According to the making-of documentary on the Blu-ray, Dumbo marked a turning point for Walt Disney. At that point, despite the critical success of his previous features, and despite the fact that people drove out in masses to see the first two, they had been too expensive to make a profit, and Fantasia downright flopped. Plus, the production of their upcoming Bambi had also become too expensive, so they had to find a way to make films faster and cheaper, but with as much heart. The first product of this decision was Dumbo, the story of an elephant with big ears overcoming prejudice.
You can definitely see that it was a cheaper production, as its running time is much shorter than the studios previous efforts. Also, the animation, while still pretty good, is not as detailed as we had come to expect. The characters are more rounded, more cartoonish, flatter, and the backgrounds are not quite as seamless. But the lesser animation doesn’t really take anything away from the movie. In fact, it goes to show that with the proper story and the proper talent behind the scenes, you don’t need a huge budget to make a great film.
At first glance, and thanks in part to the animation, Dumbo might seem like it is less sophisticated than the previous three Disney features. After all, it is their first to be set in contemporary times, and in the United States, no less, so they had to play with some archetypes and give them dialogue that fit them. Take, for example, the infamous crows. For some they might bring down the movie since they seem like blatant stereotypes. But they actually help the movie move forward, and their dialogue is actually well written. I honestly can’t imagine the movie without them. Also, to some Timothy the mouse may seem like a lesser more annoying version of Jiminy Cricket, but I actually find him more endearing. The only character I actually didn’t like was the stork, but he’s only in there for a couple of minutes, so I can ignore him.
Overall, this is one of my second favorite of the first five Disney animated features. It’s theme of overcoming prejudice to become the best you can be, of how everybody is special, and of motherly love are told beautifully in its short running time. Some scenes can be a bit too on the nose, like when the group of elephant say that Dumbo is not an elephant anymore because they clowns will use him. But like all flawed things in the film, the few silly scenes can be ignored due to the greatness of the rest. The “Baby Mine” scene has gotten me to shed tear both times I’ve seen it. It’s not so much the song, which is excellent, but I’ve never cried with a song alone, but because the emotion that is conveyed through these drawings. The scene where Dumbo finally flies in front of everyone has made me feel so good both times. And, of course, there is the amazing scene with the darn pink elephants. It is easily the best head-trip that I’ve seen in a movie. I hope that if one day I get drunk or high that I’ll see pink elephants.
Note: I previously reviewed this film, and my opionion has changed quite a bit.