The Walt Disney Animation Studios brings the tale of a flying elephant to the big screen with its fourth feature-length film, “Dumbo.” An elephant with big ears is delivered by stork to the circus, is made fun of by the other elephants, made to jump off a high perch by clowns and the learns his ears can help him fly. It’s quite a weird movie, to say the least.
It’s a short film, just barely over an hour long. And, that’s the nicest thing I can actually say about it. I know I saw this movie when I was a kid, but I didn’t remember much about it. Upon this viewing, I know why. There’s not much to remember. The film feels incomplete. It honestly feels like they made half a movie and sent it out to theaters. The animation is beautiful overall and holds up better than a lot of films of the era, but there’s something missing.
The initial challenges that Dumbo, or Jumbo Jr. as his mother named him, has to overcome is an excellent starting point. His constant punishment by the circus master gives him a chip on his shoulder that should serve as a catalyst for an excellent film, then it just doesn’t. He gets drunk, ends up in a tree, and then is taught by some problematic crows that he can fly. He returns to the circus where he flies and is a big hit. It’s a great outline that feels like it hasn’t filled in the blanks.
Was the pink elephants on parade scene supposed to scare viewers away from the overindulgence of drinking? If so, then it did a great job. Otherwise, it’s just a weird segment that looks like Dumbo took harder drugs. It’s trippy. It’s weird. And, I’m still not sure why it was in the movie.
On top of that unusual scene, there’s the circus atmosphere itself. The other elephants insult Dumbo for being different, exclude him because his mother tried to protect him from bullies, then vow he is no longer an elephant because the ringmaster made him a clown. The clowns care nothing for Dumbo. They’re just happy to have something to sit on a perch while a house around him burns and then to jump off into a small tub of water. And, the ringmaster cares nothing for Dumbo’s safety. He makes Dumbo join the clowns and then listens to them when they suggest making Dumbo jump from 1,000 feet in the air to land in the tub of water. If this movie is an indictment of the culture of circuses back in the 1940s, then good job. I’ve never been to a circus, but I certainly don’t want to after watching this film.
We can’t discuss “Dumbo” without discussing the crows. The crows are clearly meant to represent African-American stereotypes. I know 1941 was a different time, but it’s hard to imagine that kind of representation was ever okay. They’re only saving grace is that they, along with Timothy Mouse, are the only characters nice to Dumbo throughout this entire film. I don’t know if this film was meant to be a feel-good story, but it wasn’t. This film was miserable but wasn’t poignant. It’s just really not for me.