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Breanna - a lifelong Disney fan - is a writer who lives on a cattle ranch in Alabama. She wants a t-shirt that says, "Where Were You When Mufasa Died?"

Friday, October 29, 2010

“What’s De Matter Wid His Ears?”

         Welcome to what I like to call the age of the tearjerkers.  In 1941 and 1942, Disney released two films called Dumbo and Bambi upon an unsuspecting public.  The world would never know the feeling of dry eyes ever again.  Of course I felt myself getting misty during Snow White’s wake in Snow White, as well during the title character’s apparent death in Pinocchio.  I even teared up a bit when the stegosaurus bought it in Fantasia.
            … what?  You really expect me to believe that no one else cried for that?
… Moving on.  There were definitely some tearjerkers released after 1942 (like Lady and the Tramp and The Lion King), but no other film in the Disney canon can touch these two films for tugging at the heartstrings and the tear ducts.  But the tears that we shed for Dumbo are not always tears of sadness; they are a lot of the time tears of sheer elation for a character that I think most of us can relate to.
I mentioned for Pinocchio that two of the big themes for Disney are that of transformation and the underdog.  While there is a sense of transformation in Dumbo (he transforms his ears into tools of flight), Dumbo is Disney’s ultimate underdog story.  Dumbo is an innocent little elephant child who is ostracized for his larger than average ears.  At some point, all of us have been teased, picked on, and/or bullied for a feature that we can’t change.  As we grow up though, we come to realize it is our flaws that become our most defining and special characteristics.  It was Dumbo who taught us this first. 
His ability to relate to his audience increases a thousand fold because of one defining characteristic that he possesses: he never speaks.  He’s the only title character in the history of Disney that never utters a single phrase of dialogue.  In this sense, he becomes almost like a blank canvas for the audience to project themselves onto.  When Dumbo is hurting, we feel hurt too.  When Dumbo smiles, the audience smiles with him.  He’s a veritable Jimmy Stewart, just in the form of an elephant.

             Just because Dumbo himself doesn’t talk, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a talented voice cast at work in this film.  This was the first Disney film for Sterling Holloway and Verna Felton (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0033563/trivia), two of the most prolific Disney voices in the history of the company.  Holloway, who voiced the Stork, would go on to lend his voice as a stork once again for Lambert the Sheepish Lion, as well as the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, Kaa in The Jungle Book, and, most famously of all, as Winnie the Pooh in… well, you know.  Speaking of the Stork, you all noticed that bit where his bundle of Dumbo almost fell through the cloud, right?  Well, next time you watch Mary Poppins, watch for a similar tribute at the start of that film with the practically perfect nanny’s carpetbag.  Felton, who was the snobbish matriarch elephant, proved what a gifted voice she had, as her list of character credits were arguably the most diverse in the company: the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, and the good pink fairy, Flora, in Sleeping Beauty
To go even further with the connection between Dumbo and Bambi, both are stories about mothers and sons.  The stories revolve around both boys coping with the loss of their mothers in different ways.  I have to say that Mrs. Jumbo is one helluva mother.  She’s so sweet in the beginning with such an obvious yearning for a baby of her own and when she finally gets one, it’s clear that she loves him from the word go.  She has one speaking line in the whole film (“Jumbo Junior”), but the strength of her character doesn’t require any dialogue.  From the way she defends her son from the cackling crew of elephant ladies’ taunting to the way she tries to keep him safe from all the unkind words directed his way.  She’s a true mother who loves her son just the way he is and thinks his flaws are cute (just watch the way she tenderly swaddles him using his oversized ears).  She is his only defender and friend, which makes her imprisonment and separation from him a heartbreak that the entire audience feels.
Just when Dumbo (and his audience) feels that there’s no one else in the world on his side, enter Timothy Q. Mouse, who is easily my favorite character of the film.  Actor Edward Blophy supplied his wonderful vocal performance; Dumbo would turn out to be his first and only dalliance into doing voice work for animation.  Timothy becomes the kind of friend we all wish for when we’re down on ourselves and he essentially becomes a surrogate family to Dumbo.  The way in which he stood up to that clique of gossiping elephants was (because I can’t think of a more appropriate word for it) awesome.  What I loved about his character was that he had no ulterior motives for wanting to stick up for Dumbo; he decided to become his friend because he didn’t like seeing someone so small and sweet be pushed around by a bunch of bigots.
In a way, Timothy makes Dumbo a classic cinematic buddy flick.  The two of them complement each other almost perfectly.  Timothy’s enthusiastic when Dumbo needs him to be and motivated to do something about their predicament when Dumbo isn’t.  Timothy is a go-getter, while Dumbo is the shy silent type.  When Dumbo is down, Timothy takes him to see his mother.  In a classic buddy move, they even get drunk together, though that was not exactly intentional.
But there’s no replacing Dumbo’s mother, and Timothy knows that.  So when Dumbo is at his very lowest, they seek out Mrs. Jumbo together and what begins is the water soaked scene, “Baby Mine.”  It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen this movie.  All it took was that little face looking up at his mother with tears streaming down his face and those first verses (“Baby mine, don’t you cry, Baby mine, dry your eyes, Rest your head close to my heart, never to part, baby of mine”).  The song is so simple and lullaby like, but that’s what makes it so effective and powerful. 
The song was actually sung by Betty Noyes, who you film buffs out there will know was the same singer who dubbed in Debbie Reynolds’ vocals for a few of the songs in Singin’ in the Rain.  The soft quality of her voice makes it easy for the audience to imagine a mother singing to her sleeping child as she rubs circles on his/her back.  It takes most of us back to hard times when all we wanted was for our mothers to wrap us up in her arms and tell us that everything was going to be all right.  The shots of the other animal babies sleeping with their mothers assist the song as well (my personal favorite moments are the hyenas laughing in their sleep and the ostriches sleeping with their heads in the ground).  Not even the force that is Timothy Q. Mouse can keep from shedding a tear.  If you find yourself at all dry eyed during this scene, then I’m sorry but you must have made some kind of pact with the devil, because clearly you have no soul.
The emotional impact this film has on its audience is extremely powerful and extremely memorable.  Dumbo has become one of those films that people automatically think of when they think about the word “Disney.”  There have been several commercials advertising the Disney theme parks displaying a certain flying elephant; without even saying the word, people automatically associate flying elephants with Disney.  Easily the most popular, iconic Disney attraction in all of the theme parks all over the planet is Dumbo the Flying Elephant.  I can’t even remember the last time I was able to ride the thing because it is an attraction that stays busy constantly.  Dumbo’s success is even more tremendous when it’s taken into consideration what conditions the film was made under.
It’s no secret that this movie was made on the cheap by Disney because he needed to make back some of the money that he lost in Pinocchio and Fantasia.  Besides the much shorter running time (sixty four minutes total), the lack of money is present in other ways.  For instance, there are practically no detailed human characters in this film, at least not on the level that there were in Snow White and Pinocchio.  The ringmaster and the clowns all feel very Silly Symphonies in their round design and simple impressionist faces.  For the scene when they set up the circus, the only detailed character animation comes from the animals assisting in the tent construction; the humans almost resemble gumby-like black blobs in the rain.  They also reverted back to watercolor backgrounds for this picture, since they weren’t as expensive as the gouache and oils used for Pinocchio.  Thankfully, their cost cutting worked as the film grossed over $2.5 million.
That isn’t to say the animation is bad.  The scene where the elephants pile on top of each other is a masterful example of technical animation at its best.  The animation where they are tumbling around the circus tent (a pile of elephants on a little red ball, keep in mind) could not have been an easy task for the animators.  Particularly special is the animation of Dumbo himself when he learns how to take flight.  I’m not sure how that conversation with the supervising animators went, but somehow they managed to conceive the logistics of a flying elephant.  Amazingly, it’s some of the most effective animation in the whole film.  The animators achieved giving Dumbo a lightness and ease, which I imagine was not a simple task at the time.  And no discussion about Dumbo would be complete without talking about arguably the most psychedelic piece of animation in Disney history: “Pink Elephants on Parade.”

          I don’t know if they decided to add this scene because they wanted to increase the running time.  I don’t know if the animators looked at doing a lower budget flick like Dumbo as open invitation to see what they were capable of doing as far as artsy, trippy animation goes.  I don’t know if the animators got stoned and then animated a scene before they sobered up.  All I know is that this sweet story of a baby elephant trying to find his place in the world is suddenly interrupted with this sequence of what is quite literally “pink elephants on parade.”
Now I’m a pretty artsy person, and I can usually find meaning and symbolism within a story fairly quick.  No matter how many times I’ve seen Dumbo, I cannot explain the logic of this scene, its purpose in how it moves along the story, or if it was just an excuse for the animators to go crazy with a bunch of pink elephants.  It did provide a filler segue way into Dumbo learning how to fly: Dumbo and Timothy get drunk, suffer hallucinations of shape bending pink elephants, and then wake up in a tree with a bunch of crows.
Okay, we need to talk about the crows.  There’s a fair bit of controversy surrounding this scene, regarding the subject of racism.  A couple of Disney films have come under fire for including what could be interpreted as racist elements: in Fantasia, there was the black centaur that aided the lady centaurs (but she has been edited out of most home releases), here in Dumbo there are the crows, pretty much all of Song of the South (which has never even seen a home video release in the U.S.), even recent films like The Princess and the Frog came under fire while it was in production.  The discussion of possible racism in Disney films is something that I feel could take up a whole blog entry, but that will have to wait for another time because I really want to keep this discussion on the films themselves.  For the time being, just bear in mind that any piece of artwork is a product of the time it was made, and this goes double for Disney films.
The crows were obviously directed by Ward Kimball, who detested realism in animation.  The crows are a testament to that idea, as they are not anatomically correct crows in any way.  The moment when Timothy preaches to the crows is great; the facial expressions from each of the crows are so real and human like.  The song is also the one of the most memorable songs out of the film (besides “Baby Mine”) though I prefer the reprisal that comes about at the end.  The best piece of animation comes when Dumbo lands on the telephone wires and bounces up and down on them like a trampoline; his smile is so genuine that you almost feel like you’re smiling with him.
The most amazing thing about Dumbo is that one of its most memorable and distinctive plot points (the magic feather) is not introduced until three-quarters of the film is over.  The plot progression goes exactly like this: Dumbo gets feather, Dumbo flies with feather, Dumbo goes to the big city, Dumbo loses feather, Dumbo flies regardless.  My God, when Dumbo takes flight…  I don’t think there’s ever been a more satisfying moment in the history of Disney film. 
In one fell swoop, Dumbo shows up all of the characters that doubted or wronged him: the clowns, the ringmaster, and especially those snooty elephants.  All they can do is look with mouths agape at this unassuming little elephant that they dubbed nothing more than a freak.  For the first time in his life, he’s met with thunderous applause, not cruel laughter.  When the crows break into the final chorus of “When I See an Elephant Fly” and the audience sees Mrs. Jumbo waving proudly from their private cart, it’s impossible to keep the smiles away.  The tears come again when Dumbo, in his cute little aviator goggles, flies down into his mother’s arms and they embrace once more.  The audience is right there, feeling just as triumphant as Dumbo.  It’s like a wise mouse once said, “The very things that held ya down are gonna carry ya up, and up, and up!”


  1. There's an odd dichotomy with Dumbo's animation. I love the watercolor backgrounds. But the secondary characters are all, as you say, more cartoonish. The elepants, crows and Timothy all brim with personality and good animation, but the other animals do feel like carry-overs from a short. Still, the animation on Dumbo is remarkable. Though an elephant, so much real human infant essence is captured in him.
    I don't particularly find the crows racist, but I do think it interesting that the Disney people let them smoke in this movie, when other films' smoking has been cut out (Disney is VERY inconsistent on this issue).

    The movie does play on popular myths, such as seeing pink elephants when drunk (The Lost Weekend suggests its smaller animals in hallucinations), and that elephants fear mice. But this point adds subtle layers to the story. By rights then Dumbo and Timothy should be enemies; the only friend in the world he has is someone who under normal circumstances might scare him most. There's a lovely poignancy in that.

    And you've got to love that this movie could never be made today. For all of the fond emotional memories it elicits, the biggest plot point is that a baby only realizes his potential after getting unintentionally drunk.

    It's funny that the magic feather is barely in the movie, especially when it figured prominently in the Disney Channel spin-off series of the 1980s, Dumbo's Circus. And it's a bit sad that Dumbo was meant to grace the cover of Time magazine, but that week he was bumped for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

  2. This was another one of those movies that I haven't seen in years. I figured though that I'd be able to appreciate it and was not disappointed. Dumbo is so cute that I just wanted to snuggle him.

    I hope this next part isn't too personal, but I'm saying it to make a point so I apologize. I actually lost my mom less than a year ago and during Baby Mine I couldn't help but get choked up. But (and here's my point) what that shows is that Disney animated movies truly relate to people. They touch us and inspire us and are just stories that we can relate to. For that, I give them bonus points on top of the great animation and songs.

    There's always one question that has nagged me though since I saw this movie. She's Mrs. Jumbo...wait where's the dad? I wanna see Dumbo's dad! Sorry, moving on.

    As for the randomness of Pink Elephants on Parade, even though it really might be unnecessary, I absolutely love it. When I was younger it used to creep me out a bit, but now it's one of my favorite scenes.

  3. I think Dumbo is the one movie that had me in or close to tears almost all the way through. From Mrs. Jumbo's heartwrenching longing for a baby of her own (just a thought: where's Mr. Jumbo?) to her fierce protection of that baby, to the tour-de-force that is Baby Mine. I challenge anyone to watch Baby Mine and not burst into tears!

    Pink Elephants on Parade used to bore me as a kid, feeling too long, too trippy...but it is pretty artistic when you think about it.

    I could never really see the crows as racist; they just seemed to be a comedy point...perhaps not a particularly PC one, but in the '40s, this was not a matter of concern. Besides, the crows were some of Dumbo's (shamefully scarce) supporters; I find it hard to see the casting of said crows as beign racist when they're protagonists of a sort. But as jon TK pointed out, there's an unusual amount of both drinking and smoking going on here...

  4. This is the finest essay on Dumbo I've ever read, and I had to comment and tell you. I agree with all of the points you've made - I've even saved it to read later. Thank you!

  5. Excellent look at my favorite movie. Nice job.

  6. Hey Breanna,

    I really enjoyed reading your blog about Dumbo.
    It made me want to watch it again, and I have to say it really is a Disney classic.
    And about Pink Elephants...yeah, it probably was intended as a filler but it is still great to watch for its creative, surreal imagery.
    But if you're pondering about the purpose of the scene, I happened to find this blog entry analyzing the Pink Elephants scene. Some of the things that the author says probably borders on over analyzing, but he has a very good point about the purpose that the scene serves for the film. So if you have time, I think you should check it out and maybe even tell me (or the author) what you think about it! Here's the link:


    Thanks for allowing me to appreciate these Disney films more than ever. Keep up the good work and have a great day.