Twitter Plot Summary: The tale of an elephant with big ears living in a circus. He learns to fly, you know.
Many people will think of Dumbo as the film where the titular character spends most of his time using his massive ears to fly around the place. What may come as a surprise to those people is that Dumbo does nothing of the sort until the final 10 minutes – sorry to spoil it for you, folks. The remaining hour or so is spent watching Dumbo cope with the intolerance of others, their disregard for him because of the size of his ears. It’s worth noting that much of the story takes place inside a circus, where Dumbo is a circus act, taking part in a literal flight of fancy by descending from the rafters in a stunt that wouldn’t get past health and safety laws nowadays – there’s open flames and all sorts. Just think of the children!
It’s surprising how dark these earlier Disney films actually are when you go back to them. There’s heavy emphasis on how unpleasant people can be, but then equally there’s also Dumbo’s innocence and shyness to counteract this, emphasised by his friendship with mouse Timothy – cunningly subverting the notion that elephants are afraid of mice. At the same time it’s worth calling it out for its racist stereotypes that were unfortunately quite frequent across most media at the time. It’s not as overt as in perhaps Tom and Jerry, but it still lends a slightly uncomfortable air to proceedings. Going back to Dumbo the character, his silence and lack of words further emphasise his isolation from everyone else. He is a youngster after all, no idea why the world is like it is. Yet he has an indomitable spirit that will never be beaten. Strong character traits for the young audience to learn from.
As far as the animation goes, it’s not as lavish as the studio’s previous efforts but this is balanced by some lovely primary colour artwork, making the lack of detail much less of an issue as it could have otherwise been. The songs, too, whilst not as frequent as much of Disney’s other films, are appropriate for the film and for its time of release. The highlight is of course “When I See an Elephant Fly”, which gets an appropriate reprise when the event takes place.
Put simply, Dumbo is a delightful film, an example of a studio in the early throws of its ascent to global domination. It doesn’t spend any longer with the story than is absolutely necessary, and it even finds time to give us a cheekily alive train as it huffs and puffs across Florida. Surprisingly, this is as weird as the film gets. Ignoring the flying elephant in the room, of course.
For me though he will always be best known for his brief cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Now there was an elephant who knew his place in the world – he works for peanuts. We should count ourselves lucky that he hasn’t been subjected to the straight to video/DVD sequel routine – this film can stand proudly on its own in that regard.