Classics : Dumbo (1941)

… until you seen an elephant fly

by Gordon Campbell

In economic terms, Dumbo was an absolute godsend in 1941. It saved Disney from the bankruptcy threat hanging over the studio after Fantasia and Pinocchio – which were critical successes, but financial millstones at the time. Dumbo was not only thrown together in haste, with cost cutting wherever possible. It ran for only 64 minutes, to the extreme displeasure of Disney’s distributor, RKO Pictures.

The money men at RKO and even Walt’s own brother Roy Disney demanded that Disney make Dumbo longer, cut it down to a short, or release it as only one part of a double feature. Disney refused, and somehow managed to convince RKO to release it as an A-list feature. It became a smash hit and would have been an bigger one if Pearl Harbour hadn’t intervened. Crucially, the film enabled Disney to complete his next major gamble, Bambi, which finally put the studio’s survival beyond doubt.

These days, Dumbo is also widely considered to be Disney’s masterpiece. For good reason, too. The little circus elephant with the big ears manages to survive the scorn of adults and the world at large, and the loss of his mother. With the help of a good friend he eventually turns his ‘deformity’ into his source of good fortune. What made him different becomes the very thing that makes him special.

If that story was all there was to Dumbo, it would be a pleasant but forgettable experience. The claim to greatness lies in the animation, and in the various ways the artists surmounted the challenges thrown at them by the narrative. Working under immense pressure, the artists came up with several sublime sequences. Has there ever been any better expression of maternal joy than the early shots of the mother elephant bathing her child, or any sequence more poignant than when Dumbo visits his mother at night, in the prison caravan to which she had been condemned for trying to defend him? Towards the end comes the extraordinary Pink Elephants on Parade dream sequence – which predates psychedelia by about 25 years, and which effortlessly upstages all the high art that Disney had been groping to celebrate in Fantasia. Even today, Dumbo looks like a miracle.

Oh, and did I mention that the film was completed in the middle of a strike that had split the Disney company – and the creative team working on Dumbo – right down the middle, and that ultimately wrecked the family atmosphere that formerly prevailed at the studio? Dumbo may have saved Disney financially, but Disney still managed to destroy itself in almost every other way.

The origins of Dumbo were extremely humble. It began life as the back story for a pull toy. The outline ran to only eight pages when first touted as a possible film project. Walt Disney, with his usual intuitive genius, saw the story’s potential but then – perhaps beneficially – got distracted by the strike and by the company finances. Many of the backgrounds were painted in relatively cheap watercolour.

Personally, one reason I like Dumbo is that its depictions of circus life feels accurate. The clowns are depicted as sadistic jerks. Taken together, the snippy gossip among the elephants, the callousness of the clowns, the tyranny of the circus owner, and the friendship that develops between Dumbo and his pal Timothy all feel like the products of any creative company forced into close proximity for far too long. Anyone who has ever worked in the theatre or with a touring band can recognize aspects of Dumbo.

There is even a direct political reference to the Disney strike. Mid-film, the clowns bail up the circus owner to ask for a raise, and they deliver a song that seems to have been aimed at the strikers on the picket line outside the company gates :

“We’re going to ask the big man for a raise
We’re going to ask the big man for a raise.
We’re going to ask him for more money
Because we know that we’re funny
We’re going to ask the big man for a raise…”

As mentioned, the story and animation teams arrived at some brilliant solutions. A few are related in the 1981 book Disney Animation : The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson. Take for example, the incident that transforms Dumbo’s life, when he and his friend Timothy Mouse accidentally get drunk. This, in turn, triggers the Pink Elephants dream sequence, and the events that culminate in Dumbo daring to use those big ears of his, in order to fly.

The prelude is that the clowns have discarded some alcohol in a water bucket, and when Dumbo comes along with Timothy and begins to hiccup, the mouse suggests he drink some water – which Dumbo does, and begins to act oddly. Timothy decides to check out the water for himself. Problem : how to depict the mouse’s transition from sober introspection to a state of intoxication without (a) taking too much time about it and (b) looking too gross?

As Johnson and Thomas recall, the sequence initially defeated all attempts by Fred Moore, the animator. The solution eventually arrived at ? Don’t show the progression directly at all. Have Timothy lean curiously over the side of the bucket and then disappear into it with a splash – and soon afterwards, depict a stream of bubbles rising upwards, punctuated by a joyful yodel. Then have him re-emerge over the side of the bucket with a tipsy smile on his face. Mission accomplished.

True, the moral here could be seen as somewhat dubious. Dumbo’s journey to self esteem depends on him getting totally wasted. In fact, the subsequent ‘Pink Elephants On Parade’ dream interlude might suggest there was something even stronger than whiskey in that bucket. The entire Pink Elephants sequence can be seen on Youtube here.

Another great sequence of an entirely different sort occurs when Dumbo visits his mother, whose attempts to defend Dumbo have caused her to be locked up as a Mad Elephant. The Disney stalwart Bill Tytla – who had done some of the most powerful episodes in Fantasia, including the Night on Bald Mountain sequence – handled this supremely delicate moment. As Johnson and Thomas point out, a lot of cartooning during the 1930s relied on rock’em, sock ‘em slapstick action. It was only in Snow White that the studio also realized the potency of mere touching – as when Snow White and the dwarves share a kiss.

Tytla’s initial challenge was to depict the yearning of Dumbo to make physical contact with his mother.. Johnson and Thomas explain the basic problem :

With nothing to draw but a couple of wormlike trunks groping about, it would seem that the animator would have been completely defeated before he began, but [Tytla ] felt the emotions very strongly. His handling of Dumbo tearfully hugging his mother’s trunk and then gently swinging on it made this sequence outstanding for sensitivity, delicacy and good judgment. Every move is so full of love and the artist’s feelings are so genuine that nobody laughs, nobody questions.

Beforehand, Tytla had relied on memories of watching his own child in the bath for the earlier, happy sequence of young Dumbo being bathed. This time, even though standing on tiptoe, Dumbo cannot quite reach her. Only their trunks make contact, enabling Dumbo’s mother to swing him back and forth – a personal moment that Tytla opens out to encompass a range of maternal interactions across the animal kingdom, before bringing things back again to the personal, for the poignant parting shots. The entire “Baby Mine” song sequence is a classic, and it moved one Youtube commenter recently to write this :

I haven’t cried for at least a couple of years and this sets me off like a baby. ME! AN 18 YEAR OLD BOY! Such is the power of this song. They should play it into a climate summit. Set everyone off. Then I bet they’d all agree to cut emissions. I went off track slightly – I’m too upset to think straight.

Surprisingly, the moral question most often asked about Dumbo is not to do with our hero’s use of drugs to discover himself. The more common complaint is that the depiction of the crows (who appear near the end of the film) is racist Alex Wainer however, has mounted a brilliant defence of the depiction of the crows, which I’ll quote at some length. After the “Pink Elephants” dream ends, the elephant and the mouse wake up aloft, alongside five boisterous crows in a tree. Wainer explains :

The startled twosome crash to the ground and are pondering how they could have wound up in the tree when the head crow…jokingly calls after them with the suggestion that maybe they flew up to the tree limb. This is seized on by Timothy who sees this as the only way they could have reached the height.

The crows grow hysterical with laughter and ridicule as they sing, “I be done seen about everything, ‘When I Seen an Elephant Fly.'” The indignant Timothy [then] preaches a sermon…shaming the crows for mocking the “orphaned” little elephant. The mouse’s rhetorical skills move the crows to tearful remorse whereupon they offer to assist Timothy in teaching Dumbo to fly.

Dumbo is eventually pushed and cajoled up onto a high cliff, He flaps his ears and takes flight and the crows sing and flap around in celebration of his amazing feat. Some people, as Wainer says, have taken the crows’ to be a negative racial stereotype :

[But as the film critic] Leonard Maltin has said,… TThe crows are undeniably black, but they are black characters, not black stereotypes. There is no denigrating dialogue, or Uncle Tomism in the scene, and if offence is to be taken in hearing blacks call each other “brother,” then the viewer is merely being sensitive to accuracy.’

Indeed, Michael Wilmington even goes so far as to refer to the crows as “father figures,” self-assured individuals who are “obvious parodies of proletarian blacks.” He describes the crows as the most entertaining part of the film. ‘Far from being shambling, oafish Step ‘n’ Fetchit types…. his “brothers” are the snappiest, liveliest, most together characters in the film. They are tough and generous. They bow down to no one. And, of course, it is they who “teach” Dumbo to fly.’

For these characters to inhabit the pantheon of standard black stereotypes….the only type to which one can even begin to compare them is the coon, the pure version [described] as “”no-account niggers, those unreliable, crazy, lazy, subhuman creatures good for nothing more than eating watermelons, stealing chickens, shooting crap, or butchering the English language.” By this description, there is little in the crows’ behavior to link them to what was then a common stereotype.

What Dumbo really is, Wainer maintains, is a story of social outsiders succeeding against the odds :

“ A social outcast from his circus community, [Dumbo] has only Timothy for a friend…Though the crows initially seem a little disreputable… it turns out they are the only other individuals who understand Dumbo’s predicament. Both Timothy and the crows share the experience of not quite fitting into the larger society (Timothy had earlier frightened the grown elephants and seems to have no other friends.) The crows as caricatures of lower class blacks immediately imply a marginality to mainstream society. This enables them to be especially susceptible to Timothy’s sermonizing over Dumbo’s outcast state.

The crows’ racial identity is further implied when they perform their song in a jazz style complete with scat stylizations and one playing the jazz “trumpet” through his beak. [This] is the bounciest, most rollicking sequence in the story. This joking, joyous demeanor is as much a part of the crows collective character as their ability to fly. Because they can fly, they are able to help Dumbo to take flight; he now shares in one of their abilities. This is an interesting and compelling picture of members of a traditionally downtrodden race helping another oppressed individual find a form of heretofore undreamt of freedom.

So yes, we take the point : the crows are not a racist stereotype. And Dumbo is a great film. Avoid though, the “ Big Top” DVD version at all costs. The one to get is the 60th Anniversary Edition.


For this essay, Gordon Campbell drew upon on the Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson book ‘Disney Animation : The Illusion of Life’ and on the essay ‘Reversal of Roles: Subversion and Reaffirmation of Racial Stereotypes in Dumbo and The Jungle Book’ by Alex Wainer