Catching Up: Dumbo

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We all have gaps in our cinematic knowledge. If we confess our ignorance of some of these films, someone, somewhere will say, “How have you not seen that?!” Catching Up is about these films, and viewing them so long after seemingly everyone else has. Some of these entries may be stunning, some are embarrassing, but all of them are classics.

dumbo poster

Okay, I’m totally cheating on this one. Of course I’ve seen Dumbo before. What, you think I was never a child? But Dumbo was one of the Disney movies recently added to Netflix Instant in the wake of Netflix’s deal with Disney, and I realized that it’s been over a decade (possibly decades, plural) since I’d seen it. And after that long, I might as well have never seen it. How could I pass up such an easy opportunity to circumvent Disney’s damnable vault policy? So I watched it, and now I have thoughts on it, which I will present in a point-by-point, disconnected fashion:

They don’t make ’em like this anymore

And I don’t say that in a positive nor negative way. It’s simply a matter of fact. Dumbo, and a lot of earlier Disney work, for that matter, is concerned less with story than it is with creating interesting incidents that are loosely strung together by something like a plot. Their mission in the early days of the studio was the antithesis of the Pixar philosophy: everything is in service to the animation.

Here’s the narrative, such as it is, of Dumbo: Dumbo is born, gets made fun of for his big ears, his mother gets locked up for defending him, he befriends a mouse, he becomes a clown, he learns he can fly, he does fly, everything is instantly solved. Most of what happens in this movie’s scant hourlong runtime would probably be part of the first act of a modern-day animated film.

dumbo

If this were a Dreamworks movie (and “elephant who can fly” totally fits into the Dreamworks “animal does something which that kind of animal normally doesn’t” mode of storytelling), most of the film would probably focus on Dumbo’s career as a flying attraction, all of which is merely hinted at by the actual movie. The film’s big lesson, that strength is inside, would also probably get stretched out and drubbed over more than it needed to be. There would probably be a whole detailed subplot about the “magic feather” that the crows use to give Dumbo the confidence he needs to fly.

Also, Dumbo gets drunk, which totally would not happen in a modern-day kids film (shame, that).

But speaking of those crows,

Those crows…

Their leader is named “Jim Crow” and they look and act like blackface performers. It’s uncomfortable to watch, to say the least. However, they’re also the only characters besides Dumbo’s mother and Timothy the mouse to accept Dumbo’s weird deformity, and they help him learn how to fly. So it’s… a mixed thing. I guess that it can’t really be considered “harmful” in a modern context, since today’s kids aren’t familiar with the original stereotype. Although they might still look at the crows and think “black,” because of the voices. I’m not sure how to process it.

racist crows

“Cheap” early Disney looks better than a lot of more expensive stuff

Dumbo was made as a cash-in. Pinocchio and Fantasia were both expensive failures at the box office, and this one was done comparatively cheaply. The gambit worked, and it turned a terrific profit, even as it was hurt by the Pearl Harbor attack and the U.S.’s entry into World War II. You can tell that there’s less money behind the scenes – there’s not nearly as much detail in the drawing as in Snow White or Pinocchio or Fantasia. But the character animation is spectacular, especially Dumbo’s silent, endearing performance. It’s especially impressive considering that the animators went on strike during the production (And they subsequently became the closest thing to villains in the film, as the clowns whose stupidity endangers Dumbo. Each clown is a caricature of a striking animator, and at one point they head off to “hit the boss up for a raise.” Classy, Disney).

There’s a reason it works. Hand-drawn animation has a love infused into it that you can’t match with stuff that’s been farmed out to Korea. When you have the work right in front of you at all times, you have to consider even the smallest aspect of every frame. There’s a level of thought and tactility put into Dumbo that’s absent from a lot of modern animation.

timothy

I suppose that a lot of this review all really comes back to “they don’t make ’em like they used to.” Dumbo is worth more than just being a time capsule. It’s cute and light and fun, albeit pretty ephemeral. I’m not sure it’d be considered a classic if it was made by anyone but Disney, who aggressively makes sure that pop culture never, ever forgets its successes. But it’s a good little movie.

flying dumbo

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About Dan Schindel

Born and raised in rural Maryland, Dan Schindel now lives and works in LA, hoping to one day soon trick someone into paying him to write about film. He loves all the movies equally, no matter what genre or pedigree. He spent last year watching and writing about a documentary every day, so now he knows everything. Besides CBR, he also writes for ScreenPicks, We Are Movie Geeks, Who Got the Role?, Off to See the Elephant, and more.