Dumbo (70th Anniversary Edition) Review

Disney’s little elephant with the big ears comes home on Blu-ray

It’s a bit funny that Disney has used a pull quote on the cover of its new U.S. Blu-ray release of Dumbo from The New York Times exclaiming it to be a “film you will never forget” since I honestly couldn’t remember whether I’d previously seen the 1941 animated feature. Dumbo is so ingrained in our collective culture that you feel like you’ve seen it even if you haven’t (or, in my case, are unsure). The idea of this baby elephant who’s separated from his mother, continually mistreated, and ridiculed for the size of his ears holds a strong resonance both metaphorically and in the emotional context of the movie. There’s a mythical element that has emerged about Dumbo and its various dark, depressing shades that eventually reveal a lighter message of hope. Lost, maybe, is consideration as to whether Dumbo is actually deserving of its reputation, if it’s really the classic people believe it to be and especially how it ranks against other contemporary Walt Disney productions like Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi.

On the timeline, Dumbo was the fourth of Disney’s cartoon features, released one year after Fantasia premiered, two years after Pinocchio, and preceding Bambi. The mention of these other three films is hardly irrelevant since they were all rather expensive, time-consuming efforts. Add to this the fact that Fantasia did not perform well commercially, and the reasons behind Dumbo‘s very short running time of just over an hour and comparatively simple animation work become more apparent. There’s also, despite some boldly mature themes at work, a feel in Dumbo of it being more juvenile and kid-friendly, and less satisfying to the adult audiences Disney coveted. Moments of peril are not dwelled upon as they are in both Bambi and Pinocchio. The emotional pull also seems intentionally pared down, to the point where the viewer remains affected by the more tender moments between Dumbo and his mother but without any lingering opportunities for real concern to build. It’s always on to the next thing.

The film’s general brevity is rather amazing. For much of the movie, the downbeat rhythms of seeing Dumbo being constantly made fun of and victimized had me starting to draw parallels with Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar. His mother is sent to a form of solitary confinement, with a sign posted claiming her to be a “mad elephant” yet stoic endurance seems to rule the day. The deeper one thinks about what’s unraveling, the sadder it becomes. Yet, the movie doesn’t quite give us the chance to fully do this because it’s more interested in placating the shorter attention spans of youth and offering up cute little characters like Timothy Mouse. Concessions were made in Pinocchio and Bambi also, but the strokes were always more inspired. Dumbo, in comparison, feels like the quickie it was, albeit one made by world-class animators with a keen sense of their craft. Even the now-famous development of Dumbo realizing his large ears give him the ability to fly is glossed over like a convenient afterthought. It comes and goes in a matter of just a few short minutes at the very end of the picture. To be sure, this is the wrap-up answer the film needs to tie some of its message up, but it sure is a neat bow they apply.

Much of Dumbo seems quietly staid until some spiked water takes Timothy Mouse and the titular elephant on a strangely hallucinatory journey involving pink elephants. This sequence stands out notably in the film and also puts it on the path toward its conclusion. As our pair of accidental boozers awaken, they meet a murder of more than vaguely racist crows. One’s even named Jim Crow! Quite a shocking display for modern viewers, though we should all be appreciative that Disney hasn’t retroactively whitewashed the crows or the cigar smoking we see. The little twinge of daring rouses us like the particularly pre-Code elements of an early thirties Hollywood film. It’s enough to recognize the inequity on display instead of being told about it or, worse, having the whole sequence removed as though it never existed. The characterizations of the crows alone add something else to the picture. They have personality, misguided or not, that’s largely absent from the other characters seen.

As just a children’s film, Dumbo passes most every test. It might be a little depressing at times but there are moments of joy and fantasy that ably offset the gloom. The message of overcoming one’s differences and then celebrating our unique qualities is timeless. You could even attach the idea of the struggle of Dumbo being raised by a single parent, if inclined. Those internal points of guidance probably are responsible for the film’s enduring appeal, and they remain worthy of having the “classic” label attached. There’s also a sweetness that emanates from the film and its main character that could perhaps only have been attained from a Disney production. The almost intangible quality that’s really an attention to a certain kind of detail is there in Dumbo just as it is in all of the features Walt Disney supervised. The positioning of the innocent who’s separated from a parental figure, something previously seen in Pinocchio, would become part of a template of sorts for the Disney films.

What’s perhaps less kid-friendly about Dumbo, but easily more interesting to those of us who like to approach things through slightly jaundiced eyes, is the film’s take on humanity and the trappings therein. Walt Disney was a definite crowd-pleaser who also aspired to artistic success. His genius is largely beyond reproach. But if you look at so many of the animated features he was behind, there was a strong level of misanthropy at play. Humans are not celebrated and are actually more likely to be villainous than heroic. The hunters in Bambi are strong examples of this. Dumbo similarly paints humans as conniving, self-interested and unenlightened creatures who destroy rather than nurture. Enough sweetener is mixed into the Disney films via cute animals and heartwarming situations but the sharp critiques of humanity shouldn’t be overlooked.

The lack of relative ambition in Dumbo ultimately makes it seem a notch or two below some of the other Disney productions of the time. Its concerns are similar, though, and there’s little denying how emotionally impacting certain scenes and moments in the film are, even now. The entire treatment of Mrs. Jumbo is anguishing. Her relationship with little Dumbo provides the most moving aspects of the film. The addition of that surreal pink elephants sequence confirms the picture’s uniqueness while also making a good argument for it being timeless and daring. I have a sneaking suspicion that Dumbo might be less than the sum of its extraordinary parts, hindered also by that short running time, but memories and nostalgia would seem to wash away some of those flaws. What tends to register strongest are things like the mother and child relationship and Dumbo’s vulnerability, not the lack of persuasive connecting tissue.

The Disc(s)

While seemingly all of the world has been enjoying Dumbo on Blu-ray for quite some time, Disney withheld the U.S. release until now, allowing for a 70th Anniversary tag to accompany it. This edition is not region-locked and also contains a DVD version of the film. Both discs are dual-layered.

This newest restoration of Dumbo boasts color settings that are said to be in line with the film’s original 1941 release. The Disney team were able to use both the original nitrate camera negative and a nitrate Technicolor release print for color reference. The result is a transfer that never crosses the line into garishness or displaying overly bright colors while still looking impressive and updated for the format. The picture shows great depth, with an overall warm quality and richness to the image. Dumbo isn’t the best example of the Disney animators’ talents, having less complicated techniques and backgrounds, but the movie here looks outstanding.

The 1.33:1 aspect ratio can be augmented by the DisneyView feature, which uses a rotating collection of paintings as background to fill the frame. It’s an alternative to simply having large black areas on either side of the frame and something Disney has been doing for its Blu-ray releases, with mixed success, for a little while now.

Audio purists might roll their eyes at the included 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix. The DVD also offers a 5.1 Disney Enhanced Home Theater Mix, which was created using a film print that is the earliest surviving generation of the film’s original audio. Everything is markedly louder and, perhaps, exaggerated in these surround mixes when compared to the original mono option. There’s little faulting the technical achievements here, but it’s still clearly a variation on what audiences would have first experienced rather than a recreation. For those who shun such artificial mixes, a restored original soundtrack has also been included and it registers perfectly fine – clean, easily discernible, at a pleasant and consistent volume. Dubs have also been included in French and Spanish, both 5.1 tracks. Subtitles are offered in English for the hearing impaired, French and Spanish. They are white in color on the Blu-ray.

The collection of bonus material here is just shy of being overwhelming, but the Blu-ray disc does contain a nice array of history and appreciation of the film. Using the Cine-Explore option, the commentary featuring Pete Docter, Paula Sigman and Andreas Deja plays out with picture-in-picture video that also allows for further video, audio and images to be utilized. This is really a neat feature that is a natural evolution of the traditional audio commentary. A version of this commentary is also available on the DVD (minus Cine-Explore).

The new featurette “Taking Flight: The Making of Dumbo” (28:08) is probably the best of the lot in terms of establishing why the film is so beloved while also detailing important aspects of the production. It’s almost sickeningly sweet and laudatory, conveniently passing over any hint of criticism, but that’s par for the course from the Disney folks. Information found here is repeated both by the trio of commentators and in an older, shorter piece, “Celebrating Dumbo” (14:53), that heavily features Leonard Maltin and is a carryover from the earlier DVD edition.

Other supplements include the deleted scene “The Mouse’s Tale” (5:37), which is acted out with voiceover and sketches and has Timothy sharing with Dumbo the historical rationale for elephants’ fear of mice. Related to that is a deleted song, “Are You a Man or a Mouse?” (3:56).

A brief look at a classic Disneyland ride is seen in “The Magic of Dumbo: A Ride of Passage” (3:09). In an excerpt (5:57) from The Reluctant Dragon, humorist and actor Robert Benchley visits the sound design department while they are recording effects for Dumbo. This is a particularly apt and amusing inclusion.

Also here is the original television introduction (1:05) of Dumbo by Walt Disney from his weekly program. The film’s original theatrical trailer (2:13), promising seven songs, is then joined by a 1949 re-release trailer (1:18) that is very similar.

Exclusive to the Blu-ray disc are a pair of games, one called “What Do You See?” and the other “What Do You Know?,” which are effective ways to kill a little time. Two animated Silly Symphonies shorts are also just on the BD. These appropriate inclusions are “The Flying Mouse” (9:21) and “Elmer Elephant” (8:31). The “Celebrating Dumbo” featurette mentioned above is another that is contained only on the Blu-ray.

An extensive set of Galleries is broken down into nine different categories. These are: Visual Development (containing 188 total images), Character Design (60), Layouts and Backgrounds (24), Storyboard Art (266), Production Pictures (63), Research Pictures (45), Publicity (21), and the Original Dumbo Storybook (18).

Additionally, the usual abundance of Previews (5:09) begin playing before the disc menu pops up and several Sneak Peeks (10:54) are accessible from the main menu.

clydefro jones

Updated: Oct 21, 2011

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