KIDS' STUFF: Dumbo (1941)

Dumbo (USA, 1941)
Directed by Ben Sharpsteen
Starring Edward Brophy, Verna Felton, Herman Bing, Sterling Holloway

One of the things you realise from revisiting classic Disney films is just how short the majority of them are. In the entire Golden Age, when Walt Disney was personally involved in every production, only Fantasia breaks the 90-minute mark - and since that's essentially a collection of short stories, you might well argue that it doesn't count.
For the most part the length is deceptive since it gives the impression of modesty, when for the most part the halcyon days of Disney were anything but modest. This is even the case with Dumbo, a film made quickly and on the cheap to make up for the financial losses incurred by Fantasia and Pinocchio. Clocking in at just over an hour, it unfolds at a breezy, efficient pace while offering up a couple of nice surprises. While it never hits the heights of Snow White (how could it?), it's still a really good film which has stood the test of time.
The biggest visual difference between Dumbo and its predecessors lies in the choice of colours and shades. While Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia all boasted deep Technicolor reds and pastel shades, Dumbo is lighter, brighter and cheerier, reflecting the boisterous atmosphere of the circus rather than the darkness of the queen's castle, Pleasure Island or Chernabog's mountain. The early section where the circus animals are introduced is so bright that it closely resembles the Silly Symphonies cartoons, particularly Father Noah's Ark from the mid-1930s.
This more light-hearted, cartoonish look is in equal parts a reflection of the source material and the production problems Dumbo encountered. As well as having to keep the budget down, Disney and director Ben Sharpsteen were at loggerheads with Herbert Sorrell, leader of the Screen Cartoonists Guild's labour union. In May 1941, after Disney's repeated refusal to sign his animators up to this union, the entire animation staff walked out for five weeks, leaving the film half-finished. Disney's mistrust of those involved in the strike is reflected in 'The Clown Song', in which the clowns "go and hit the big boss for a raise".
When reviewing The Pursuit of Happyness on BBC Radio 5 Live, Mark Kermode quipped that the film was "the live-action version of Dumbo... it's pain, pain, pain, pain, pain, pain, pain, pain, pain, and then ten seconds of "it's alright" at the end". Notwithstanding the ins and outs of Gabriele Muccino's film, this (deliberately) flippant assessment is a little unfair. While the story is more straightforward and limited in scope than a good many Disney films from this period, it makes up for this with genuine emotional depth, resulting in a tearjerker which works on people of all ages.
Because the scope is so limited, the film becomes much more of a character piece which is interrupted by the action surrounding it. None of the early set-pieces are spectacularly staged, and so we are forced to look to the characters to see us through. This is where the cartoonish animation style comes into its own: each of the animals are intimately drawn, allowing us to get a real sense of the relationships between them even after a few close seconds. The film is very close to the silent era work of Chaplin and Keaton, in conveying complex emotions through gesture alone - a comparison reinforced by the fact that Dumbo never speaks.
Dumbo's story is one to which we can easily relate. It's akin to Chaplin's The Kid in the amount of sadness and disappointment (and pain) foisted upon the characters by the "cold, cruel, heartless world." Neither film is mopey or self-pitying, and since the animation is so understated you never feel like you're being manipulated into feeling sorry for Dumbo. Instead your heart genuinely goes out to a character who never intentionally hurt anyone, who is ridiculed just because he looks different, and whose playful curiosity about the world always leads to him getting hurt. The animation of Dumbo is terrific, getting a full gamut of emotions out of a very challenging set of facial features.
The story of Dumbo is also interesting because there is no one clearly defined antagonist. The majority of Disney's classic work is rooted in fairy tales, where good and evil are clearly defined and vividly expressed. But here, each of the potential main antagonists stoop to the authority of another. The female elephants may disown Dumbo and get their comeuppance in the form of peanuts, but they still bow to the ringmaster. The ringmaster may get attacked by Mrs. Jumbo, but his desire to exploit his animals is not specifically directed toward Dumbo, even when he is made into a clown.
One of the interesting inconsistencies in the film is the extent to which humans and animals can interact. It's established pretty much immediately that different kinds of animals can talk to each other, with the stork talking to the elephants and the elephants talking to Timothy Mouse. But it isn't clear as to what extent the animals can and do talk to humans. On the one hand, we have the scene of Timothy whispering into the ringmaster's ear; on the other hand, there is no interaction between Mrs. Jumbo and the boy she beats up, or between her and the ringmaster. It's not a massive problem, but it is a small source of irritation when looking at the consistency of this world.
Because Dumbo is closely tied to the silent era, you would expect the soundtrack to play a sizeable role. Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace won an Oscar for their work on the film, while 'Baby Mine' was nominated for Best Original Song. To this day it is guaranteed to make one teary-eyed, being sensitively arranged and beautifully sung by Betty Noyes. Other items in the soundtrack play on physical movements and rhythms, with 'Casey Junior' and 'Mr. Stork' taking their beats from steam engines and wings beating respectively. And let's not forget 'When I See An Elephant Fly', which boasts clever lyrics and whose chorus remains highly catchy.
But by far the most memorable scene in Dumbo is the Pink Elephants sequence - a sequence which by all accounts has absolutely no reason to be there. To borrow a term from Lindsay Ellis (a.k.a. the Nostalgia Chick), it's a classic Big Lipped Alligator Moment: a surreal interlude which comes out of nowhere, and once it's over no-one ever mentions it again. You can argue all you like about its role in the plot, and the problematic implication that Dumbo discovers his true calling by getting drunk. But the best thing to do is to celebrate the scene for what it is: a strange and terrifying example of the darkness in all great Disney films, a darkness which takes no prisoners and boggles the mind with its mesmerising beauty.
There has been some controversy over whether the crows in the film are racist depictions of African-Americans. Proponents of this view, like critic Richard Schickel, point to the leader of the group being called Jim Crow, relating to the segregation laws in America which lasted until the mid-1960s. But while this is an unfortunate coincidence, the crows do not conform to the then-stereotype of African-Americans as illiterate workshy layabouts. In Dumbo the crows are free-spirited, savvy, self-confident and intelligent. They are the most sympathetic to Dumbo's cause, and even if the magic feather turns out to be "just a gag", it was given with the very best intentions.
Dumbo remains a good all-round children's film which has at least some of the Disney magic still on show. It's not the most ground-breaking film in Disney's canon, with a slight storyline and little in the way of visual ambition. But it makes up for these enforced shortcomings through its huge emotional appeal, with a pathos and childlike curiosity which has weathered the test of time. It's no Snow White or Pinocchio, but this little old elephant can still fly. 

Rating: 4/5
Verdict: Slight but still emotionally strong