Dumbo (1941)

It’s honestly impossible to figure out where to begin with a movie like this.  There are so many elements to discuss regarding this hour-long production from Walt Disney Animation Studios.  Dumbo is filled with humor, anger, tears, and more than a hint of racism.  It’s film of countless emotions, certainly moreso than I ever remembered feeling as a child.

The story is fairly simple.  Dumbo is a newborn elephant (the term “newborn” is used loosely here, since technically he’s delivered via stork) who is ostracized for having abnormally large ears.

Firstly, I don’t get how anyone could ever possibly make fun of this little guy.  He is without a doubt one of the cutest things ever.  Seriously, look at those cute, floppy ears and that teeny tiny trunk and that adorable smile.  Now try to tell me that’s anything but precious.  If you can make fun of Dumbo, go sit in the corner and think about what a terrible person you are.

Sad and alone, Dumbo is soon befriended by Timothy Q. Mouse, a small mouse with big ambitions for his floppy-eared pal.  His goal is to make Dumbo a star attraction for the circus in which he works.

This is where the story take a sharp left turn.  Dumbo and Timothy inadvertently end up drinking water that’s been spiked with booze, and have incredibly messed up hallucinations about pink elephants:

The only explanation is that the unknown alcohol that spilled into the water bucket was absinthe because honestly, what else would cause such ridiculous imagery??

This “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence lasted waaaay too long, and makes you wonder what exactly the animators over at Disney were smoking during this film’s production.

As is always the case with these Disney movies, all is well by the end as Dumbo realizes that he can use his oversized ears to fly and ends up becoming a huge star for the circus.  It’s a slightly predictable ending to a very random, spaced out movie, and yet I can’t help it, I like it.

I’m a bit undecided as to what I believe the overall tone of the movie was meant to be.  On the one hand, there are scenes such as the “Pink Elephants” number that are so over the top and outrageous that the movie is a trippy example of what the animators could do at the time.  The entire musical sequence feels as though someone dared the artists to show all of the cool effects that could do onscreen.  The artists said, “Hey sure why not?” and nobody bothered to acknowledge that it serves absolutely no purpose to the story.  It’s crazy and psychedelic and definitely not what you would expect from a Disney film.

On the other hand, there is also a very touching, sentimental side to the story, namely in the presentation of Dumbo and his relationship with his Mother, Mrs. Jumbo.  There is simply so much emotion shown with Mrs. Jumbo that it can’t be ignored.  From her eager anticipation over becoming a mother to her fierce protectiveness of her “different” son, Mrs. Jumbo is easily one of the best “mother” images presented on film, and certainly stands out against all of the stereotypical evil-stepmother characters Disney is always so fond of producing.

The story between Mrs. Jumbo and her son, though simple, is filled with plenty of heart.  No moment is more tender, more poignant, than when Dumbo goes to visit his mother, who has been locked up after tearing apart a tent where circus hands were tormenting her child.

To this day, this remains one of the most heart-wrenching moments on film for me.  I have such strong memories of feeling so sad for both mother and son during this scene, in which they can’t even embrace and Dumbo is forced to leave his mother alone.  What’s more, it was all because Mrs. Jumbo was trying to protect her precious son.  It isn’t very often that I get this choked up about a movie, but this particular scene has always held a soft-spot in my heart, and reminds me of the kind of range Disney has with its character development.

This movie was both better and worse than I remembered.  There was more than one moment that made me question how such events could be shown in a Disney film (Dumbo and Timothy getting drunk, even accidentally, being the main one).  Yet there were also numerous moments, such as those between Dumbo and his mother, that were so tender and sweet.  These images don’t exactly tie together seamlessly, and yet that’s the movie we’re left with.  It’s imperfect, and it certainly has its odd moments, but it’s a sweet, enjoyable film, and one I would gladly watch again.

-Jess

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