Dumbo is the movie that made every child cry. When the titular elephant’s mother is hauled away before his eyes and thrown behind bars, Dumbo curls up in his mother’s trunk — as close as he can be to her — and lets her rock him back and forth as she sings. The audience is in tears.
Dumbo is a script short on dialog. It is Disney’s only animated feature in which the title character never utters a word. Even Dumbo’s mother only has one line of dialog: early in the film when she speaks his real name (Jumbo Jr.) for the first time — it’s the catty circus elephants she shares a train car with that nickname him Dumbo. The film is only 64 minutes long. But it is widely regarded as the most raw and emotional of all of Disney’s animated features. The only film which has since come close to packing that much emotion into such a short amount of time was the opening sequence of Pixar’s Up — even though not technically a part of the traditional canon.
Dumbo also came at an important crossroads for Disney. The studio was broke. Pinocchio and Fantasia didn’t do well commercially, the war in Europe was cutting off their international markets, and labour unrest was moving through the studio, resulting in an animator’s strike partway through production of Dumbo. Walt Disney did not like unions. He attempted to shut down union formation at every opportunity. When layoffs were necessary, union employees were the first to go. But in 1941, a five week animator’s strike resulted in the formation of the Screen Cartoonists Guild at Walt Disney Studios, entrenching the organization at studios across the United States.
Not all animators participated in the strike, though. Those who remained were able to sneak in a sneering gesture at striking animators in a brief scene of Dumbo. Clowns — the bottom of the circus totem pole in Dumbo’s world — are relegated to a back tent where they think up the next big show-stopping stunt for Dumbo to perform. Their next move is to march en-masse to “ask the big boss for a raise.”
Walt Disney later testified before Senator McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities, labelling some of the strike organizers as Soviet spies.
But Walt’s suspicions of labour, the slim budgets and the lack of ancillary income through parks and merchandising, all meant that the artistry of Dumbo is unrivaled today. The company was starving, and starving artists produce the best work. Just look at Toy Story, Pixar’s do-or-die moment.
Dumbo is a remarkably efficient model of story-telling. There is very little (aside from the debatable drunken illusions of the pink Elephants on Parade, which bears remarkable resemblance to the Heffalumps and Woozles sequence in 1968’s Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day) that does not contribute a necessary element to the story. The story-boarding was so thorough, and budgeting so tight, that only the final story was sent to animation. This broke a long tradition at Disney of animating sequences that would later wind up on the editing room floor: an expensive form of experimentation.
This tight story-telling became the way of animation for years. In fact, according to a beautifully constructed documentary on the 1980s Disney revival, it was only on 1985’s The Black Cauldron — a complete critical and commercial failure — that editing an animated film was once again considered a part of the film-making process.
Dumbo was an enormous critical and popular success upon its release. It won the award for Best Animation Design at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for two Oscars: Best Musical Score and Best Original Song, winning the former. The New York Times review called it “the most completely precious cartoon feature film ever to emerge from the magical brushes of Walt Disney’s wonder-working artists.” Though the review does note that the idea of storks delivering an army of babies to circus animals could result in some awkward questions from children, it simply concedes that “Mr. Disney has crammed it with countless of his fanciful delights.”
That review was published on Oct. 24, 1941. By December, the $850,000 film was set to break $2.5-million in earnings and the sustained public interest in the film was earning it a considerable spotlight. Time Magazine, in fact, had reserved their Dec. 22, 1941 cover for Dumbo with the label “Mammal of the Year,” a celebration of artistry and imagination in a world gone mad. But on Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered the Second World War. Dumbo was bumped for Japanese Admiral Yamamoto.
With the war, Walt Disney Studios readily joined the war effort and dropped all major animation projects except for one. Nine years in the making, Bambi was still in production and would be released midway through the following year.