Dumbo (1941) Review

To fully review and understand a film like Dumbo, one must first preface with a bit of historical understanding of the art of animation during the 1940’s.

I say this because you can’t break down and analyze a classic kids movie like Dumbo the way people dissect modern animated flicks. With vicious fervor movies are torn to shreds on the basis of having too much or too little plot, thin characters, or outdated/ old-fashioned animation; calling into question what makes an animated film worthwhile in the first place. Dumbo clocks in at just over an hour, carries little plot or deep characterization, and doesn’t concern itself with moral complexities. Now it would be ridiculous to assert that Dumbo is or should be judged from a modern outlook, even though it hasn’t stopped many others from doing the same to other movies.

But, when we look at animated films with such a critically harsh lens, we allow ourselves to get into a mindset that may overlook a modern-day Dumbo. Films that have all the heart and dazzle of a masterpiece but are monetarily handicapped.

Everyone knows the story of Dumbo. It’s a sweet (but none too innocent) tale of a baby elephant born with ears that are a few sizes too big, resulting in rude taunting and the cruel nickname of Dumbo. The film takes us through several significant scenes in Dumbo’s childhood, all culminating into his remarkable, uplifting redemption.

Dumbo was released in the Golden Age of animation, where animators working directly with Walt himself were still testing the bounds of what could be visually and creatively accomplished onscreen. Only four years prior they graced the world with their groundbreaking, all-around stunning work of art Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White was an instant hit and sparked a widespread fascination with the concept of full-length animated films.

Or so they thought. As misfortune would have it, Disney’s next animated features Pinocchio and Fantasia never received as much public interest. That, coupled with labor strikes and WWII, slashed the production budget for Dumbo down to a modest $950,000. In fact, Dumbo is still Disney’s cheapest full-length feature to date. This cheaper budget (and therefore simpler animation utilized) helped mold Dumbo into what we know it as today. The detail in the drawings isn’t as exhaustive or articulate, yet the bright and fun colors contribute to the circus setting of the film. The story itself couldn’t be very long, so Dumbo in turn values straightforwardness and conciseness.

Dumbo maintains the same charming simplicity of Snow White in its story, but the elegance and pacing of the stories structure is more attune to Pinocchio. Here we have a misfit protagonist who goes through a series of impactful, life-changing events. One moment Dumbo’s embarrassed, shamed, and made to look like a fool by all his circus mates. The next, he’s unintentionally getting drunk with a mouse and passing out in a tree. The morals of the story are clear and identifiable for young audiences, yet they can still resonate with an adult. Truly timeless.

The pink elephants on parade scene is probably the scene that sticks out in my mind as particularly memorable and visually provocative. Its a downright strange sequence to attempt to explain, and it’s presence in the film is welcomed but feels out of place. The weird, colorful, and psychedelic pachyderms dancing and singing across the screen has become a defining moment of the film that people seem to love reminiscing on.

I’m not even sure if I myself can fully respect the artistic freedom and creativity that Dumbo displays with such ease and wonder. It’s a shame Disney hadn’t the resources to fully experiment with this concept, but the film wouldn’t have turned into the beloved feature we’ve all come to love today.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

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