As the fourth animated feature in the Disney Animated Canon, the film is based upon the book written by Helen Aberson and illustrated by Harold Pearl for the prototype of a novelty toy ("Roll-a-Book"). The main character is "Dumbo". He is laughed at for his big ears, but in fact he is capable of flying by using his ears as wings. Throughout most of the film, his only true friend, aside from his mother, is a mouse named Timothy — a relationship parodying the stereotypical animosity between mice and elephants.
The film was made to recoup the financial losses of Pinocchio and Fantasia. It was a deliberate pursuit of simplicity and economy for the Disney studio, and at 64 minutes, it is one of Disney's shortest full length features. Saludos Amigos in 1942 is the shortest, running at 42 minutes. Fortunately, it was a box office hit and became iconic for WWII as it was hailed by critics and audiences as a joyous film, appropriate for such vulgar times. Unfortunately, however, its performance was hindered by the outbreak of war in America, following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Today, the film is one of the most acclaimed animated movies of all time, often called the best in the medium. It is also known for being John Lasseter's favorite one, and it is among one of Walt Disney's favorites. It is also a favorite of film historian/critic Leonard Maltin.
The film takes place in a circus setting in Florida, possibly in present-day 1941, and starts with a formation of storks delivering newborn babies to various circus animals. Mrs. Jumbo's baby is delivered to her belatedly by an exhausted stork, and the baby is well received by the others - until the size of his ears are revealed after he sneezes. He, nicknamed "Dumbo" is teased by them. Mrs. Jumbo ignores them, however, until she is imprisoned as a "mad elephant" after trying to defend him from a crowd of antagonizing boys. A mouse named Timothy befriends him, and crafts a plan to make him a star in the circus.
Timothy subliminally convinces the Ringmaster (in his sleep) to set up a "pyramid of pachyderms," to the top of which Dumbo will jump (using a springboard). Due to his long ears, the act fails, the big top falls to the ground, the other elephants are injured, the circus has to relocate, and Dumbo is unceremoniously reduced to a clown. His clown act involves falling from an enormous platform in a dramatized fire rescue into a vat of pie filling. The audience responds well to the act, and the clowns decide to alter the act for the next show so that Dumbo will fall from a platform many times higher than the original one.
After an emotional visit to Mrs. Jumbo's cell, Timothy tries to cheer up Dumbo, who could not stop crying. They settle down for a drink of water outside of the clowns' tent. Unknown to them, the water has been accidentally spiked with champagne by the clowns, and they become inebriated and hallucinatory, seeing Pink Elephants sing and dance before their eyes.
Dumbo and Timothy awake the next morning—in a tree over 100 feet up, awoken by a gaggle of amused crows. Timothy guesses that Dumbo flew them to the top of the tree while they were drunk, an idea that the crows find hilarious. After Timothy tells them Dumbo's pitiful story, they decide to help Timothy teach Dumbo to fly. They convincing him that he can fly with the use of a "magic feather", and succeed in getting him to fly.
Dumbo shows up at his next clown performance with his magic feather, however, he loses it after leaping from the platform. Timothy admits to Dumbo that he can fly without it, and, barely avoiding death from the fall, he opens his ears and soars through the air, to the amazement of the audience. He is made a star of the circus and an international celebrity, and he and Mrs. Jumbo are finally reunited and given their own private coach on Casey Junior, the circus train.
- Edward Brophy as Timothy Q. Mouse
- Verna Felton as the Elephant Matriarch and Mrs. Jumbo
- Cliff Edwards as Jim Crow
- Herman Bing as the Ringmaster
- Margaret Wright as Casey Junior
- Sterling Holloway as Mr. Stork
- Nick Stewart as Specks
- Hall Johnson as Deacon
- Jim Carmichael as Dopey
- James Baskett as Fats
- Noreen Gammill as Catty
- Dorothy Scott as Giddy
- Sarah Selby as Prissy
- Malcolm Hutton as Smitty
- John McLeish as the Narrator
- Billy Bletcher and Eddie Holden as Clowns
- Jimmy MacDonald as Lion
- Billy Sheets as Joe
The film was designed as an economical feature, to help generate income for the Disney studio after the financial failures of both Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940. Storymen Dick Huemer and Joe Grant were the primary figures in developing the plot, based upon a manuscript written by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl for a children's book.
When the film went into production in early 1941, supervising director Ben Sharpsteen was given orders to keep the film simple and inexpensive. As a result, Dumbo lacks the lavish detail of the previous three Disney animated features (Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). Character designs are simpler, background paintings are less detailed, and a smaller number of cels (or frames) were used in the character animation. However, the simplicity freed the animators from being overly concerned with detail, and allowed them to focus on the most important element of character animation: acting. Bill Tytla's animation of Dumbo is today considered one of the greatest accomplishments in American traditional animation.
On May 29, 1941, during the production on the film, much of the Disney studio staff went on strike. The strike lasted five weeks, and ended the family atmosphere and camaraderie at the studio. A number of the strikers are caricatured into this film as the clowns who want to put Dumbo at risk for their own gain and go to hit the big boss for a raise.
Timothy Mouse was voiced by Edward Brophy, a character actor known for portraying gangsters who has no other known animation voice credits. The pompous matriarch of the elephants was voiced by Verna Felton, who would later play the Fairy Godmother from Cinderella and Flora from Sleeping Beauty. Other voice actors include the perennial Sterling Holloway in a cameo role as Mr. Stork, and Cliff Edwards, better previously known for voicing Jiminy Cricket, as Jim Crow, the leader of the crows.
To save costs, watercolor paint was used to render the backgrounds. Dumbo and Snow White are the only two classic Disney features to use the technique, which was regularly employed for the various Disney animated shorts. The other Disney features used oil paint and gouache. 2002's Lilo & Stitch, a simple, emotional story with influences from Dumbo, also made use of watercolor backgrounds.
- Spike.com ranks the circus 6th in their list The Top 10 Hollywood Villains Who Got Totally Screwed under the section What people Forget it quotes Wikipedia saying "Despite their popularity in zoos...elephants are among the world's most dangerous animals. They can crush and kill any other land animal, even the rhinoceros. They can experience unexpected bouts of rage, and can be vindictive."
- Then in their own words it says "Mrs. Jumbo attacked one of their patrons. When they attempted to subdue her, she threw several of them across the room through walls, and actually tried to drown the Ringmaster. There is no justification for her still being alive by the end of the film. Even if animal control didn’t require that animals known to pose a danger to humans be put down, the parents of the snot-nosed little kid she attacked would have raised all hell over the incident. The fact that the circus locked her up when they should legally have had her destroyed seems to show that they aren’t animal-hating bastards, but are actually animal lovers to the point of criminal negligence."
- In Steven Spielberg's 1979 movie, 1941, a few clips of the film were seen in a theater where General Stillwell (played by Robert Stack) goes to, since that was the same year it was released.
- Story men Joe Grant and Dick Huemer wrote up the film as installments which they left on Walt's desk every morning. After reading them, he would run into the story department saying, "This is great! What happens next?"
- The film is considered to be "The most emotional film In Disney history".
- It was the first Walt Disney animated feature to be set in America, and the first movie for Sterling Holloway (Mr. Stork) and Verna Felton (the Elephant Matriarch/Mrs. Jumbo). Both would become regulars in Disney animated films for the next thirty-five years.
- The film was the first Walt Disney Animated Classic to be released on videocassette. Its first video release was in June 1981 for rental only, and put on sale in summer 1982. It was then repackaged in November 1985 and September 1989 and again in July 1991 and October 1994. Then it was first released on DVD in 2001 and again in 2006, and the newest release in 2011. It has never gone out of print, thus considered the longest Disney animated feature on video to be in print since it came out. It is also the top film that has been re-released on DVD and VHS in movie history.
- The name of the circus (seen on a sign as the train leaves the winter headquarters) is WDP Circus (Walt Disney Productions).
- A direct-to-video sequel was in production but was cancelled due to John Lasseter putting an end to the practice of direct-to-video sequels. Some of the backgrounds were used in The Fox and the Hound 2.
- The film is the sixth Disney animated classic to have the 2006 Walt Disney Pictures logo at the end, on current releases.
- In order to keep the audience focused on the animals, only two human characters have their faces clearly visible: the Ringmaster and the bully kid. All the others are shown with low quality details (the various crowds), kept in the dark (the circus builders), hidden under makeup (the clowns) or only visible as silhouettes (the clowns again and Joe).
- The movie has a somewhat circular structure, because it opens with white storks flying and closes with black crows flying in a similar formation.
Release and reaction
The film was completed and delivered to Disney's distributor, RKO Radio Pictures, in fall 1941. RKO balked at the fact that it only ran 64 minutes, and demanded that Walt Disney either:
- (a.) expand it to 70 minutes or more
- (b.) edit it to short subject length
- or (c.) allow RKO to release it as a B-movie.
Disney refused all three options, and RKO reluctantly issued Dumbo, unaltered, as an A-film.
After its October 23 release, the film proved to be a financial success. It only cost $813,000 to produce, half the cost of Snow White and less than a third of the cost of Pinocchio. Dumbo eventually grossed $1.3 million during its original release; it and Snow White were the only two pre-1943 Disney features to turn a profit. The United States entered World War II in December 1941, reducing the box office draw of the film, which was nevertheless the most financially successful Disney film of the 1940s, thanks to a 1949 rerelease.
The film won the 1941 Academy Award for Original Music Score, awarded to musical directors Frank Churchill & Oliver Wallace. Churchill and lyricist Ned Washington were nominated for the 1941 Academy Award for Best Song for Baby Mine, the song that plays during Dumbo's visit to Mrs. Jumbo's cell. The film also won Best Animation Design at the 1947 Cannes Film Festival.
The film's simplicity and charm have made it the favorite Disney one of many people, including film and animation historian Leonard Maltin. Of particular note is the Pink Elephants on Parade sequence, which depicts Dumbo and Timothy's drunken hallucinations. The sequence was the first venture into surrealism for a narrative Disney film, taking its cue from the experimental Fantasia. The sequence essentially breaks all of the "rules" that the Disney animators had lived by for creating realistic animation over the previous decade: pink, polka-dot, and plaid elephants dance, sing, and morph into an number of various objects. The design of the sequence is highly stylized, and many of the artists who worked on it were the younger artists at the studio who joined the picket line in May 1941 and eventually would become the nucleus of United Productions of America, the most influential animation studio of the 1950s.
The crows in the film are in fact African-American caricatures; the leader crow voiced by Caucasian Cliff Edwards is officially named Jim Crow. The other crows are voiced by African-American actors, all members of the Hall Johnson Choir. Though the film is often criticized for the inclusion of the black crows, it is notable that they are the only truly sympathetic characters in the film outside of Dumbo, Mrs. Jumbo, and Timothy. They apologize for picking on Dumbo, and they are in fact the ones that help Timothy teach him to fly. The roustabout scene which features African American laborers largely in shadow and singing a working song that many find offensive has drawn similar complaints.
The film received another distinction of note in 1981, when it was the first of Disney's canon of animated films to be released on home video.
Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 97% of the critics gave the film a positive review based on 37 reviews.
- Main article: Dumbo (video)
Worldwide release dates
- Nicaragua: December 24, 1941
- United Kingdom: February 8, 1942
- Canada: March 31, 1942
- Chile: May 23, 1942
- Australia: June 4, 1942
- Ireland: June 5, 1942
- Mexico: July 9, 1942
- Brazil: July 10, 1942
- Argentina: August 10, 1942
- Uruguay: September 2, 1942 (Montevideo)
- Portugal: November 30, 1942
- Spain: September 25, 1944 (Madrid); December 14, 1944 (Barcelona)
- Sweden: September 16, 1946
- Belgium: April 25, 1947
- France: October 9, 1947 (Paris); October 25, 1947 (general)
- Norway: December 26, 1947
- Denmark: June 25, 1948
- Hong Kong: August 19, 1948
- Colombia: September 16, 1948
- Finland: October 1, 1948
- Italy: November 27, 1948
- Poland: October 23, 1949
- Netherlands: July 25, 1951
- West Germany: April 8, 1952
- Austria: May 22, 1953
- Japan: March 12, 1954
- Philippines: September 28, 1955 (Davao)
- Lebanon: May 14, 1968
- Czechoslovakia: February 12, 1971
- Kuwait: October 14, 1986
- China: July 12, 1989 (Beijing)
Difference Between the Film and the Book
In the original story, Mrs. Jumbo's original name was Ella. She was not locked away after defending Dumbo from some bullies. A character named Jack would announce the pyramid of pachyderms, not the Ringmaster. Timothy Mouse was originally Red the Robin. There was also Professor Hoot Owl, who taught him how to fly instead of the Crows. Ella named her baby just Jumbo, not Jumbo Jr. The Gossipy Elephants praised him for his big ears instead of shunning him. He was thrown into a donkey car by Jack and the Ringmaster, and on his pail they have crossed out J into a D for Dumbo, different from the elephants immediately renaming him that. He talks in the novel, but not in the film.
- In 2001, the "60th Anniversary Edition" VHS and DVD of Dumbo featured a sneak peek of Dumbo II, including new character designs and storyboards. Robert C. Ramirez (Joseph: King of Dreams) was to direct it, in which Dumbo and his circus friends navigated a large city after being left behind by their traveling circus. It also sought to explain what happened to Dumbo's father, Mr. Jumbo. Dumbo's circus friends included the chaotic twin bears, Claude and Lolly, the curious zebra Dot, the older, independent hippo Godfry, and the adventurous ostrich Penny. The animals were metaphors for the different stages of childhood. It was supposed to be set on the day immediately following the end of the first film. John Lasseter cancelled it soon after being named Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2006.
Dumbo appears in the first Kingdom Hearts game as a summon spell. When Sora is riding him, he is invulnerable and sprays water at the enemies (which counts as ice magic). When the time limit expires,he disappears. Sometimes Timothy helps him play the tuba in the Mickey Mouse Revue.
Dumbo makes a cameo appearance in the Toy Shop in The Great Mouse Detective as a toy that blows bubbles from his nose.
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