Following the relative lack of box office success of Fantasia and Pinocchio and with the country on the verge of entering a World War, Disney needed to churn out something inexpensive and much shorter. That little movie turned out to be the story of a young elephant with big ears who learns to fly. I’ll be honest – I’ve never been a big fan of ‘Dumbo’. Even as a child, it always struck me as, well, juvenile. However, watching it today, I think it may be more mature than I remembered and the characters actually seemed to have a lot more depth.
Take Mrs. Jumbo, the mother of Dumbo, for example. She is an elephant of few words (I think she only has one line of dialogue in the whole movie), but her actions continually speak louder. She doesn’t care that her son has gargantuan ears – she loves him all the same. The adorable scene where she is playing with him shows the bond is strong between them. When the other elephants mock Dumbo and the human children are jeering at him, at first Dumbo thinks they are having a bit of fun, but his mom knows better. She sees the cruelty before he does and protects him from it, even at the cost of her own freedom, in the case of the human bullies. Incidentally, I’ve often wondered what Mrs. Jumbo did to warrant the VIP treatment from Mr. Stork. All the other animals just got their babies unceremoniously dropped on them, whereas she got a whole song and dance routine. She even had to sign paperwork.
Then you have my favorite character, Timothy the Mouse. Timothy is the kind of friend every bullied kid in school wishes he had, who speaks up for him, who defends him in times of trouble, who tries to cheer him up when he’s down and constantly is trying to find ideas for how to help his friend make his way in the world. His ideas don’t always succeed, but he never gives up and sticks by Dumbo through everything. Indeed, his final speech when he berates the crows for picking on Dumbo is actually genuinely moving. For the record, by the way, the crows are hilarious and have some of the best lines. Their pun-filled song about seeing “An Elephant Fly” is a highlight and I never got the impression they were making fun of Dumbo, just laughing at the concept of an elephant flying in general. After they learn about his troubles, they come to his aid and are one of the few characters to treat Dumbo with respect.
Indeed, while there are no villains per se, most of the side characters are cruel or bullying towards poor Dumbo. Rather like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, the other elephants shun him, all the while cattily gossiping about how all Mrs. Jumbo’s problems are the fault of her ‘little freak’ of a son. Also rather like Rudolph (at least in the song alone, not the Rankin-Bass animated feature, where Rudolph does a lot more before the climactic scene), the circus Ringmaster reminds me of Santa, seeking only to exploit Dumbo because he sees a use for his ‘freakishness’, not because Dumbo has actually proven to be useful.
That leads me to Dumbo himself. It is unusual for the lead character in any film to be mute, let alone the lead in an animated cartoon. But mute Dumbo is – never a word does the baby elephant speak, except a grunt here and there. Instead, every emotion is expressed through facial expression, and it is really quite effective. Dumbo is a very sympathetic character. You delight in his joys, such when he plays with his mom, and you feel his sorrow, such as when he is separated from her. One of the saddest moments is when he hopefully approaches the other elephants, with a brief expression of happiness that they might comfort him in his loneliness, and then the dejected look on his face when they turn away from him. Yes, Dumbo is an easy character to feel for and to root for.
It goes without saying that the movie looks great, although as a less expensive venture, it is less textured than the likes of Fantasia or even Pinocchio. The best animated scene, in fact, is the trippy “Pink Elephants on Parade,” where Dumbo and Timothy get drunk (no joke) and have a bizarre series of hallucinations after which they wake up in a tree with no recollection of the event whatsoever (I figure this is how every ‘Hangover’ movie starts).
So, as a work of animation, I wouldn’t count it among Disney’s masterpieces. However, in terms of how it develops its characters in its short runtime (barely over 1 hour), it has surprising depth. It may seem silly, but I only now in this viewing realized that the ‘magic feather’ didn’t actually do anything (and that the crows/Timothy knew this; it was, as they called it, ‘psychology’ or a placebo). I see now that it was Dumbo’s confidence in himself that gave him the courage he needed to fly and prove to himself and the world that it was his differences that made him stronger. It’s impossible to ignore the elephant in the room, even if he is a very small elephant, when he has the self-confidence to spread his wings, er, ears, and soar over the heads of the critics and the bullies and show them that a weakness can be overcome and made a strength. That is a positive message to be heard by any ear, big or small.
Alternative: I’m not gonna lie – I think Tim Burton’s 2019 remake is a superior film. It has the weird Tim Burton atmosphere, but also many strong human characters that emphasize a lot of the themes I mentioned, such as overcoming your weaknesses. I do think Dumbo himself is rather short-changed and it lacks the jovial crows and Timothy Mouse’s encouraging presence, but Michael Keaton and Danny De Vito are great and for older children, it has more spectacle and suspense. A worthy reimagining.