Dumbo (1941/RKO Pictures/Dir. Ben Sharpsteen)
In 1941, Walt Disney was in South America, doing a good will tour and collecting materials for the movie Saludos Amigos, which would come out the next year. While he was away, he left the studio to make a small quick-buck movie, that would hopefully help restore the studio’s fortunes after the finacial disappointments of Pinocchio and Fantasia. The result was the fairly short and sweet movie about an elephant with big ears. Dumbo is the sort of story anybody who wasn’t part of the popular kid’s crowd can enjoy. In fact, instead of looking at Dumbo in the traditional manner, I’m going to examine it as a metaphor for a person’s freshman year in college.
Florida looks a little different than how I pictured it.
The movie is actually pretty evocative of the old circus feel, or at least it feels like the experience of going to see the circus. The opening music is very much like an overture you might hear back in the days when a circus would have a live band playing and the title cards are all on promotion posters. What I find interesting is that I don’t regard this as a musical, despite the fact that there are actually a lot of songs in this thing. I think the reason I don’t think of it in musical terms is that the narrative is rarely ever halted for the musical number. The songs are just back ground flavoring and don’t have an impact on the story, with two notable exceptions. We’ll get to that later though, right now let’s talk about the name. The name of the main character is not actually Dumbo, that’s a nickname that everyone decides to call him. His mother named him Jumbo Jr., which means that he is either the son or descendant of the original Jumbo. It would be quite a feat for him to be the son, since Jumbo died in 1885 and that would make this the longest gestation on record. However, as Jumbo was the most famous elephant in the world and probably still is, we’ll let it slide for the moment. Now, I know, you’re still waiting for me to justify the whole college freshman thing, and I’m about to.
I am the littlest and cutest Buddha.
A young elephant is delivered to a strange and exciting world, where it’s clear he’s going to have trouble fitting in. He’s a quiet kid, mostly because he’s young and unsure of himself. The problem is that our boy has a mild physical… extra. If it’s true what they say about an elephant’s ears, then he should also be sporting what looks like a fifth leg as well, but this is a Disney movie. Of course, the first people he runs into besides his mother are a catty bunch of sorority types who tease him about his ears and dub him “Dumbo” which will sadly be his name from here on out. Then of course move in week for new students gets started. The move in week is metaphorical of course, coming in the form of the Roustabouts song. Dumbo is expected to help out like everyone else, which is a bit odd. I’m not sure, but I doubt the animals were made to assist in putting up the big top. Still, the song is strangely dark and sad if you actually listen to the lyrics, while the animation in this segment is lovely and minimalistic. Watching carefully, the roustabouts themselves are not actually humans, but vague blob shapes. The whole thing looks sort of like colored chalk drawn onto black paper.
Just strange, featureless, potato men.
After the move in, you get the parade, which is orientation all over the place. The only thing that doesn’t fit in my college motif is that Dumbo is still with his mother, because after the parade we get the adorable bath scene. The bath scene is mega cute and should only be viewed when one has a stomach full of whiskey. Either that, or remembers that the next scene is coming. Kids enter the tent, yanks on Dumbo’s tail and pull on his ears. Mrs. Jumbo has the predictable reaction and sadly the roustabouts rush in and subdue her. After this scene, Dumbos’s mother is no longer much of a figure in the movie. So, as we see, mother can no longer help you. Sadly, he’s left with the gossiping sorority bitches, who proceed to blame him for everything. However! It’s all going to be alright because Dumbo’s RA (a mouse named… Tim?) takes a shine to the kid. He tells off the other elephants, or at least scares the hell out of them, and goes to make pals with Dumbo. You’ve gotta like Timothy, since he is the only character besides Mrs. Jumbo to be decent to the kid. Timothy takes the time to become Dumbo’s Agent, talking the circus boss into making Dumbo a star.
Sort of a mood killer, but this doesn’t so much look “sad” as “stoned out of his ever lovin’ mind” to me.
Sadly Dumbo, being just a kid, muffs his first big chance. It’s not a little event either, the entire big top is brought down. After that, he’s transferred to the clown division, which is sort of humiliating. To put it simply, Dumbo falls in with the drunken frat boys. They tease him a lot, use him in their ridiculous routines and aren’t interested in him as a person. Timothy does his best to make Dumbo feel good about the current situation, but can’t do much. You’ve got to feel used after a round with the clowns/frat boys, so Tim does the one thing that’ll cheer Dumbo up. He takes Dumbo to see his (Dumbo’s) mother. They’re only allowed to touch slightly between the bars of the cage they’ve got Mrs. Jumbo in. She can get her truck through the window, and they use that for comfort . This equates with one of those late night calls to mother, or possibly a first trip home. This scene is done to the song Baby of Mine, which is my personal meter for judging if someone is a cyborg. If that song doesn’t move you, then you are a Kill-Bot 9000 and I’ll stuff dynamite in your pants, then let nature do its work.
Not freaky, artistic!
When we get back to the clowns/frat boys, they’re still drinking and deciding to put Dumbo into more danger. They decide to make the platform 30, then 40, then 80 then 180 feet higher before deciding to make the platform 1000 feet. One clown says it might hurt Dumbo, but the others announce that elephants have no feelings. See? Frat boys for you, uncaring bastards. So they tip one of their bottles into a bucket of water and take off, oblivious of their error. This leads to Dumbo and Timothy to accidently getting really drunk. What would college be if you didn’t get drunk and have terrible hallucinations in the form of pink elephants? We won’t go into the song, suffice to say that for 1941, this was the most avant-garde animation ever got. This scene, while arguably nightmare fuel, is also the most artistically interesting a mainstream animated movie would be for sometime. There are several techniques that while known in art styles were completely unheard of in animated works and would make for a pretty unusual movie today. Yes, it’s a little intense, but it should be, it’s a liquor fueled nightmare! Again though, this is exactly how college should be. There are always a few nights like this, even for a computer science student. Besides this is culture, so it’s okay if we scare the crap out of you.
You can take back what you just said about Mickey, or we can take this outside!
Now we get to the big revel that Dumbo managed to get up into a tree while drunk. He’s found by the crows, all voiced by Black actors who were members of The Hall Johnson Choir. There have been complaints about the racial stereotyping of the characters, but I’m not going to allow the complaint. Two reasons for this… 1) If you changed the voices to Mexicans, people would complain the characters were negative Mexican stereotypes, if they were Irish voices, they’d be negative Irish stereotypes. There is very little in these crows, outside of the voices that is specific to one race or another. 2) These are some of the only decent people in this movie! The crows are the good guys! How can you complain about the five good guys in a movie with no good guys in the movie? The crows are instrumental in giving Dumbo the confidence to fly. In fact, the idea of him flying is initially one of the crows’ suggestions. The crows are helpful and happy for Dumbo when he discovers this whole flying thing isn’t a joke. Also, it’s an important part of college to make friends with people from different backgrounds and races.
You’re right guys, this stuff is AMAZING! It's like I can fly or something.
Like all good college movies, our hero makes good and discovers his place in the world. He walks out of the movie a confident and fulfilled person. Dumbo holds back the information that he can fly until the moment is right. There is a tense moment when Dumbo looses the “Magic Feather” but he believes in his ability to fly and soars through the air. As one always should, he then smites the evil doers! He humiliates those who wronged him, elevates himself, gets his mother freed, becomes a celebrity and does everyone proud. How long does this take in movie time? About a minute, but then this thing is short. The movie is 63 minutes and 40 seconds in total. Even when shown on commercial TV, they have to strap a couple of extra commercials on just to make up the runtime. The fact that this was short helped the movie become as profitable as it did. Dumbo was regularly re-released, because of its short runtime and beloved status, which meant a lot of packed houses every time. This is still one of my favorite Disney movies, it’s short, it’s sweet and I can use it to judge if you’re a cyborg.
Considering how big horse flies are, elephant flies must be able to lift small children.
95 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.
95 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.
Anyone else sort of freaked out by this dead-eyed clown?