The second last of the great 'Golden Age of Animation' Disney films, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Pinocchio, Bambi and Dumbo sparkle with a kind of cinema magic unlike any other films in history. The incredibly touching story of a ridiculed baby elephant with big ears born into a circus troupe who realizes his ears can make him fly and achieve unrivalled greatness and success resonates so strongly because of its universal message of marginalization and triumph over adversity.
Dumbo (1942) dir. Various
Voices by: Sterling Holloway, Edward Brophy and James Baskett
By Alan Bacchus
The scant narrative with barely any dialogue and the artistry with movement, colour and music give this (and all Golden Age Disney films) the same kind of lyrical grace as a silent film. There isn't one credited director on Dumbo. Instead, Walt Disney created his films by assigning sequences to several animation directors who worked independently but with creative guidance from Disney himself. In today's environment, Walt Disney would have been credited as director, which makes it all so ironic that, other than the opening presentation, he doesn't even have a credit on the film.
This is one of the reasons why these Disney films feel so different and special compared to feature animation films today. Looking closely at the narrative, Dumbo is essentially a series of linked set pieces, like Fantasia but with a through line and narrative arc. Take the opening sequence, for example, during which the storks drop off the bundles of joy to the circus animals. The animation of the baby animals is impossibly cute, ending with the endearing sadness of poor Jumbo the elephant left without a newborn. The arrival of Dumbo from the late stork is its own sequence, as is the bounding preparation montage scene of the faceless humans building up the circus tents.
Of the minimal dialogue scenes, the female elephant colleagues of Dumbo's that act like a peanut gallery of sorts who bully and ridicule poor Dumbo are characterized as a group of snobby neighbourhood gossipers who resent Jumbo’s and Dumbo's assimilation with their group. Their comeuppance at the end when Dumbo shows off his ability to fly results in a truly awesome sequence. Dumbo and Timothy the mouse falling from the burning building without Dumbo's trusty magic feather is a tense sequence, climaxing when Dumbo's ears successfully pop out and help them glide overtop of the circus crowd and the awestruck elephant group.
And in between the traditional story, there's the remarkable 'parade of elephants' sequence, which sticks out like a psychedelic fantasy 25 years before people were dropping acid. Under anyone else's watch, the shear length of the sequence, which cuts into the third act of the film, might have threatened the forward flow of the film. But it's consistent with the episodic nature of all these Golden Age pictures and Uncle Walt's innate knowledge of what stimulates children's imaginations.
Remarkably, Dumbo is only a 63-minute movie and features a simplicity in both story and structure that is missing from today's 'family' pictures. Sadly, with America entering into WWII at the time, Dumbo was the penultimate picture of the pre-war period films. Bambi would be released a year later – arguably the best of the period. And, with the exception of the 'packaged features' (feature length compilations of Disney shorts), it wouldn't be until 1950's Cinderella that Disney would make another animated feature.