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20 Weeks of Disney Animation: ‘Dumbo’

It’s time for Walt Disney’s fourth animated feature, Dumbo!

Read: 20 Weeks of Disney Animation: ‘Fantasia’

Watching Dumbo following the technically advanced and innovative Disney films prior is an eye-opening experience. Released in 1941, Dumbo is immediately noticeable as smaller, both in length and in scale. Originally conceived as a short, Dumbo is the shortest Disney feature up to this point. This is quite evident to the viewer as it does indeed feel like a cartoon that has been padded out. Walt Disney himself was quite proud of the film, with it being one of his personal favorites among the films he had helped create.

Most people know the basic story: Dumbo is a young elephant with unusually big ears, causing him to be teased by others. After his mother stands up for him, she is shut up in a cage and labeled as a “mad elephant”. After this, Dumbo becomes the new spectacle of the circus so everyone can come look at this elephant with huge ears.

Despite not being quite as memorable as some of Disney’s other films, there is a lot to like about Dumbo. The animation for one, is gorgeous. The colors of the circus pop brilliantly and the film as a whole is incredibly appealing to look at. The animators did some excellent character animation here. One instance is when Dumbo’s mother becomes angry. Her eye colors change from a soft blue to a fiery red which perfectly accentuates her anger and allows the audience to empathize with her. The “Pink Elephants on Parade” segment is another creative use of animation and is one of the more interesting parts of the film; it feels straight out of Fantasia. There are other great things as well: the gossip between the elephants, seeing Dumbo fly for the first time, and the music. Speaking of the music, this film features the beautiful lullaby “Baby Mine”, which is played during a heartbreaking scene featuring Dumbo’s mother. Another musical number is “When I See an Elephant Fly”, which has garnered some controversy. This song is sung by a group of crows, which are portrayed as African-American. This has raised the eyebrows of many viewers over the years and has been addressed by various animators and animation historians. One such person is Disney legend Floyd Norman who wrote a piece in regard to this issue on his blog last year. This discussion can be found here.

Live-action remake: In 2019, Disney released a remake of Dumbo, directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito, among others. The remake had very little in common with the original, apart from the basic concept of the character and a performance of “Baby Mine”. Ultimately, it was somewhat of a disappointment to most viewers, myself included, despite being a huge Tim Burton fan. For initial reactions to the film, check out this article here.

Dumbo in the theme parks: One of the most popular rides at Disneyland is Dumbo the Flying Elephant. In this ride, you jump on an elephant and go around in circles for a few minutes. Kids love it and it is one of the few opening year attractions that is still standing. For a more detailed look at its history, check out Disney Parks Featured Attraction – Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Also, the “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence is included as part of the firework show, Fantasmic!

Sequel: During the height of the DisneyToon sequels in the early 2000s, one such sequel that was planned was Dumbo II. The film was far enough in development that it had a plot and storyboards completed. Marketing had even begun, with a special first look on the 60th anniversary DVD of Dumbo in 2001. Ultimately, however, the film never came to fruition, due to John Lasseter taking the helms of the DisneyToon studio and shutting down production of Dumbo II. The first look can be seen below.

Dumbo is currently available to stream on Disney+.

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