The Elephant That Saved A Studio: 'Dumbo' (Blu-ray)
As with all benchmarks, attention must be paid. But Dumbo deserves to be more than just a financial windfall. It's the catalyst for the company we know today...in all aspects
DumboDirector: Ben Sharpsteen
Cast: Edward Brophy, Cliff Edwards, Sterling Holloway, Herman Bing, Verna Felton
MPAA rating: G
Studio: Walt Disney Studios
First date: 1941
US DVD Release Date: 2011-09-20
Disney was dying. Not literally. In fact, there was nothing really wrong with Walt himself or his vision for his fledgling animation company. But trouble was brewing on the foreseeable horizon, business wise. European distribution - a key component in the production house's bottom line - was all but cut off thanks to start of World War II and his two films since the landmark Snow White and the Seven Dwarves - Pinocchio and Fantasia - had been expensive failures. About the only division still finding favor with nervous audiences was the Short Subjects. So sensing a chance to recoup some of his losses and limited in what he could accomplish (labor unrest and a strike was looming), Disney decided to make a sweet, simple story. The result was a film that actually saved the studio.
Based on a storyline written by Helen Aberson and illustrated by Harold Pearl, Dumbo told the tale of a sad little elephant, born with huge oversized ears, who learns that he has the ability to fly. As part of a traveling circus (big in the era), Mrs. Jumbo and her catty pachyderm gal pals await anxiously the big day when she will become a mother. When her child, Jumbo Jr. arrives, he comes with a physical anomaly that makes the rest of the show snicker. He is given the joke name 'Dumbo.' Eventually, Mrs. Jumbo reacts violently when the customers mock her boy, and is caged as rogue. This leaves Dumbo on his own. While working with the clowns as part of their act, he falls under the tutelage of Timothy Q. Mouse. Working together, Dumbo goes from laughing stock to star of the big top.
Given an amazing make-over by the House of Mouse Blu-ray crew, Dumbo doesn't deserve to be called a 'classic.' 'Savior,' 'sensation,' or something more significant would be needed to cover both its creative and commercial import. You see, Dumbo is the movie which allowed Disney to accomplish everything the company wanted, paving the way for future masterworks like Bambi, Cinderella, and Lady and the Tramp. While highly stylized and cartoonish, it pushed the boundaries of animation's ability to charm and engage an audience and it provided a blueprint for all types to come. Before, Disney was determined to bring an old European look and feel to their imagery. Just look at Snow White or Pinocchio for such inspiration. With Dumbo, the everyday pen and ink conceit that made the Silly Symphonies so successful was utilized.
This allowed the company to do two things. First, it tapped into the market usually reserved for the eight to nine minutes of merriment. Before, Disney treated its animated features as just that: features. Snow White ran 83 minutes. Pinocchio was 88, and Fantasia was a whopping 125. By cutting the run to just over an hour however, the spotty attention span of the kiddie matinee crowd was well within range. Indeed, Dumbo is probably the first 'children's' movie the House of Mouse ever made. The themes were basic, the ideas sketched out in clear, concise blurbs. As our lead, Dumbo never speaks. He is a filter through which the rest of the mildly madcap experience flows, but it's all done in primitive, powerful ways. As the center to the story, we both love and feel sorry for this tiny, tormented creature.
The other thing Dumbo did was give the studio something cheap and easy to market and manage. With their previous films, Disney had road show like roll outs. The title would play in major cities for a while, eventually making it to the lesser regions later on. With Dumbo, the company came to the conclusion that time and trial was money. So they made sure to book the film wherever they could. With the conflict overseas dipping into their potential profits, it was important to make as much money at home as possible. This mandate allowed the animators to be more outlandish with their designs, giving the finished film a glorious primary color push that some 70 years later is absolutely stunning to behold.
In essence, Dumbo was the first example of purposeful eye candy. It was meant not to challenge but to charm...and charm it does. Watching the Blu-ray's play-along bonus feature, Cine-Explore Experience, we learn a lot about the backroom wheels and deals that gave the movie its mantle. We also get a wonderful discussion on the one lingering legacy the film seems to face - racism. Toward the end, when Dumbo is down and feeling particularly vulnerable (he is suffering from a hangover after accidentally getting drunk) a group of crows arrive to chide, and then champion, the amiable animal. Featuring a funny song about elephants and flying, pundits over the years have pointed to this sequence and demanded that Disney do something about it.
Except, when viewed through the proper lens, there is nothing remotely racist about the sequence. Granted, the depiction of these 'black' birds is borderline offensive, filled with slang and sloppy English, but the characters are also the very heart of the film. They find the value in Dumbo's dramatic ears, and argue that he should be a star because of them. Aside from the lead crow, which is indeed voiced by a white man, the rest are all members of a respected African American choir of the time, and historians point out that the participants of color actually adlibbed, adding their own cultural quips and comments to the script. So, in the end, the truth becomes a battle between reality and the reactionary. If you want to see prejudice in the final act showpiece, feel free. Everyone behind the film would disagree with your assessment.
What you can't deny is how dizzyingly magical Dumbo is. It's bright hues bloom and blossom before your eyes, and the animators employ as many experimental approaches (as in the "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence) as they do straight forward finery. As a careful combination of cartooning and care, as a means of making it to the next phase in the studio's struggles, Dumbo is indeed important. But more than a mere lifesaver, this is a sensational family entertainment, a movie that knows where it's going and never once missteps along the way. As with all benchmarks, attention must be paid. But Dumbo deserves to be more than just a financial windfall. It's the catalyst for the company we know today...in all aspects