As I said in my review of Tim Burton’s Dumbo on Tuesday, I mentioned that it’s been a while since I last watched the animated version. It was definitely when I was a child because I didn’t feel weird about the crows. Something I didn’t bring up in my review. Not because I don’t think it’s problematic: I do. But because I didn’t see what more I could say on the issue that hasn’t already been said. Yes, there is a Jim Crow reference in the middle of the film. Yes, it’s clearly bad. But it happened over 40 years before I was born. Of course, it’s going to make me uncomfortable. We should just be grateful that there was no attempt to make that scene fit into the live action remake. There was already a lot about Tim Burton’s film that stressed me out without coming face-to-face with his interpretation of Disney’s racist past.
Dumbo was rushed through production to help Disney recover from the loses made by Fantasia at the box office. It is one of Disney’s shortest animation features. It runs to just over an hour but it still manages to stuffed with one of the sweetest and purest stories they’ve ever produced. Yes, there is a certain amount of darkness but, ultimately, this is a story anyone can enjoy. Far from being a bit of a botch job, Dumbo benefits from the quick production. Both the animation and the story are simple but timeless. Yes, there are some questionable aspects that have come out of that time period but this has to be one of Disney’s purest films.
And Dumbo is unlike so many other Disney animal films. This time, the title character is mute. The rules on who does or doesn’t have the power of speech in this film are confusing but the fact that Dumbo never utters a word just adds to his “otherness”. He and his mother are always on the outside because they are the only elephants who don’t speak. Dumbo finds other ways to express himself and it gives the animators a real chance to amp up the cuteness. It also gives Dumbo’s sidekick, the mouse Timothy, the chance to step into the spotlight. Timothy is a fun and cheeky addition to the cast. Like the elephant’s more fun version of Jiminy Cricket. Let’s be honest, Jiminy would never have got pissed with Pinocchio. Timothy is awesome.
He’s bound to be a hit with young kids anyway. And Dumbo’s tale of accepting who you are and discovering your inner talent is the kind of narrative guff that lasts forever. It has appeal for very young children thanks to its silliness and charm but the story is not overly saccharine. There is plenty of darkness and drama for older kids and adults to enjoy. And this film features one of the best musical sequences in Disney history. Its almost as if ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ set a precedent for future films and you can see its influence in some of them. It’s a fantastic moment and still looks as good now nearly 80 years later.
I guess the main problem that I have with Dumbo is that nobody would ever make fun of an elephant that cute. Disney has done such a great job making their animal lead so adorable that it kind of ruins the plot. The massive ears only help to make Dumbo even sweeter so I find it hard to believe that the Circus audience would mock him so cruelly. I mean, I can kind of get the other elephants because it’s a species thing but the humans? Who can get a glimpse of that tiny creature with his massive ears and eyes and not fall in love? Very unrealistic.