” Did you ever see an elephant fly?”
Nobody talks about Dumbo much these days. I remember seeing this movie as a kid, but I probably haven’t thought about it for years until I spotted it on my list with a tantalizing 60 minute runtime. Strangely enough, the film was made with the sole purpose of recouping losses from the box office failure of Fantasia, which may explain its simple concept and short length. With only an hour to kill, I tried to immerse myself in yet another early landmark of Disney animation.
The film follows the story of Dumbo, a circus elephant born with comically sized ears. He is ridiculed by his fellow animals, save for his kind mother (Verna Felton) and his snappy mouse friend Timothy Q. Mouse (Edward Brophy). Towards the end of the film, Dumbo discovers that his eccentricities might be his greatest benefit – because, you know, he can fly. It’s a short, effective story that hits some familiar beats but stands out with its charm and visual flair.
I thought the most noteworthy part was the “Pink Elephants on Parade” segment, a hallucination experienced by Dumbo where he accidentally becomes intoxicated on alcohol-fused water. The roughly five minute scene perhaps serves as a time-filler, a plot separator after which Dumbo realizes he can fly when he wakes up from the nightmare in a tree. The scene itself is strange, and the alcohol connotation makes it pretty dark for a kids movie. You wouldn’t see anything like it today, but it’s definitely a neat indication of the period that these segments could be hamfisted in a movie. It reminds me of the “Broadway Melody” sequence in Singin’ in the Rain, although “Pink Elephants” is rightfully more concerned about overstaying its welcome.
The film’s release was just a month after that of Citizen Kane, so it’s fun to note that both films were the high point of their respective genres in 1941. In terms of Disney animation, I’d still prefer Dumbo to Snow White which came out a few years earlier; it has less substance than Snow White but I find it more focused and entertaining on a moment-to-moment basis. Both of these films do contain a lot of meandering and lack of direction in their plots, which may be why I couldn’t get too invested in either of them. Undeniably though, the movie loses none of Disney’s quality.
Dumbo is an interesting relic of its time, and perhaps credit should be given for how well it holds up today. It would easily keep a child entertained, even one that might be accustomed to more modern styles of storytelling, and I think this is a testament to the care that went into Disney movies around this period. Even if you can’t get on board with the concept, there’s still a smart direction to the movie that keeps it artistically beautiful to watch. All in all, Disney has certainly done better since 1941, but this movie was a great sign of progress in getting there.
Films Left to Watch: 878