Today marks the 75th anniversary of "Dumbo," the fourth animated feature from Walt Disney Animation, and an unlikely box office hit. It runs just over an hour in length, too long for a short subject and too short to be a feature presentation, according to distributor RKO. Still, Disney persisted and "Dumbo" got his star billing, which proved to be greatly deserved. Audiences loved the little elephant, and he's become a perennial favorite. The movie was aired often on television, usually paired with a few cartoon shorts. That's where my copy of the film came from.
"Dumbo" remains one of my most primal, foundational movie viewing experiences. I watched our VHS copy countless times as a small child in the 1980s, and distinctly remember it being the only movie that I knew how to ask for while being babysat, before I knew how to read. I knew every frame of it vividly, even if I didn't comprehend what some of the images meant at the time. What really stuck with me, though, was the strength of the emotions that the movie evoked. Dumbo playing with his mother. The mother being taken away. The frightening elephant pyramid scene. The humiliating act with the clowns. The sinister "Pink Elephants" number. And finally, learning to fly and a happy ending.
I recently rewatched "Dumbo" with a two year-old relative on my lap. I picked it out for its short length and for the animal characters. We could point to and identify all the circus animals together. A choo-choo train. A rainstorm. Bubbles. The kiddo didn't make it through the whole movie, wandering off around the point where the crows showed up. I watched to the end, however, appreciating that I could now take in the little details, like Dumbo and his mother waving goodbye in the last shot, and a few more of the song lyrics were now comprehensible. However, most of the experience felt the same as it did when I was four years old. "Baby Mine" still made me sniffle. "Pink Elephants on Parade" still looks utterly strange and incongruous with the rest of the movie - and any other Disney movie.
I also made a couple of connections that I hadn't as a child. Though the quartet of gossipy elephants who ostracize Dumbo are mean, I never thought of them as villains. This was because all the elephants are treated terribly by the circus, and I found myself thinking more than once this time, that you could never get away with showing something as sadistic as the elephant pyramid act today. No, the Ringmaster was the villain, for taking Dumbo's mother away. The clowns were villains for exploiting him. The kid with the big ears, representing all the bullies in the world, was a villain too. A year later, "Bambi" would spell out that Man was the enemy, but the sentiment was already alive and well here. The rise of the big top during the roustabout song always struck me as foreboding, and I understand now it's because the circus is an awful place from the animals' point of view.
"Dumbo" has a joyous ending, but it's terribly sad throughout - much sadder than any modern children's film I've seen. Dumbo spends most of the running time separated from his mother, lonely and miserable. Calamity after calamity keeps being piled on his head, and Dumbo can't fight back. He's only a baby, who doesn't even speak. Timothy the mouse is the active one, far more active than the similar Jiminy Cricket. All Dumbo can really do is feel, the way that children do. He's a perfect audience surrogate for kids, and the reason why I think the film still works so well for them. The two-year old remarked more than once that "The little elephant is crying" during our viewing.
I guess I have to talk about the crows. The charges of them being racist always struck me as ridiculous. They're absolutely caricatures of black Americans of the era, but they aren't negative caricatures even by modern standards. More importantly, the crows become Dumbo's friends, the only ones willing to help him aside from Timothy. A more recent equivalent would be the Beatles-esque vultures in "The Jungle Book," and I've never heard anyone object to them.
All too soon, the hour was up, "Dumbo" was done, and it was time to vacate memory lane. The two year-old, however, was livid when she wandered back to the couch found out that the movie was over. She threw a tantrum when I wouldn't put it back on, and I had to promise to come watch it again with her next week.