The Great Disney Blogathon: Dumbo (1941)
|January 8, 2013||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Musicals, The Great Disney Blogathon|
After the commercial failures of Pinocchio and Fantasia, and with World War II still cutting off that lucrative European market, the studio desperately needed to turn a profit. Dumbo was a direct response to that. It’s the shortest Disney feature, coming in at just over an hour, and was made on the cheap, with very few effects and a very small team of animators. Even the source material was modest: Disney’s merch team was shown a prototype toy called “Roll-a-Book,” which was essentially a little panorama device. One of the demo books was a short story about a baby elephant with big ears that gave him the ability to fly – only eight drawings and a few lines of text. It’s the modern equivalent of making a movie out of a Happy Meal toy.
The finished film reflects its pared-down budget: it’s brisk, simple, and workmanlike, with an extremely straightforward story. However, that doesn’t hurt it in the slightest. Dumbo is a breath of fresh air, a delightful palette-cleanser after the bombast of its predecessors. It’s cheery and sweet, with a bold, friendly color scheme that reflects its circus setting, and a handful of fun little songs. The simple backgrounds and dearth of effects let the animators concentrate on acting, which they did a tremendous job at (especially Vladimir “Bill” Tytla, who animated the elephants – more on that in a bit), and the short running time means that there are no dead zones in the movie, which is an easy trap to fall into with animation. Every character is introduced as clear as day within their first few seconds of screentime, and the comedic timing is exquisite. And despite the breakneck pace, it’s also one of the most emotional movies in the Disney canon, and certainly the first to really yank at the heartstrings in that unmerciful Disney way.1
The thing that makes Dumbo work, above all else, is Dumbo himself. He doesn’t speak, and he’s essentially passive, doing only what he’s been told by his mother or Timothy, but that’s absolutely fitting, since he’s not meant to be a do-er: he’s a baby. As the audience, we simultaneously are Dumbo, ostracized and mocked, and his mother, wanting to protect him from his tormentors. Most of the credit for that goes, as mentioned above, to Bill Tytla, who created in Dumbo one of the sweetest babies to ever grace the screen. Tytla drew on his own toddler’s mannerisms and it shows, especially in Dumbo’s little baby smiles and his playfulness. (Luckily, baby elephants are just as adorable at bathtime as baby humans.)
It’s Dumbo’s vulnerability, though, that makes him such a character to break the heart. He trusts everyone around him implicitly, and smiles when they laugh, not understanding that they’re laughing at him. He desperately wants to be led and protected, even seeking comfort from the elephants that scorn him when his mother is locked up. (One of my absolute favorite things is how Dumbo holds Timothy’s tail in his trunk whenever they go anywhere, as if Timothy is an elephant. HE JUST WANTS A HERD.) One of the saddest things about the film is watching Dumbo’s innocence and trust fade: he goes from immediately loving all elephants and humans to needing to be coaxed into trusting Timothy, and he doesn’t even try to bond with the crows until they’ve proven their worth. And oh, when Timothy casually mentions Dumbo’s ears and Dumbo hides behind them and you realize that he’s finally internalized that his ears are “bad”…you guys, just writing this post is making me mist up.
The other thing, of course, that makes Dumbo such a moving character is his relationship with his mother, also animated by Tytla. Mrs. Jumbo only has one line, where she dubs her son “Jumbo, Jr.,”2 but like Dumbo, she’s imbued by Tytla’s pencil with profound emotion. Though she is in many ways not a character but a pure symbol of perfect motherhood – even more so than Bambi’s mother, I’d argue, because her mass makes her a source of protection as well as comfort and teaching – she remains painfully relatable and “human.” The “Baby Mine” sequence, where Mrs. Jumbo is chained so tightly she can’t even see her baby out the window and the two elephants can only communicate by touch, is one of the most beautiful and poignant scenes in animation history, and it’s thanks to Tytla’s deft touch. I don’t cry at Bambi’s mother’s death, or Mufasa’s, but “Baby Mine” gets me every. Single. Time.3
The other elephants are a triumph of characterization as well, though not as much thanks to Tytla (though he did animate them, and he did a great job, of course) as to their voices and dialogue.4 They are effective because they’re so very believable; everyone has met gossipy bullies like them, more’s the pity. Conversely, Dumbo’s other tormentors, the clowns, are sort of unreal and without feeling. We never see their faces; when they perform, they’re wearing giant clown masks, and they unmask only in silhouette. (The silhouette sequences with the clowns are really visually striking and effective, as is the one with the Ringmaster. Dumbo doesn’t have a lot of tricks, but it uses the ones it does have well.) The elephants’ cruelty to Dumbo has a very personal, vindictive edge to it; you get the sense that there’s some jealousy towards Mrs. Jumbo at the back of it, and certainly Dumbo’s failures are taken very personally by them. By contrast, the clowns, a literally faceless enemy, simply don’t care. “Elephants ain’t got no feelings!” they say. “They’re made of rubber!” This disconnected, unthinking cruelty of humans is echoed again, much more strongly, in the following year’s Bambi. Dumbo’s primary theme is, of course, about bullying and the inner strength of the underdog, but it’s not hard to find a secondary theme about animal cruelty – not just with the clowns, but with the boys that torment Dumbo and the dangerous labor and stunts the elephants are made to perform.5
Speaking of faceless humans…the Ringmaster is the only circus employee given real characterization. Except for a few clear glimpses in the parade, most of the humans don’t even really have faces, just crude suggestions of them – mostly as a cost-cutting measure, though as with Lady and the Tramp the vagueness of the humans keeps the focus on the animals. However, the facelessness is taken to new, um, heights with the roustabouts, who are shown putting up the tents alongside the elephants and a couple of camels on a dark, rainy night. The roustabouts are huge, lumpy, completely faceless black figures in scanty clothing, hulking brutes who are explicitly likened to animals with the parallel shots of them and the elephants putting up the tents (although considering the other humans in the film, that may not have been intended as an insult; still, media made by white people that compares black people to animals is pretty much always racist regardless of context). The scene is dark and ominous, with a booming, threatening melody to “The Roustabout Song,” which includes such charming lyrics as “We work all day, we work all night/ We never learned to read or write” and “We don’t know when we get our pay/ And when we, do we throw our pay away” and “Grab that rope, you hairy ape!” But, the song assures us, “We’re happy-hearted roustabouts,” despite the fact that “We slave until we’re almost dead.” Between the ominous, shadowy, animalistic figures, the references to illiteracy and spendthriftiness, and the overtones of the happy slave myth (remember, this is five years before Song of the South), the scene is pretty fucking awful; Dumbo’s tiny hammer as he attempts to contribute can’t save it.
The more well-known black characters in the film are the crows. Because they are so memorable, the subject of racism is brought up much more frequently with them than with the roustabouts. I’d argue, though, that it’s much less clear-cut with the crows. They are inarguably supposed to be African-American; the question is how virulent the stereotyping is. On the one hand, the leader is named Jim (or Dandy) Crow (which: seriously, Disney? Seriously?) and is voiced by the white Cliff Edwards, best known as Jiminy Cricket, doing a highly-stylized “black” voice. On the other hand, the other four are voiced by black men, members of the Hall Johnson Choir, and the references for their dancing were provided by Freddie and Eugene Jackson, black vaudevillians who seem to have been given the same treatment and salary as white live action reference models (according to Mindy Aloff’s Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation). They speak in heavy, stereotypical dialect, but don’t display other stereotypical traits like laziness or stupidity – in fact, they’re some of the smartest characters in the movie. Ward Kimball, who animated them, insists that they were always intended to be sympathetic, and aside from Timothy and Mrs. Jumbo, they are the only people who help Dumbo in the whole movie – in fact, they teach him to fly. There are undeniable elements of minstrelsy to their performance, but those particular stereotypes are so dated that most modern children don’t pick up on them. I certainly didn’t – but I was also a privileged white kid, and not exactly an authority on racism.
I’m still not an authority, of course. And I have to admit that I like the crows – I think they’re fun. I like the song and the interaction between Dandy Crow (I’m not calling him Jim, Disney) and Timothy. So there is more of a bias for me, here, than in calling out characters like Dopey or Sunflower and Otika as problematic. But I do think that the crows were created with good intentions on the part of Disney, as sympathetic characters the audience is supposed to relate to and root for, and I’m glad to hear African-American voices and see African-American dancing onscreen, at a time when Hollywood was still sticking Lena Horne and the Nicholas Brothers in separate sequences from white actors so that they could be removed for Southern audiences. In fact, the movie could be seen as obliquely commenting on racism, since it allies its outcast protagonist with African-American characters.
That’s not to excuse Disney from trading in minstrel stereotypes or giving the offensively-named lead role to a white man. And I really don’t want to do what far too many Disney scholars do, which is to say, “Well, they’re good guys, so it’s fine,” and wash my hands of it (both Grant and The Disney Song Encyclopedia by Thomas S. Hischak and Mark A. Robinson go a step further and take nasty little potshots at “unenlightened” audiences who would dare be offended by Jim Crow). Neither good intentions nor the passage of time erase racism, and to pretend the crows are inoffensive because they are benevolent is to ignore ugly aspects of our history that still affect our culture and media today. The crows can’t be entirely disregarded as racist – but they are racist, and the good intentions behind their creation can’t change that. Modern kids, I think, can enjoy them as straightforward good guys, but adults need to acknowledge the complexity of their context.
Changing gears entirely, I should at least mention the Pink Elephants sequence, a triumph of surrealism that scared the bejesus out of me as a kid. And give some props to Timothy, who is the first real wise guy to grace Disney’s feature films, and a delightful one at that. Finally, I should mention that there was at one point a planned direct-to-video sequel wherein Dumbo and his circus buddies, including rambunctious twin bears and an inquisitive ostrich, get lost in the big city, but it seems to have been scrapped. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
As you can probably tell, Dumbo has a very special place in my heart. It’s certainly my favorite of the early Disney films, and emblematic of my preference for solid, clean storytelling over Great Art (though much of Dumbo is, of course, great art). It pulled Disney out of an economic slump just in time for the war, and has of course inspired an amusement park ride so popular there are two of them right next to each other in the New Fantasyland at Walt Disney World. (Yeah, I don’t know why either.) Dumbo’s the little elephant that could in more ways than one, and never fails to put a smile on my face. Good job, little guy!
- Sorry, but no one cries at Pinocchio. ↩
- A clear reference to the tremendously famous Barnum and Bailey elephant, Jumbo. Dumbo seems to be set in the 40s, though, and Jumbo died in 1885 when he was hit by a train. I know elephant gestation periods are long, but I don’t think Dumbo can quite lay claim to such an illustrious pedigree without time travel being involved! Orrrr maybe I’m thinking too hard about this. ↩
- Fun fact: “Baby Mine” was sung by Betty Noyes, best known (…ish) as the singing voice for Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain, my all-time favorite movie. ↩
- Matriarch Elephant was voiced by Verna Felton, who voiced, like, every single older woman in a Disney movie for several decades, including the Fairy Godmother, Flora, and the Queen of Hearts. ↩
- And while we’re on the subject of labor and clowns…Disney was in the midst of a bitter strike during the making of Dumbo. Most of the animators picketed, and though the strike obviously ended and the film was completed, the “family” atmosphere at the studio was gone forever. Most of my Disney books claim that the clowns are caricatures of the strikers, especially once they start singing “We’re Gonna Hit the Big Boss for a Raise”; Wikipedia agrees. Only John Grant argues against this theory, pointing out that Art Babbitt, who animated the silhouetted clowns (and was the undisputed Goofy master), has gone on record denying it; Grant also points out that if the clowns are the strikers, the Ringmaster should be Walt, and he’s very clearly not. John Canemaker, Disney historian, notes in the DVD commentary that two of the clowns are identified in the script as “Ollie” and “Frank” – presumably Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, two of the “Nine Old Men,” Walt’s favorite animators. My question is why Babbitt, a strike leader, would portray his fellow animators and strikers in such a negative, nasty, greedy light. In other words, I’m pretty dubious about the whole clown = strikers theory, but it’s so far back in the annals of Disney apocrypha, I doubt we’ll ever know for sure. ↩