Largely inspired by the aesthetics of Disney’s Silly Symphonies, the barely-feature-length Dumbo is essentially an epic cartoon, albeit one whose sensibilities are less exaggerated than they are a witty and fanciful caricaturization of reality (an early image, in which the United States appears in illustrated map form from the viewpoint of the clouds, is indicative), evoking the playful perspective of a child. Its character designs are broad and its less prominent figures are frequently shown via silhouette or sans facial features, while backgrounds are rendered in beautiful, unpretentious watercolor. This streamlined look is its own reality; details are slim, but the film’s elephants, from the emotive power of their faces to their physical immensity, remains true to their real-world counterparts. Forced to work in less overtly lavish terms, the filmmakers placed all of their chips where they counted the most: the narrative, which came in the already near-perfect form of a short story by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, and the character stylings, which represent some of the finest achievements in the history of animation.
Dumbo never speaks, and he never has to: His facial movements and body language are more expressive than a thousand words could hope to be. Delivered to his mother, Mrs. Jumbo (Verna Felton), by a weary Mr. Stork (a pre-Winnie the Pooh Sterling Holloway), the infant is immediately smothered with insincere affection by a gossiping chorus of old-maid elephants before being just as quickly mocked for his unique features: a pair of distinctly wing-like ears. Ignorant and insular, the elephants announce their assumed superiority through their unempathetic diatribes (when the helpless Dumbo is made part of the creepy clown act, they collectively swear that he is “no longer an elephant”).
Enter one Timothy Mouse (Edward Brophy) to befriend the little mammoth, his mother now chained up and locked away for intervening in a bullying scuffle against the innocent tyke. This unjust separation points to the heart of the film; the scene in which mother and son are briefly reunited is among the most tear-worthy in all of cinema. But there’s just as much emotion packed into each of the film’s sequences. Dumbo is pulling the heart strings well before the bottom of the barrell has been reached, such as the scene in which the toddler elephant plays in a bathtub before an impromptu game of hide and seek. The animators don’t just portray human emotion through Dumbo and other characters, but—through carefully individualized movements and an understated emphasis on the window to the soul, the eye—suggest the very thought processes that guide their behavior.
Walt Disney’s knack for incorporating all manner of filmmaking style in his work is apparent throughout. The expressionistic use of shadow to establish mood and tone is evident in the eeriness of Timothy’s shadow, a direct nod to Nosferatu. More blatant is Salvador Dalí‘s influrence on the “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence, but the design of the film most impresses in respect to the physical presence of its characters. By remaining true to biological anatomy and the laws of gravity (which is not to say that gravity can’t be temporarily ignored, in classic cartoon fashion), these animated caricatures occupy a thoroughly conceived space, lending further credence to their very real emotions.
Even at its most jovial, Dumbo never fails to instruct the impressionable in the absolute values of diversity (an opening montage of familial bonding suggests all types of families) and determination (in a brief scene within a scene, the anthropomorphic steam engine Casey Jr. pulls a “Little Engine That Could” up a daunting incline). It’s also the most cynical film Disney ever produced; an early sequence points to the essential fakeness of the circus spectacle, while the song of the roustabouts (faceless circus workers, echoing slavery) highlights the drudgery that goes on behind the scenes of so much entertainment, including films like this one. Dumbo is never as dark as, say, the Pleasure Island sequences of Pinocchio, but its heartache is closer to something a child might actually experience, be it the loss of a parent or a bully’s torment. All the sweeter the triumph, then, when Dumbo discovers his hidden talent, thanks to what might be the most delightfully rendered bit of accidental inebriation ever seen at the movies.
Mrs. Jumbo is a notably single mother, making Dumbo the first in a long line of Disney characters without a father’s presence. This and other expertly calculated storytelling devices, such as the ironic friendship between a mouse and an elephant, help to solidify Dumbo as one of the most narratively economic works of its kind; like poetry, the distillation of language (in this case, visual language) is key to its emotional precision. In addition to Timothy’s belief in the underdog, Dumbo finds surrogate fathers in the form of a murder of crows, free spirits transparently modeled after the members of the Hall Johnson Choir, who further helped with the songwriting process and whose shuffle-and-jive antics were used as a basis for the animation of the dancing birds. This chorus empowers Dumbo to take flight, literally and figuratively, through ecstatic song and dance, reiterating the film’s unspoken thesis that the best things are often the simplest. Concerning this 1941 masterpiece, animator Eric Goldberg put it best when he said that, by avoiding the pretensions of great art, the creators at Disney made great art. Perfection, thy name is Dumbo.
As one of Disney's least aesthetically fussy creations, Dumbo should have been easy to prep for Blu-ray technology, and the results don't disappoint. Colors are ravishing to behold, and you'll find yourself noticing (and appreciating) every visual choice made in bringing the film to life. On top of it all, the image is squeaky clean without feeling as if it was digitally processed. Sound is similarly simple and excellent, although some have complained that the 7.1 DTS track is too screechy; unable to experience the full effect of that mix on my home system, I've no complaints. The film's Oscar-winning musical score is as moving as ever, while the occasional action sequence, such as the collapse of the elephant pyramid and ensuing destruction of the circus tent, gives this set the chance to flex its audio muscles. There's also an original 2.0 Dolby track for purists, as well as French and Spanish in 5.1.
A healthy offering that attempts to satisfy both family-centric Disney fans and more serious connoisseurs of the film, and mostly succeeds. The "Disney View" option is like some perverse inversion of pan-and-scan, allowing you to watch Dumbo on widescreen TVs with decorative illustrations on either side of the image. (Admittedly, the artwork provided by James Coleman is beautiful, but the frequently changing panels are mostly a distraction.) An audio commentary by Pete Docter, Paula Sigman, and Andreas Deja is fine but mostly amounts to redundant praise of the most basic elements of the film; sadly missing is John Canemaker's exhaustively informative track, previously available on the "Big Top Edition" DVD from 2006. The "Cine-Explore" option recycles the commentary with accompanying visuals of the commentators and production footage, shown in a frame within the movie. There are two deleted scenes that have been peiced together with raw materials, providing insight into the minimal tweaking done to the script during the production process. More enjoyable are two classic Silly Symphony shorts, "The Flying Mouse" and "Elmer Elephant," the latter of which was a virtual blueprint for Dumbo. "Celebrating Dumbo" is a recycled DVD puff piece featuring Leonard Maltin and other historians; more substantial is the newly produced "Taking Flight" featurette. A sound design excerpt from The Reluctant Dragon, which features another incarnation of Casey Jr., struck me as annoying, but those who grew up watching Walt Disney Presents might be charmed. Then there's the tasteless "The Magic of Dumbo: A Ride of Passage," an advertisement for Disney World posing as a special feature. Wash it down with Walt Disney's original TV introduction of the film, in which he singles it out as his greatest creation. Rounding out the set are two games and a slew of previews, as well as a DVD copy of the film.
Get ready to watch pink elephants on parade again, and again, and again. A fitting package for the greatest animated movie ever made.