Between 1937 to 1940. Walt Disney released a trio of animated classics, each subsequent film surpassing its predecessor in greatness. Two of the three–Pinocchio and Fantasia–were outright masterpieces. It’s unimaginable how these films were able to be made during the Great Depression, especially considering how much money Disney invested in these films. What is imaginable is that the aside from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the latter two were box office disasters. Part of the blame was that the films were cut off from European theaters due to Germany’s rise of power and subsequently World War II. The other reason was due to how much effort and money Disney had put into the effects and animation. It’s telling we’ve never seen hand-painted animation as lavish (save for the work of Studio Ghibli) as those early films were. All three films have an extraordinary eye for detail. The studio was full of innovators, one notable invention was the “multiplane camera,” which gave the illusion of depth to the animation.
The effect can be seen in Pinocchio as the camera zooms in on the small town, seemingly going past the buildings as it becomes a close-up. It’s hard to deny that it was this care and effort that made the film so great. But it was Fantasia that really pushed the boundaries of what animation could do. In many ways the pioneer of the music video, the film consists of eight animated segments that accompany classic compositions performed by an orchestra. There were 500 animated characters. A team of over a thousand animators and technicians. What resulted was absolute beauty and perfection.
I can still recall images of magical brooms carrying water or a demon casting terror upon a small town. The imagery is so strong, so detailed, so mesmerizing. No dollar was ill spent. And it’s all on display for generation after generation to enjoy. As is not too uncommon for work’s of passion, however, the film failed to earn back its initial investment, an event that would be the spark for a series of more economical and less ambitious features. I’d argue that Disney would never soar to the heights that it did with Fantasia, despite the classics that generations have come to love.
Hence we have Dumbo, the first post-Fantasia release. Clocking in at a mere 61 minutes, the film can be lovingly be characterized as light and fluffy. Calling it a letdown after just having seen Fantasia seems too harsh to describe this little bundle of joy, and yet there’s no denying that the little gem just isn’t cut from the same cloth of its superior predecessor. Disney fell into a trap designed by its own success. Those early three films were so great, so technical, so innovative, that they were always trying to recapture the magic to the point where we ended up getting copies of copies of classics. The only modern example of this I can think of is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Once they hit those highs, there are only diminishing returns to follow.
The silver lining in all of this is the Dumbo is a delightful little film that proved to be a hit and even scored an Oscar for best score. It was the first of a long line of films where Disney just cruised on by. Seriously look at highlights of the run: Bambi, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, Robin Hood. Those are all classics that have been delighting children for over fifty years. But more to the point, they’re solid from top to bottom. Disney had a formula and knew how to stick with it. Have a naive and young protagonist, throw in a few musical numbers, show a cute anthropomorphized animal. They even went so far as to recycle cells from previous films. Part of this was economical, part because they knew it worked.
And people complain about Marvel films looking the same.
While Dumbo may have been the start of diminishing returns, it’s a perfect example of what made Disney so famous. The stakes are serious for a children’s film. Here we have Dumbo’s mother locked up in chains and hidden away in a train car for running wild during a circus show trying to protect her son. There’s a nod to the surreal that takes place in the form of a drunken hallucination. There’s the affable sidekick in the form of a mouse–a play on the trope that elephants are scared of mice. And there’s that fanciful and light score:
It’s hard to watch the film and not smile. If it had been made by any other animation studio this would have been considered a crowning triumph. Which is not to say it wasn’t considered a triumph for Disney. The film was a hit for its time, considered by many to be a miracle. Its budget was fractions of the previous Disney films and the results of that can be seen on screen. The background paintings are simpler, the characters less detailed.
The film feels more cartoony compared to the more lavish predecessors. Fittingly, however, this matches the tone of the screenplay. Dumbo is filled with imagery of the circus that gives the film a playful quality. There’s no wicked witch or giant man-eating whale. In fact, there’s no villain. Just plain old discrimination.
Dumbo’s real name is actually Jumbo, Jr. (It’s odd that there’s never any mention of Jumbo, Sr.). As a baby, the adult elephants, shocked by his big ears, mockingly call him Dumbo. It’s a badge of shame that hangs over the poor creature until he realizes that because of his big ears he can fly. His moment of triumph comes, no shitting you, in the last five minutes of the film. It’s such a short 3rd act that it’s hard to even call this film a feature. And that is by far the biggest drawback to what otherwise is a charming little flick.
For all it’s feeling of lacking a solid twenty minutes of film, there’s a certain beauty in its compactness. In our modern age of Ritalin fueled hyperactive adolescents, Dumbo is the perfect picture for their short attention span. Hell, it’s perfect for my short attention span. Unless it’s in theaters, I can barely sit through thirty minutes of a film at home. Between having to take a piss or to look something up on the web, I just get too damn distracted. That’s why it’s such a easy to time to sit watch and breeze through this classic.
Like all of the Disney output, Dumbo has a simple moral for children to digest. Here it’s finding strength where you didn’t think you had any to overcome diversity. Throughout the film, Dumbo goes through a series of humiliations. First, it’s a group of kids that make fun of his ears, then it’s being forced to be part of a clown act. The guy is one depressed little elephant.
These moments take up about the first forty minutes of the film. Dumbo fails at being one of the circus members, then in a surreal bit, get’s drunk and hallucinates about pink elephants.
It’s such a whimsical detour from the main narrative and yet perfectly encapsulates how lighthearted and carefree the film is. It’s also a scene that would land a modern cartoon an R rating. There’s a weird schism when comparing modern Disney films to the earlier Disney films. Smoking and drinking are taboo in modern films, and yet, in early films like this one and Pinocchio we see children smoking and having beers.
Part of me wishes Disney would experiment more and go surreal in their animated pictures. They would settle down into more conventional narratives, but fortunately, animators such as Hayao Miyazaki carried the torch and opened the door for what was possible.
One notable aspect of the film, interesting enough, that is less palatable is what has often been charged as a racist is the depiction of crows that are voiced by what sounds as stereotypical black southerners
Part of the criticism is a perceived negative depiction of the characters. The charge is that these are racist caricatures of what are obviously black people. I’m not sure I quite agree with the charges. My major reason is that Disney treats white people with stereotypes just as much as they do with other races. If we’re going to call out this particular instance then we might as call them all out. But moving beyond this reasoning, is it even fair to consider this characters as negative portrayals? The crows are the ones who teach Dumbo to fly. They’re never portrayed as cruel, dumb, or any other negative aspect. They aren’t influenced by the other animals and stand out as independent creatures, free from all outside influence. If anything, they can be seen as the strongest creatures in the film.
And yet this is the issue we come across when reexamining older works of art. Shakespeare could be seen as not only a misogynist but an anti-semitist in our modern thinking. Nothing gets left untouched. I think there’s a way where we can be critical of these older works while still keeping in mind how they were perceived in their time. In an era when blackface was considered acceptable comedy, I just can’t imagine these crows being seen as any more problematic. But look, it’s worth seeing how bad this scene is in modern viewing, especially when one of the characters is named “Jim Crow”. Yeesh!
Dumbo comes at an interesting intersection for Disney. They were fresh off the heels of just creating three of the greatest animated films ever and were suddenly aiming far lower than what they previously had. As an adult, it’s hard to deny that the film is great. And yet it leaves me yearning for something more. No doubt children like it. It’s easy to digest and perfectly pertinent for a child. But from a critical perspective, it only wets the appetite.