The film which saved Disney Animation Studios (it would go on to need saving again, cyclically, in the future) after the unprofitable indulgences of “Fantasia”, “Dumbo” – released in 1941 mere weeks before the United States would find itself dragged into the Second World War – is a charming if slight fable of exceptionalism, a cutesy spin on the American Dream and a last gasp of American pre-war innocence.
When the stork brings Mrs Jumbo her longed-for baby, she doesn’t mind his comically over-sized ears, despite the other elephants naming him ‘Dumbo’. But the other elephants aren’t the only ones who bully the young elephant and when Mrs Jumbo comes to his defence against the taunting and teasing of a group of mean-spirited circus patrons, she is locked away. With his mother gone, the only friend Dumbo has is Timothy Q Mouse, but together, the two friends are about to discover something amazing.
Smarting from the losses of “Fantasia”, Disney deliberately took a more cheap and cheerful animation approach to “Dumbo”. Aside from the appealing main character designs, anything non-animal is, for Disney at least, crudely animated and often seem like an afterthought. There’s a consistency in the basic animation of the background, and especially human, characters as they’re pretty crude caricatures themselves but with a running time of just over an hour, there’s little time to lament their lack of depth.
Of course the oft-quoted elephant in the room of “Dumbo” are the characters of the crows and while a superficial reading of it might dismiss them as racist stereotypes, it’s important to note that not only are they one of the few characters to treat Dumbo with kindness and understanding but they are also shown to be defiantly free-spirited and independent.
The clowns of Dumbo’s circus (thinly veiled satires of some of Disney’s own unionising animators), on the other hand, are shown to be greedy, callous and – given the effect their ‘champagne’ has on poor Dumbo and Timothy – drugged to the gills.
Despite it’s short run-time, “Dumbo” still packs in a few musical numbers and is rightly famous for three stand-out songs: “Baby Of Mine”, “If I See An Elephant Fly” and, of course, “Pink Elephants On Parade”. The trippy, occasionally sinister, psychedelic pachyderm palooza not only served to entrench the popular early 20th century expression of ‘seeing pink elephants’ but remains an important animation touchstone to this day, most recently referenced by the multi-Ralph monster in “Ralph Breaks The Internet”.
Simple and ruthlessly endearing, it’s got an undeniable back-to-basics charm that overcomes its shortcomings (and short runtime) and secures it a deserved place amongst Disney’s finest classics.