Dumbo (1941)

Dumbo (1941)

Dumbo (1941). 64 minutes. Directed by Ben Sharpsteen (supervising director). Starring Edward Brophy (as Timothy Q. Mouse), Verna Felton (as Elephant Matriarch), Cliff Edwards (as Jim Crow), Herman Bing (as the Ringmaster), Margaret Wright (as Casey Junior), and Sterling Holloway (as Mr. Stork). With the Hall Johnson Choir (as Crow Chorus) and the King’s Men (as Roustabout Chorus). Music by Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace. Produced by Walt Disney.

I first saw Dumbo when I was very young, along with a slew of other Disney movies, but it was Michael Wilmington’s article on it in The American Animated Cartoon: A Critical Anthology that really made me think of it as a work of art. Wilmington argues that Dumbo is Disney’s finest achievement, both in terms of its visual artistry and its storytelling, and when I viewed it recently, I had to admit that I was astonished by both its innovative style and its maturity. Given that its protagonist Dumbo never speaks, and his mother Mrs. Jumbo says only one word, it is a testament to the clever animation of both of these characters that I felt so much pity for them. Theirs is a somber story, one of the saddest to come out of Disney’s studios and, until its final minutes, one that is laden with pessimism. I appreciated it much more as an adult than I ever did as a child.

This story, like so many Disney stories, is probably already familiar to most: it opens on a circus in Florida on a night where the storks are delivering babies to all of the female animals. Mrs. Jumbo, an elephant, receives her infant bundle while on board the circus train. She and her fellow pachyderms soon discover that the baby has abnormally large ears. The other elephants reject him immediately, calling him “Dumbo,” but Mrs. Jumbo showers him with affection. The circus reaches its destination, and the public comes to view the animals. When some unruly youths make fun of Dumbo, Mrs. Jumbo reacts violently and is subdued by the circus ringleader; she is confined to a cart labeled “Mad Elephant” for the remainder of the film. Dumbo is devastated. A circus mouse, Timothy, befriends the lonely and depressed young elephant.

Dumbo is eventually relegated to working as a stunt clown, jumping from a fiery set onto a trampoline. As a result, the other elephants decide to reject him utterly. A visit to Mrs. Jumbo in her cart makes Dumbo even sadder. Feeling low, he and Timothy accidentally become intoxicated on champagne, hallucinate, and come to in a tree just outside the circus grounds the next morning. Thinking that Dumbo must have flown them into the tree, Timothy enlists the help of some crows to help Dumbo fly again. Dumbo flies successfully, returns to the circus, and at the conclusion of the next show flies around the circus tent to great applause. A quick montage reveals Dumbo’s worldwide fame following this performance, and as the movie ends, we see him on the circus train with his mother, who has been liberated from the “Mad Elephant” cart.

Primarily I watched this movie for the famous “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence. This takes place during the scene in which Timothy and Dumbo become intoxicated and begin hallucinating. As Dumbo blows champagne bubbles in the air, they turn into blobby, sinister pink elephants that begin to march, transform into strange and disturbing shapes, and sing a nefarious-sounding song. There are several highlights in this fantasy montage: the small, plump fantasy elephants march in a line all along the perimeter of the screen and consume the shot, blocking our view of Dumbo and Timothy; one elephant’s eyes turn into pyramids, and an elephant in a veil comes shimmying forth to the sound of a flute; a pair of elephants perform an elegant ballet (surely an allusion to the previous year’s Fantasia); and another elephant grabs a stray lightning bolt and rubs it back and forth on his behind as he dances to a Latin beat. It is manic, transportive (literally so for Dumbo: when we next see him he is at the top of a tree), potentially nightmare-inducing, and probably one reason that I did not like this movie growing up. But as an adult, interestingly, I, like many other people, not only love and admire this part of the movie but consider it to be one of the more exciting and inventive animated sequences that I have ever seen.

In addition to the “Pink Elephants” sequence, there are other frightening and eerie aspects of this movie. Dumbo takes place from beginning to end, with the exception of one scene, at the circus. I am sure I am not the only person who is unnerved by circuses, in particular by the clowns, and there are many clowns in this movie. They are insensitive and strange; it is they who think to dress Dumbo as a clown, put him at the top of an impossibly high structure burning with fire and clouded with smoke, and have him jump off of it. Surely any reasonable person would assume that such a stunt would lead to death—but the clowns apparently do not care.

Interestingly, as I watched the movie recently, I realized that we never directly see the clowns out of their makeup and costumes. That is, we only ever see them fully made up; even as they undress and discuss their plans to endanger Dumbo in the high-jump act, we view only their shadows along the wall of their tent. Furthermore, we hardly ever see the full-on faces of any humans without makeup and costume in this movie. For example, the roustabouts who pitch the circus tent are filmed entirely in the shadow of night. The fact that there is no direct, reciprocal, and face-to-face relationship between Dumbo and most of the humans he interacts with increases our sense of his loneliness and isolation. Interestingly, the most head-on and individuated close-ups of non-costumed faces that we see are of the young boys who come to view the animals early on in the picture, spy Dumbo, and make horrible fun of his ears. Far from contributing a humane touch, these human close-ups reveal great ugliness and cruelty. The lack of compassionate human characters generally implicates us as a species in the cold and unfeeling treatment of young Dumbo.

Even non-humans in this movie, though, are quite mean. I am thinking in particular of the other female adult elephants who gossip horribly about Dumbo and eventually reject him. They talk about the dignity ascribed to the elephant breed and lament their association with him, who in their minds has brought shame to the species. To them, the fact that Dumbo is freakish is bad enough, but when he is made a clown, he becomes a disgrace. (I find it amusing that even elephants object to clowns.) The way that they discuss their kind sounds vaguely racialist, something that Timothy picks up on in one scene.

Interestingly, the catty elephants’ ideology is not the only site for the expression of racial ideology in this movie. Richard Schickel famously discussed the crow characters as racial stereotypes of African Americans in his 1968 study of Disney movies, The Disney Version. The head crow (voiced by Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards) is, in fact, distastefully named Jim Crow in the script, a fact that suggests the territory of unpleasant caricature, as do some of the crows’ patter and mannerisms. Other scholars, including Michael Wilmington, have pointed out that in spite of the racial characterizations, the crows are some of the movie’s most compassionate figures. The crows are deeply moved by Dumbo’s history and quickly become his advocates, not only making him aware of the secret of flight but also encouraging him in his endeavors. They are also independent and wise, singing one of the snappier Disney songs (“When I See an Elephant Fly”), which is full of clever wordplay. These aspects do not counter the claim that the crows are stereotypes but do complicate the notion that they somehow should be rejected as shallow or negative characterizations outright.

The movie clearly values what the crows say and do on some level, because their compassion is connected in the scene outside of the circus grounds to the movie’s most vocal source of love and encouragement—Timothy the mouse. Together with the crows, Timothy contributes supportive and kind notes to Dumbo’s story. The enthusiastic rodent comes to Dumbo’s aid at a low point in the elephant’s life much in the way that other small animals in Disney movies offer support to their protagonists. Where elsewhere they may be cloying, here Timothy’s presence is a relief, as is the crows’: it is good to see somebody behaving kindly to Dumbo.

Dumbo, in spite of its triumphant ending and the encouragement of Timothy and the crows, is for almost all of its running time a very sad movie. The loneliness and isolation of Dumbo is unfiltered and fairly crushing; I admit I actually teared up while watching Mrs. Jumbo pathetically cradle baby Dumbo through the bars of her “Mad Elephant” cart on the night he comes to visit her. I was not the only one shedding tears: Dumbo spends easily half of the movie crying. What other Disney feature allows its protagonist to be visibly depressed for fifty percent of its length? If it were not for the quick montage in the last minute or so of the movie, showing us that everything works out for Dumbo lightning fast, this would qualify perhaps as the most melancholy Disney film. As Williamson points out, Dumbo does not fly until the last ten minutes of the movie, and no one even mentions the possibility of his flying until those ten minutes. This is not, in other words, a movie about an upbeat flying elephant but rather is a somber story about what it is like to be an outsider. For that reason, it seems more geared towards adults: I do not think that as a child I was sufficiently receptive to its story of love and suffering. Dumbo hints at the type of future Disney movies could have had if they had been willing to risk dabbling in this kind of emotional territory more often.