Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Cast: Edward Brophy, Cliff Edwards, Sterling Holloway, Verna Felton
Plot: A baby elephant is segregated in the circus and made a clown, because of his particularly large ears. However after accidentally consuming alcohol, his resulting adventure changes everything.
A lot of people have claimed that Dumbo is one of the best, if not the best, Disney films. Coming in at a length of 64 minutes, it is definitely the shortest and perhaps one of the more memorable. It opens with a load of circus animals getting their offspring delivered by stork, including Jumbo the elephant. Her child however is born with massive ears and the other elephants grow wary of the anomaly in the group. When Dumbo’s mum is taken to isolation for defending her son from bullies in the audience, Dumbo is left to fend for himself in a circus, surrounded by stuck-up elephants and a cruel ringleader, who believes that elephants ‘don’t have feelings’.
The moral of this film is very clear. Just because Dumbo was born different from the rest of his species does not mean that he should be ostracised from the group. It is a theme that most children’s movies, especially in the 1940s, follow. Dumbo’s character arc revolves around him finding his own unique talents and using them to make himself a success. It is a feel-good movie and a must-see for any child. Dumbo is an instantly loveable character, not saying a word, but quickly becoming a childhood idol. His innocent smile will thaw even the frostiest of hearts and the scenes where he is with his mother are especially heart-warming.
The direction is superb, Walt Disney overseeing every frame that makes the final cut. After the commercial failure of ‘Fantasia’, Disney needed a win with Dumbo and he definitely got it. While some of the voice acting needs work, visually it is mesmerising. Certain shots are artistically magnificent. The montage of the elephants putting up the circus tent in the rain is wonderful to watch. Sometimes the skill comes in a single shot like the hippo family bathing underwater or Timothy the mouse crawling under the elephants’ legs. When it comes to the animation of early Disney, this is them at their A game, impressing audiences even now, in the 21st century.
The kids will love the slapstick humour of the film. The voice acting might be poor, but it is rarely used, so it isn’t too much of a distraction. The elephants struggling to make a pyramid should have any infant laughing their head off, director Sharpsteen stretching the gags out as far as they can go. Adults might tire of the indulgent scenes where Timothy spends a good two minutes floating on bubbles, but the adults weren’t in the Disney demographic when crafting these jokes. It’s good, simple entertainment and Dumbo delivers on it.
Watching this as an adult, the memorable scenes come flooding back with ferocity. The crows singing about Dumbo flying is spectacular, made even better by nostalgia. The award for the most amusing scene in the entire film however has to go to the pink elephant parade, when Dumbo and Timothy get tipsy. The entire montage of elephant hallucination is terrifyingly fun and perhaps a favourite for the stoner community as well as the children. However, my personal favourite moment is the saddest: Dumbo’s fleeting reunion with his imprisoned mother. Behind bars, they never make eye contact, but there is a bittersweet joy that comes with Dumbo soaking in his mother’s touch, lost in all too brief happiness. I am not ashamed to admit that I got a tad choked up and I reckon I am not in the minority with that.
Is it a winning hit? Well, no. Looking back, the short running time lets it down. Most of the best moments are squeezed into the last twenty minutes and the first half of the film pales in comparison. It is almost as though no one really realised how good a film they were making which kind of makes Dumbo a lucky hit rather than a precision shot. None of the moments really are allowed time to develop, so the events just happen, minus any build-up. The Dumbo flying moment should have been the core of the movie, rather than a quick conclusion. The ending is wrapped up far too quick. Sure, Dumbo is now a celebrity, but he still works at the circus, where he was badly treated. He might be the top elephant, but it is implied the ringleaders and clowns don’t care either way. Call me cynical, but justice isn’t served and the ending isn’t as satisfying as I remember.
Final Verdict: Dumbo boasts some of the finest moments for Disney, yet it seems oddly lacking in hindsight. Not quite the classic it is made out to be.