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.
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.
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 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.
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.