Dumbo (1941)

As Dumbo's mother is imprisoned, she slides her trunk through the bars to rock her baby to sleep, singing the Oscar-nominated song Baby Mine.

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.

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9 thoughts on “Dumbo (1941)

  1. […] loves Dumbo, and Stitch is a very familiar character to those […]

  2. […] creations that also appeared in Gepetto’s toy shop in Pinocchio, one of the carved toys is Dumbo, and there’s even a brief scene when Basil holds up a map that reads “Burbank,” […]

  3. […] Madame Medusa. The tale is a return to the heartstring-pulling dramas, like Bambi and Dumbo, that gave the studio its […]

  4. […] the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, the adult version of Flower in Bambi and was the Stork in Dumbo all the way back in 1941. He took a few smaller roles after The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, […]

  5. […] eventually resulted in a very public strike so disastrous to the studio it was even referenced in Dumbo. By the time Alice was released, though, those days were behind them. Alice in Wonderland is the […]

  6. […] all accounts, the trip was enormously successful. But, set against the rise of Nazi Germany and the labour unrest in Walt’s backyard, the tone of the film seems almost ironic. In fact, the high-drama strike […]

  7. […] Dumbo was released in late fall 1941. Little more than a month afterward, though, Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor and the United States immediately joined the Second World War. Walt Disney, sometimes at the request of the U.S. government, was prepared to use the considerable force of his studio to help the Allied Forces. The studio’s characters quickly appeared on posters and in films to promote war-related causes and to help spread propaganda, uniting the country against the Nazis and the Japanese. […]

  8. Liza says:

    I recently watched Dumbo with my 9-year-old daughter and was astounded by just how sad it was. Absolutely heart-wrenching to see mother and child separated, particularly the rocking scene you mention. Great connection to Up which resonated the same sadness, yet also lifted the audience to great and fanciful heights.

  9. Ryan W Isenor says:

    Love the shout out to “Waking Sleeping Beauty”; still brings a tear to my eye when I watch it.

    I never really stopped to think that it was World War 2 that really held back the studio in the 40’s. I look at some of the films of that time and think, “What was going on?” Naturally, like all other operations in the United States, the studio had to adjust to the demands of war-time. The link to Disney-themed war propaganda was particularly interesting and good for a laugh.

    It was of course, the revenue from such propaganda and the tight restrictions to save money that would warrant the gamble they took on Cinderella in 1950. We all know how that turned out!

    On a side note, I would like to point out that on your current schedule, the review of Alice in Wonderland will fall the week after my birthday! HOW EXCITING!

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