As talking train Casey Junior (voiced by Margaret Wright) hustles the circus to the next town, reliable Mr. Stork (Sterling Holloway) belatedly bestows expectant mother elephant Mrs. Jumbo (Verna Felton) with the baby she so longed for: adorable little Dumbo. Sadly Mrs. Jumbo’s joy is tempered by some catty remarks from her fellow elephants about young Dumbo’s unusually oversized ears. Later she reacts violently when some bratty kids cruelly taunt the little elephant and ends up separated from her offspring in solitary confinement. Poor misfit Dumbo is shunned by the other elephants but finds a surprising ally in the form of a big-hearted, fast-talking little circus mouse called Timothy (Edward Brophy). With Timothy’s help and encouragement, Dumbo tries to prove his worth to the circus. Unfortunately he ends up bumbling into a series of mishaps. Just when things look their bleakest Timothy and a bunch of wisecracking crows discover Dumbo has a most unexpected talent.
For many animation fans the pinnacle of the medium is marked by the first five feature films Walt Disney produced between the late Thirties and early Forties. But it remains an open debate as to which of them was the finest and thereby arguably the greatest animated film of all time. On the surface, Dumbo seems like the most unassuming among the classic quintet. It lacks the innovation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the technical razzle-dazzle of Pinocchio (1940), the artistic ambition of Fantasia (1940) or the searing naturalism and mythic resonance of Bambi (1942). Yet on a story level Dumbo outclasses them all. It is simply the most emotional story Disney ever told. Dumbo grabs your heart. All of the early Disney films tell stories that involve separation anxiety, the loss of a parent. Here the story of the little misfit torn away from his mother’s side, enduring hardship and humiliation but growing in confidence and emotional maturity until at last their dreams literally take flight, becomes a powerful parable about the process of growing up.
Much as Federico Fellini would later do in La Strada (1954), Disney and his animators use the circus as a mythological backdrop. In this instance a metaphor for Disney’s personal conception of American society: brash, vibrant, always on the move, a harsh environment at times but one where the misfit ultimately triumphs by virtue of those same idiosyncratic qualities that set them apart. Dumbo tells the ultimate “beautiful freak” story and by proxy, the definitive American immigrant story. At a little over sixty minutes long the film is a model of tight, economical yet eloquent storytelling. Though inspired by a storyline devised by writer Helen Aberson and illustrator Harold Pearl for a novelty toy called the Roll-a-Book, much of the credit belongs to stalwart Disney story men Joe Grant and Dick Huemer. Grant proved a particularly enduring presence at the studio exerting an influence well into the Disney renaissance of the Nineties on films like The Lion King (1994) and Mulan (1998). No less a writer than David Mamet praised Grant and Huemer’s work here as an example of a flawlessly rhythmic narrative.
It is a story told largely through poetic imagery complemented by one of the finest collection of songs to ever grace a Disney movie, music by Oliver Wallace and Frank Churchill with lyrics by the inimitable Ned Washington. The impeccably crafted set-pieces are ingeniously interwoven into a dynamic narrative of heart-rending highs and lows : the delivery from Mr. Stork, the circus hands erecting the big top in the midst of a thunderstorm, the disastrous elephant pyramid, the affecting “Baby Mine” sequence with Dumbo cradled by his imprisoned mother and the psychedelic nightmare that is “Pink Elephants on Parade.” Ah, yes, Pink Elephants. Every classic Disney feature at least one nightmare sequence. Snow White had that chase through the haunted woods. Pinocchio had Pleasure Island. Fantasia had Night on Bald Mountain. Dumbo arguably trumped them all with some of the headiest, most insane, trippiest imagery in mainstream cinema this side of the Stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). On a personal note that thing made entirely out of elephant heads still freaks me out so bad I have to look away (“What a sight! Chase ’em away! Chase ’em away!”).
By and large, Pink Elephants aside, Dumbo downplayed flamboyant special effects animation in favour of nuanced, charming character animation. Those gossiping elephant matriarchs (“Girls, have I got a trunk full of dirt for you!”), sinister clowns, jive-talking crows and Timothy Q. Mouse rank among the most memorable characters in animation. What is more the lovable flying baby elephant was a personal triumph for Bill Tytla, the superbly skilled animator better known for crafting some of Disney’s scariest characters including Stromboli in Pinocchio and the Devil in Fantasia. Inspired by his own baby son, Tytla made Dumbo one of the most affecting characters in film history even though he never utters a word.
As a counterpoint to the frenzied delirium of Pink Elephants, the film also serves up one of the most joyful of all musical numbers, namely “When I See an Elephant Fly.” In a critique of Disney films respected film critic Richard Schickel derided the sassy black crows as racist caricatures, a feeling echoed by some today though one would argue this is untrue. Disney animators created these vibrant, engaging characters after studying performances by celebrated African-American song and dance team the Jackson Brothers. The crows are arguably the first positive African-American characters to be featured in an animated film: raucous, lovable and complex. They are the smartest, warmest, most free-spirited characters in this story and it is they who coax Dumbo towards his final glorious triumph. A box office smash where previous films proved costly failures, Dumbo literally saved the Disney studio and still retains the capacity to take viewers on an emotional journey from heartache to euphoria. Did you ever see an elephant fly?