbo found problems of its own on the path to production; like getting past the starting line.

"Let's go alreadly, what's the hold up?"

“Let’s go already, what’s the hold-up?”

Part of this was due to Disney himself not being particularly interested in making low-budget movies at a point when his time was invested in the final stages of both Fantasia’s and Bambi’s development and the film spent a great deal of it pre-production in a state of limbo. Indeed, it made have been left in said limbo if not for the efforts of Disney writers Dick Huemer and Joe Grant in keeping the project alive.

Huemer and Grant’s solution to keeping Disney’s interest piqued was simple. As they worked on the film, the two writers re-created the film’s story in a series of short – written – chapters that they could show to Disney as a work in progress. While not far removed from the notion of the long-standing standard of storyboards meetings the industry – and indeed, Disney, had used for years; the compacted and portable nature allowed for a busy Walt to keep track of the project’s progress at his own leisure.

Beyond its journey toward actual production, Dumbo sped through the studio in a steady fashion. However, just as it was reaching the finishing line, Dumbo almost came across another, much more dramatic and sudden roadblock; the famous strike that hit the studio on May 29th, 1941. On that day, a large majority of the companies assistant animators, inbetweeners, and some key staff picketed outside the studio, asking for things like better pay, working conditions and recognition of the union.

The clowns that go to ask "The Big Boss for a Raise" are supposably based on strikers. Art Babbit, who helped refine the characterisation of Goofy was one of the strikers (that hat looks awful familar).

The clowns that go to ask “The Big Boss for a Raise” are supposedly based on strikers.

For Dumbo, however, the strike came too late to mean much of anything.* By this point, most of the film had been completed in rough animation and was undergoing work in the clean-up and ink and paint departments (much of which wasn’t on strike), with just a relative few scenes needed to be created for the film’s completion.

The film’s animators who were not on strike – mainly the old guard, who had been at the company since the beginning in some cases – finished the rest of the necessary rough animation. Any lesser work that the strike may have caused was hidden somewhat behind Dumbo modest budget and time constraints.

Had the film not been in a near-finished state by the time the strike hit, the story of the Walt Disney company may have ended here, the importance to the company that Dumbo was successful was paramount to Disney’s future.

At sixty-four minutes in length, Dumbo was the shortest film that Disney had so far made – only the later package film Saludos Amigos is shorter at forty-three – it was also the cheapest, with a negative cost of $950,000. The film’s length gave RKO, Disney’s then distributor, a reason to worry. They asked Walt to consider either adding another ten minutes of footage to the film or to release it as a B-movie. Walt refused to be moved on the issue – mostly due to the costs of additional animation – and RKO relented, grudgingly releasing the movie as an A-list.

Story

dumbo_03Jumbo Jr., a newly arrived elephant – brought by the stork naturally – is the newest addition to the circus. There’s only one problem, his outlandishly large ears, which make him the object of ridicule by everyone around him. After his mother is locked up in her attempts to protect her child, the newly christened Dumbo is befriended by Timothy, a circus mouse who – out of pity – makes it his mission to find a way to make the young elephant famous and his mother released.

Review

There’s no getting away from the fact that Dumbo is the lowest budgeted film of Disney Classic Cannon. One could almost call it the odd child of Disney’s golden age if Fantasia didn’t already hold that crown in terms of its execution. Outside of its budget, it follows a traditional three-act story arch and integrates musical numbers into the narrative that serve to drive the story.

While it’s not technically a tradition – yet – to begin with, a music number, here we do indeed start with one. “Look out for Mr. Stork” is a nice melody, even if the juxtaposition between the eerie faux-doomsday lyrics and the wholesale delight of the animals newly found parenthood (“maybe he’s got his eye on you” indeed). The stork – or rather storks, a whole squadron of them – are out delivering babies in the tradition of folktales and, well, animation, to the circus’ winter quarters, dropping them off via parachute no less.

"Why Hello there Mr. Holloway"

“Why Hello there Mr. Holloway”

One is late, however, the stork with our titular elephant, much to his awaiting – and nameless – mother’s despondency and the circus begins to move off for the trip to the towns. Of course, the stork finally arrives, somewhat lost, and provides some light-hearted comedy on his way to deliver the baby to his awaiting mother. The stork is noteworthy as being the first movie role that Sterling Holloway played for the company, one of many.

Technically the stork isn’t so much a character as much as he is a minor plot and gag device, with the main joke being that he’s delivering the baby as a postman would a parcel; even going so far as to ask for a signature from the recipient for goods received. Beyond that, his appearance has little importance to the rest of the story and he’s not seen again.

Dumbo – or rather Jumbo Jr. to give him his proper given name – is a character that wouldn’t really be repeated in the Disney cannon. A completely silent protagonist beyond trumpeting, hiccups and other verbal tics, Dumbo plays out his role is pantomime, joining the ranks of Dopey and Gideon (the cat from Pinocchio).

dumbo_13While he doesn’t speak at any point in the film, Dumbo/Jumbo Jr., like most children, could be said to be somewhat smarter than one would give him credit for. He certainly understands the dialogue that his newfound friend Timothy says, or at least the intent; including shaking his head when the mouse asks that “you’re not afraid of little old me, are ya?” and overcoming his fear of mice at pretty much the moment Timothy mentions freeing his mother.

Most of Dumbo’s principal scenes were animated by Bill Tytla, by this time a veteran at Disney, who brought with him his own experience with parenthood; using inspiration from his – then – baby son’s antics. His emotions are raw and onscreen, we see him go from smiling and laughing along with others until the realisation that he is actually being mocked for his ears hits him.

It shows in the character animation when the character is playing in the bath, and engaging in play with his mother, happy as can be. These joyful scenes of his interactions with his mother at the start of the film must have strength to sell the rest of the film’s emotional core, especially if the later scenes between mother and son are to have their desired impact. Thankfully Tytla’s animation – and his animation direction – of Dumbo is impeccable and builds a strong foundation. Whatever else, you’ll hope that Dumbo and Timothy find a way to achieve their goal.

It’s easy to buy that he is indeed a mere child thrown into a situation beyond his ability to work out on his own. In many ways, he is similar to Pinocchio, in that he’s an innocent in a cruel world, but unlike the puppet, the elephant hasn’t instigated much of his own woes, he remains a trusting child throughout.

Timothy is dwarfed even by Dumbo, the latter of whom fills the entire screen when the two are in mid-shot together.

Timothy is dwarfed even by Dumbo, the latter of whom fills the entire screen when the two are in mid-shot together.

Appearing twenty minutes – a whole third of the way – into the film’s runtime, we have Timothy Q. Mouse, who acts throughout the film as both “manager” and surrogate father to Dumbo through the film. Dwarfed by the rest of the cast, including the titular Dumbo, the mouse carries a large portion of the film’s dialogue as both the voice for Dumbo and as a would-be instigator; has a lot of responsibility resting on his little shoulders.

Like Dumbo’s connection with Pinocchio, Timothy has some similarities with Jiminy. Both characters give the impression that they’re more world travelled than most of the other characters in their respective films, and both give their share of dry observations and both are sympathetic to the main character’s plight. In this case, the mouse takes pity on the problems that besiege Dumbo,  which, unlike Pinocchio are not at all the fault of the little elephant’s.

Unlike Jiminy, Timothy actually causes quite a problem for Dumbo, putting his charge into a doomed circus act, but his actions eventually turn the tide by the end of the film, standing up for the elephant. He a bit cocky and self-assured, but his selfless devotion to helping his friend take the edge off of him, making him one of the more memorable side characters in the Disney canon.

dumbo_10While she doesn’t appear that much in the film, Dumbo’s mother is the keystone that holds the film together. As said it the emotional ties between her and her son that act as the glue for the narrative. Without the opening and subsequent scenes, it would be harder to become invested in the film. Yet when she – in a sequence animated by Walt Kelly – defends her son from a group of unkempt boys (the main one looking like an ugly Lampwick from Pinocchio). Here you see a parent defending her child, rather than a sequence of drawings of an elephant. When Dumbo is taken away, while his mother is chained-up it heart-wrenching. When the two are briefly reunited, with the mother only able to reach her son with her trunk, it’s pretty heart-breaking.

In part due to the low-budget, there’s not a long list of characters in the film that stand out as anything other than inconsequential background characters, or walking exposition. At the most extreme we have the circus workers and other assorted humans, who, for the most part, haven’t even got details on their faces – like say, eyes or mouths. A lot of the time it’s hard to notice too much without repeated views, but it is an overlying issue with the animation.

The rest of the supporting cast are either inconsequential background characters or exposition walking. The ringmaster is, as the head of the Elephants states, a windbag that’s fond of long alliterated speeches, has a bad idea for a show, and has been called one of the film’s villain. In reality, they’re really no villains in the story, just a prevailing cruelty.

dumbo_20Case in point for this are the clowns, who discuss the idea of increasing the height of the platform that Dumbo’s to jump off. Yet they seem to not hold any personal problems with Dumbo outside of a mistaken belief that “elephants are made of rubber (although at least one of them objects briefly when he thinks they’re overdoing it). This maltreatment of Dumbo makes more sense if one reads it as a dig at the striking animators, putting themselves before the film and studio’s survival, though it does act to increase the tension somewhat.

Indeed the clown’s antics with each other are almost as bad as their treatment of Dumbo, it just that they’re likely much more used to doing it to themselves and well have it down to a routine. Their animation – as clowns – is designed to be a little creepy, but they also get some of the best visual gags in the film.

The only other characters – besides the obvious – of note are the elephants. Hollywood archetypes of gossipy girls that have appeared in numerous film productions under different guises over the years, to the likes of Margaret Durmont to the more modern cheerleaders, character who don’t seem to like each other, let alone anyone else outside their circle, but who cattiness forces them enduring each other or be alone.

Their purpose in the film is seemingly to tell the plot just before you’re shown such things; which kind of makes their appearances redundant. Their other reason for being is to be just as stilted towards Dumbo as everyone else.

Then there are the crows…

dumbo_12The question of whether these characters are racist is a question that I feel unworthy of trying to unravel, yet it is always going to come up when discussing this movie. Perhaps the most telling is that the crows are fun and enjoyable characters, possessing a good-natured humour that comes across more playful than the vast concession of jeers that other characters bring.

Like the roustabouts before them, they are not depicted in the stereotypical fashion of the time. Neither group are portrayed as lazy for a start, but jovial fellows who work hard and make the best with the circumstances life’s thrown at them. The roustabouts sing about how they’re uneducated, at a time when only the rich would have had any real education regardless of race. The roustabouts are more of a concern, both drew criticism at the time of the film’s release.

The crows are also jovial characters, plus the only other characters beside Timothy who treat Dumbo with something other than complete animosity, which at least goes to them winning audience support. Mostly they seem more interested in the circumstances that led Dumbo and Timothy to them and much of their banter is directed at the more assertive mouse than his charge.

I’m likely reading too much into their actions, but I’ve always found it difficult to believe that at least one of the crows – their leader is the one that suggests the impossible feat, after all, rather casually as well I might add – hadn’t seen little Dumbo flying and that their antics during their song is just an act made to annoy Timothy. Although, saying that, he does act just as surprised at the sight of an elephant up a tree as the others, so who’s to say.

The majority of the crows were voiced by the Hall Johnson Choir, an all black singing group. The sole exception is the voice of the leader, which was performed by Cliff Edwards, a white man, who had previously done the voice of Jiminy Cricket for Disney’s Pinocchio. A shame, but more of a reflection of the world at the time than anything suggested. Racist, there’s probably a small degree of it in this, but I say that it’s probably unintentional and – unfortunately – more a sign of the insensitive times of when the film was made that any malice.

dumbo_05Even at its best, Dumbo’s animation pales when compared with the other features of the Disney Golden Age, only appearing lush when compared the work of rival studios, who production costs were even smaller per minute of footage.  At its worst – like many of the humans in the background – the animation is almost slapdash, with featureless faces and a noticeable lack of polish. In some case I would argue that since we seeing the film through Dumbo’s eyes, the camera is at his level, after all, it might make sense that the faceless masses be rendered without detail.

In reality, though, much of this was just a cost cutting measure that doesn’t get noticed much beyond critiques – such as this, whose writers tend to notice such things more readily than the general audience will. Yet to not mention it would be to do a disservice to the rest of the company’s work.

Yet, as crude as a lot of the background animation can be in the film when the camera is focused on the principal cast, the film features some of the finest character animation that the studio’s produced. The low-budget hasn’t diminished the craftsmanship of this animation, in fact, I’d argue that we get to see a more raw expression of the animation that likely truer to the roughs that other more polished work that spent more time in clean-up.Characters may go off-model here and there, but they alway stay in-character; personally, I’d say that it’s a fair tradeoff in this case.

The next time we get such a close, raw view at the mindset of the actual animators, would be in 101 Dalmatians where the original pencils would be Xeroxed onto the cels directly.

dumbo_06

Fun and bouncy, or melodramatic and sober, the music accompaniment reflects the emotional state of the main character, from the gentle themes of play to the low-key. Before jumping off the deep end into a surreal animation whimsy.

“Casey Jr. – Song of the Roustabouts” is two songs rolled into one. The first is just there to take us on a journey through the countryside and fill time, a role that most of the musical interludes play in the film (compare the music with the low-key tune which plays as Casey’s moves to the next town after Dumbo’s failed “Climax”). “Casey Jr.” is pleasant enough, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that its sole purpose is to eat up time, although it does set us up with the idea that this is a travelling circus and some of the backgrounds are visually pleasing. Song of the Roustabouts provides us with footage of what the actual day-to-day work must be like for the crew, with the construction of the big-top. And offers us some of the most impressive visuals that the film has to offer, with nice highlighting and dramatic shadows.

“Baby Mine” is a tear-jerker, it’s designed to be. Wonderfully sung by Betty Noyes, it a nice, sentimental piece that, thankfully, has a strong heart and a strong foundation in the rest of the film to prevent it becoming overbearingly cute. As indeed does the restraint of the animation that accompanies the sequence.

AAAwwww..

Aaaawwww…

“Pink Elephant on Parade” is both my favourite song  and my favourite sequence of the entire movie (I’m a bit strange like that). A wonderfully realised nightmarish mishmash of animation whimsy that I’d happily sit through anytime regardless of whether the rest of the film is attached. The whole thing Looks like some sort of freaky escapee from Fantasia, it a glorious Technicolor escape into cartoon insanity and the animation crews minds. While I understand that some people out there don’t like the sequence for various reasons, from the surreal creepiness of the visuals, or the fact that it goes on for nearly five minutes or so, I cannot say that I about to let it go as a piece of imagination.

No there’s no drugs involved, at least none of the ones that you may be thinking of, animator really do think like this, though this kind of animation is something that is usually done as a reprieve rather than something that ends up in a finished product.

Does it serve a purpose? In a way yes, Acting like a prolonged transition so to get Dumbo and Timothy to where they are needed to be.

Pink Elephants!!!

Pink Elephants!!!

Why pink elephants? Well apart from the whole pachyderm theme of the film, it does have its root in an old saying “blue mice and pink elephants” was, at the time a fairly standard phrase for visions seen from alcoholics who were suffering the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, which apparently include hallucinations.

“When I See an Elephant Fly” – sung with gusto by Cliff Edwards and the Hall Johnson Choir is a joyous, jazzy number, that serves little real purpose; but is one of the most memorable songs in the film. It marks the endpoint of the film.

The songs “Casey Junior” “Lookout for Mr. Stork” and “Elephants on Parade” was sung by the Sportsmen Quartet with additional deep vocals provided by Thurl Ravenscroft (best known today as the voice of Tony the Tiger for Kellogs Frosties and the narrator of The Grinch that Stole Christmas)

Conclusion

dumbo_21In many ways, Disney’s fourth film looks like an elongated Silly Symphony, more so than Snow White even, and a film which I’ve found to be hard to review. Whereas I have some strong feelings about many of the Disney cannon – good and bad – I cannot say that I find the film to be all that engaging. I do think the film is good, don’t get me wrong, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve re-watched it for this review – with the film never wearing out its welcome – but it is little more than just a good entry in Disney’s library. This is what has made it hardest to review, it’s a film that I lack much passion about, good or bad, and a passion for things drives writing.

Yes, the lower budget that Dumbo had does come across in the movie, quite a lot in fact. There are periods when the animation is particularly weak given the talent at the studio. Here though I give concessions because it’s never detrimental to the whole experience and it is unrealistic to hold Dumbo to the same standards as it’s three predecessors, it is what it is, a lower budgeted film with all that such a thing would entail.

Nevertheless, the film also has merit that goes beyond the limited nature of its budget. It offers some impressive character animation, which Disney soon would have trouble matching and is one of the more emotionally truthful films in the cannon. A part of me feels somewhat stingy about the seven I’m awarding it. Yet that’s where it lies for me, a good film that’s worth seeing, but not one that I would rush to watch over something else.

Or something for when I only just have a spare hour to burn then.

7

Legacy

Dumbo’s low-budget was intended to collect some much-needed revenue to eat away at the debts that Pinocchio, Fantasia and the still in production Bambi had accumulated. It did just that, bringing in $1.6 million on its original $950,000 budget.

Dumbo became the inspiration for both the popular flying Elephant ride and The Casey Jr. Circus Train, an electric Roller coaster ride for younger and less brave riders not up to the task of rides like Thunder Mountain.

The film was nominated for best original song with “Baby Mine” and won the academy award for its musical score.

dumbo_22The film – like many Disney Classic films – had a direct-to-video sequel planned for release. The plot followed Dumbo and a group of baby animals from the circus who get left behind in the big city and have to navigate their way through the urban jungle back home. The sequel appeared on advertisements on Disney videos before being cancelled by John Lasseter when he became Walt Disney Animation’s Chief Creative Officer.

of note

  • Timothy J. Mouse’s name only appears on the contract at the end of the film, it is otherwise never mentioned in the film. Likewise, the leader of the crows, Jim Crow, doesn’t have his name appear in the film in any form at all, although given the connotations that his name holds, that is not very surprising.
  • One of the few animated Disney features to make a mention of the war, albeit briefly at the end of the film.
  • Jumbo Jr. wasn’t the first elephant to be ridiculed in a Disney cartoon, years before, Elmer Elephant suffered abuse from other jungle animals in his titular short subject from 1936, before coming to their rescue when a fire breaks out.
  • Disney explored the relationship between mice and elephant in a 15 minute short called Goliath II, that starred a mouse-sized elephant who ends up in dangerous situations, shaming his family, until he proves his worth by fighting with an antagonistic mouse that is bullying his pack (the long short also featured the voices of Sterling Holloway and Verna Felton (voice of the leader of the gossiping elephants in Dumbo).
  • Dumbo has a brief, but memorable cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, appearing at R.K. Maroon’s window to collect his payment – of peanuts.
  • Was the last Walt Disney film that comic legend Walt Kelly – creator of Pogo Possum – worked on as an animator before leaving the industry in the midst of the strike. He left the studio to avoid having to pick sides in the conflict. He animated the scenes of Dumbo’s mother protecting her son and fighting the ringmaster.

Studio/Distributor: Walt Disney/RKO Radio Pictures
Year: 1941
Runtime: 64 mins
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Genre: Musical, Adaptation
Technique: 2D Animation
Country of Origin: USA
Budget: $950,000
Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Producer: Walt Disney
Dumbo © The Walt Disney Company

Next Wednesday

Forest Friends

Forest Friends

*The film most affected by the strike, was not Dumbo. Instead the strike hit hardest on The Reluctant Dragon, a live-action documentary depicting the workings of the Walt Disney studio as it made the titular title. Picketers positioned themselves at theatres showing the title and audiences took note that the film’s showing of a happy and contented studio atmosphere that was utterly at odds with the reality of the studio’s worker conditions and discontent, and The Reluctant Dragon failed to recoup its costs.

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “Disney Classics No.04: Dumbo

  1. Glad to have you back! This post didn’t show up in my Reader actually; it’s a good thing I checked your blog.

    The Roustabouts Song is my favorite song in the film.

    I too don’t look at the crows with racist glasses on. I feel one shouldn’t judge other generations by current generations’ standards, and like you mentioned, the crows and Roustabouts were portrayed as hardworking and unlike any other black stereotype at the time.

    Posted by The Animation Commendation | Friday, 28th February, 2014, 2:10 am
    • I think that there may have been a problem with the review’s datestamp original being set to a wrong date, which may have played a part with it not showing up on the reader. Something I’ll have to keep a lookout for in future.

      I’m with you in noting that we shouldn’t judge the past through current standards. Also, in quite a number of the old theatrical shorts compliations DVD sets I own, a few of them start with disclaimers that they were products of their time, for good or ill, and don’t reflect present-day policies of the company. So it seems that this is also the general viewpoint of the companies – well Warners and Disney at least – as well.

      Which is nice to know I suppose.

      Posted by starlac | Saturday, 1st March, 2014, 3:12 pm

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