The entire production of Dumbo took place at the same time as Bambi was being made, taking only two years to make as opposed to the four years it took to make Bambi. They wanted something cheaper to make for bigger box office, and it worked. The result, however, is a far smaller affair than any of the other films Disney had yet made, only an hour long and featuring far more childish colours and animation. The story feels a whole lot humbler, too, as what would normally be a plot device – an elephant learning to fly – is instead the climax of the film. Everything in the film seems to rush towards this big event happens and then suddenly, it’s over. The crows are singing, the pachyderm is airborne and Dumbo’s Mum has been released from her prison. The result is a film that feels rather more slight than any of the studio’s other Golden Age films (a period which ended with Bambi). Yet it is in the small moments, not the big picture, that Dumbo really works.
The film opens on a slightly menacing note, as poem is belted out by someone who sounds like Brian Blessed and a storm rages on screen. This doesn’t last long, however, and soon everything is trotting along brightly, revealing that this is the first Disney film so far to be overtly set in America (the rest are either all explicitly or implicitly European, in spite of the US accents), as storks zoom in on a map of Florida. The stork song feels a bit old fashioned and twee, a feeling exacerbated by scenes of little baby animals being introduced to their parents. It’s all a bit too bright, a bit too peppy, before it has really earned the loud American optimism. Herein lies one of the big issues of Dumbo; it’s a great little story for children, and it will be loved by many generations to come, but it doesn’t hold the same appeal for adults as some of the other Disney films do. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film, at all, but it does lack the universal appeal of something like Snow White.
Once Dumbo himself finally arrives on the scene, there’s so much more to enjoy. Whilst still retaining the more childish, simpler elements of the opening, Dumbo is a delightful central character. So much of the film passes without dialogue, as both Dumbo and his mother don’t speak for the whole film (the only mute title character in a Disney film), yet their relationship is the highlight of the film. Every movement and facial expression is brimming with personality, their characters realised through the wrinkle of their trunks or the droop of their eyes. Whether it is attacking circus hands in a fit of protective rage or rocking her baby on her trunk, Mrs Jumbo is one of the great screen mothers, and the child she loves and protects is an equally memorable character. These two alone give the film lasting value, even when singing trains might be putting you off.
Dumbo’s remarkably expressive face is put to full use once separated from his mother, as he experiences the alienation of being surrounded by people who don’t seem to care. The team of seven (SEVEN!) directors perfectly create and shape the atmosphere of the film; most notable is the way the human characters take a back seat to the animal antics. Only the circus master has a face, the rest are all hidden by clown masks, or blanked out in the action, drawing the eye to the elephants. Dumbo often watches the action unfold in shadows, further dislocating him and adding to the melancholic tone of the middle act of the film. The intense sadness of the film is so memorable because of the skill of the animators in establishing character and atmosphere, and this sadness means that the uplifting ending is earned, not forced.
One more scene bears special mention. A scene that baffles and confuses and almost certainly wouldn’t make it into a children’s film today. It’s not even the bit with the racially stereotyped crows. It’s the ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ sequence, when Dumbo and Timothy Q. Mouse accidentally get drunk and then Dumbo’s bubbles turn into a spectacular show that they can both somehow see. It’s terrifying, inventive and altogether messed up, the purpose of the scene apparently nowhere in sight. One begins to suspect that it was a rejected Fantasia sequence, as it seems utterly incongruous with the rest of the film. Yet, for all its strangeness, it is also a marvellous cavalcade of colour, a pachyderm party that is sure to haunt your nightmares. It’s both very funny in its trippy absurdity and beautifully animated. What’s the point of it? Hard to say, but it’s magnificent. Maybe it’s just the animators enjoying themselves.
Dumbo is unlikely to be anyone’s favourite Disney film (although if that’s you, do let me know), but there are quiet joys to be found in the narrative of a mother and her lonely, nervous child. Everything moves so quickly that only one or two scenes really make an impact, yet when they do, they hit hard. The result is one of Disney’s gentler joys, scaled down brilliance featuring one of the studio’s most memorable title characters.