In 1941, the Walt Disney Studios were not the juggernaut they are today. With a series of troubles hitting the studio – including the box office failure of Fantasia, an animator’s strike and the European box office drying up because of World War II – Walt and his crew needed to figure out a new way of making films. They had to make things cheaper and more profitable.
It was from those circumstances that Dumbo sprang to life. If Snow White and Pinocchio were high art films, with incredible realism and lifelike characters, then Dumbo was a cartoon in the best possible way. Using watercolor backgrounds, caricatured animals and a sweet, simple story, Dumbo managed to build an emotional roller coaster like no Disney film to that point had.
Start with the animation work of Bill Tytla on the title character of Dumbo. The little elephant who eventually learns to fly can convey love, sadness and joy all without speaking. Dumbo is the only main character in the animated films that doesn’t speak, yet he’s as fully realized as any character ever was or would become. Tytla’s work created this character, and it’s one of the most amazing works in the history of animation.
Adding to the sense of emotion throughout is the music of the film, especially Baby Mine, the song that was nominated for an Academy Award. This simple scene of Mrs. Jumbo cradling her son as the song crosses through the background can bring the most hard edged person to tears. It’s a simple statement of a mother’s love for her child, but anyone who has children must be able to relate to the sentiment.
The whole film is an amazing message about the ability of people to overcome obstacles and thrive in the face of adversity. Dumbo and his mother are faced with things that no one would believe if they were humans. Yet, as elephants, they convey humanity in a way that a more complex tale might not be able to do. Dumbo overcomes by accomplishing the impossible, literally learning to fly and creating the answer to all his dreams.
There’s so much to like about Dumbo that it’s hard to stop gushing. The amazing work of Ward Kimball on the crows who sing “When I See An Elephant Fly” is one of my favorite works in all the Disney canon. The character of Timothy J. Mouse is a fantastic comedic foil to the downhearted and serious travails of Dumbo. And let’s not forget the work of the supporting elephants, such as actress Verna Felton, who make Dumbo’s eventual triumph so satisfying.
Dumbo is a simple tale, that in just over an hour accomplishes so very much. It teaches us about ourselves and manages to inspire and create emotion while entertaining. It’s never preachy or overly sentimental, but instead creates a world that is wholly satisfying and well worth revisiting over and over again.