Just 64 minutes of footage and a protagonist that doesn’t utter a word. So what is it about the cruelly nick-named circus elephant with the disproportionately large ears that helped it span generations as a cherished film (and an alternate insult for “big ears”!) ?
The follow-up to commercial flop ‘Fantasia’ (which, educational as it may be, is unlikely to be among most people’s favourites. Unless you’re a classical music enthusiast). Disney was in its very early days and still building its reputation, so Dumbo needed to be a low-budget crowd-pleaser. So, obviously, they set it in the good old-fashioned forum for entertainment: the circus. They also reverted to their old inspiration – adaptations of other peoples’ stories. (Michael Barrier revealed on his website earlier this year that Dumbo actually started life as ‘Dumbo, the flying elephant’, a “Roll-a-book.” I, for one, am thankful that Disney didn’t keep that spoiler of a title!).
Though it may mislead youngsters to believe that place names are actually written across the land like they are on a map, Dumbo protects their innocence as the circus animals all receive a long-lashed bundle of joy from none other than Mister Stork. All except for poor Mrs. Jumbo, who looks on with disappointment in her eyes. Yes, somehow Disney makes us feel sorry for a hand-drawn, silent elephant in a cap, just from her expression. What’s more, while you can tell from her appearance what a kind, mild soul she is, you can tell that the other elephants are pompous/cruel/ignorant just by looking.
As Casey Junior the circus train snakes across America, a bumbling stork in a postman’s uniform pulls out his map in the clouds above, revealing that Mrs. Jumbo hasn’t been overlooked after all. His character is one of those details that offers families more than vibrant colours, sing-a-long songs and easily-recognisable characters and gives the action more depth. Parents are bound to chuckle as he asks Mrs. Jumbo to sign for the delivery of her baby, something which children are unlikely to notice anything unusual about. The same is true of the train’s humanisation; it doesn’t near the characterisation of the film’s animals, but it’s another little touch that makes the whole thing more enjoyable as he sighs with relief when the journey’s over. Disney are skilled at harnessing characteristics of animals to amuse and entertain with further small details. Casey Junior’s compartments are designed for the animals they house – the hippos have one filled with water, while the giraffes have holes in their roof their necks can protrude from; when the circus animals help erect the circus in the rain they utilise their individual shapes and proportions (even little Dumbo pitches in, using his trunk like an arm to hammer and tie knots); and later each creature rocks their babies to sleep differently.
When Dumbo reveals his abnormally large ears, his reception goes from a warm welcome to utter rejection. Watching his mother defend the poor little elephant against the cruel jibes of her intolerant comrades is probably most people’s first lesson in prejudice. After he is jeered when the circus parades through their latest location and he falls flat on his face, his mother lovingly bathes him and without dialogue, their bond is evident and there’s a tenderness to their playful interaction.
The humans involved are largely entirely faceless (the team who put up the circus) or hugely exaggerated. The crowd that comes to look at the animals after the parade merge into a single entity, except for the boy who mocks Dumbo. He, on the other hand, has a single, goofy front tooth, orange hair, a piggy nose, enormous freckles and a foolish voice. He’s not forgivable on the basis of youth or ignorance; he is utterly detestable and enrages Mrs. Jumbo by teasing her son. The ringmaster is seen sleeping in his top hat, never dropping his role and the capering clowns (whose ranks Dumbo later joins) are looked down on by the elephants – unsurprising, as they declare that elephants have no feelings!
After Mrs. Jumbo’s violent outburst, Dumbo sheds a single tear and looks on as the other elephants turn their backs to gossip about his mother’s punishment in solitary confinement. They blame Dumbo and label him a F-R-E-A-K and a disgrace, but fortunately Timothy has just arrived on the scene to steal peanuts. Timothy, the circus mouse, avenges Dumbo’s mistreatment by scaring the elephants. This is a useful tool in making them look more foolish and 100% discrediting their opinions – while adults know elephants are supposedly frightened of elephants in real life, to a child this most likely seems utterly ridiculous given their relative dimensions to a mouse! Dumbo himself has the sense to accept Timothy’s proffered friendship, help and compliments (after a bit of coaxing).
It’s arguable that Timothy’s ability to speak to humans (even if they are asleep) is inconsistent, as none of the other animals are seen to communicate verbally with anyone except other animals. Nevertheless, it’s ingeniously done as he poses as the Ringmaster’s subconscious to win Dumbo a starring role in the show. Unfortunately, Dumbo’s ears interfere with his big moment and literally bring the house down, rather than gaining him the star status Timothy had in mind. His rejection by the other elephants reaches new extremes as they declare him no longer an elephant – this is when he joins their act, another highly-detailed sequence that is better than most real circus clowns perform!
While the clowns toast Dumbo and Timothy gives him a bath, Dumbo resumes silently weeping. His pearly, over-sized tears are as heartbreaking as they are unrealistic. So, while all the animals nurse their young, Timothy takes Dumbo to his mother and she cradles him in her trunk through the bars. While the mouse comforts the elephant, the two inadvertently sip some of the booze from the clown’s celebrations and comically become drunk. At least, initially Timothy’s slurred words and Dumbo’s ambitious bubble-blowing, is comical; the infamous ‘pink elephant’ hallucinations that follow are disorientating and pretty disturbing (especially the elephant entirely made up of sinister-looking elephant heads). The scene could be seen as ‘padding’ as it lacks the detailed backgrounds seen in most of Disney’s back catalogue, but it’s certainly original and it’s a modern turn for the film’s music.
Again, parents and those of you viewing it for the first time as an adult, will take more from this than children, who probably won’t understand why the duo are seeing pink elephants. There are those among us who have woken up after a drinking session and wondered “where am I?” , but Dumbo’s reached the pinnacle of morning after the night before confusion – he’s in a tree! Five black crows find the two in their tree and wake them. This brings us to the best-known song from Dumbo, filled with puns, “When I See An Elephant Fly.” Aside from this and the “Pink Elephants” song, the music is gentle and a touch out-of-date, but it’s probably one of the earliest Disney songs that kids still sing in the back of the car today. Cigar-smoking Jim Crow and his friends made it into cracked.com’s “9 Most Racist Disney Characters” for being stereotypically African-American in their speech and manner. Make of that what you will, but after they mock Dumbo and Timothy’s suggestion that he flew into the tree, they are moved by the poor little elephant’s story and are some of the few characters who are tolerant and encouraging towards Dumbo. They give him the talisman in the form of a ‘Magic Feather’ to help him realise his ability to fly.
The clowns have the bright idea of making Dumbo leap from an absurdly high burning building, which gives Dumbo his chance to show off his talent. Alas, he drops his lucky charm, the Magic Feather! Lucky Timothy is sat in his hat to tell him Dumbo doesn’t need it; he has a real talent! We learn from all the headlines that Dumbo hits, his ears end up insured for $1 million.
The overall message is one of acceptance and tolerance (even if you reckon the crows are a bit of a racial slur) – being different is what makes Dumbo special. Elephants are referred to repeatedly as “a proud race” but his tormentors are seen celebrating Dumbo at the end along with the rest of the circus train (including his mother). The short story of a tiny elephant is a timeless one, with strong anti-bullying, anti-prejudice themes and, if you’re looking at it on the simplest level, a very happy ending indeed.