The first five animated feature-length films from what is now the Walt Disney Company, to varying degrees, have held up tremendously throughout the past 70+ years. It’s not overly politically correct, of course, to watch Fantasia or Dumbo, for example, and become slightly, if not fully, disturbed at these films’ representation of non-White characters. Similarly, the depiction of the lead female character in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs may have set the foundation for future Disney princess films, but is the very opposite of progressive, instead emphasizing what are now creaky, laughable, and outdated stereotypes of femininity. But even while acknowledging and confronting these flaws, it is impossible to ignore not only the influence of the first Golden Age of Disney animation, as well as exactly how much more complex, artistic, and beautiful the films comprising this short era are than almost every mainstream animated feature of the present. Though it may be challenging to pinpoint which of these pictures is the finest achievement—each of the features before the package-film era has a wealth of impressive aspects—today, we’ll start off this series by focusing on the most purely American film of the quintet, Dumbo.
For better or worse, there are few people more distinctly defined by 20th-century Americana and what it means to live out the fabled American dream than Walt Disney. His lower-class childhood, well documented both by outside biographers and within the company to maintain his legacy, helped define his style as a producer and cultural creator who was, for a time, as much of a star as Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck. He grew up in the Midwest, coming from just about nothing, and willed himself into the status of a legend against the most impossible of odds. It’s not difficult to connect Dumbo, the adorable little elephant with larger-than-life ears that afford him the gift of flight, to Disney in this respect. It’s also not so much of a stretch to connect the production of Dumbo to this vision of the American dream. To consider even the surface-level facts of the creation of Dumbo is to consider the details of a miracle. Today, it’s not uncommon for animated films (computer-animated, of course) to cost upwards of $200 million. (The highest production budget for a computer-animated film, to date, is for the 2010 film Tangled at $260 million, but two caveats: that enormous number is in part due to a creative overhaul midway through production, and this number doesn’t include marketing.)
The reported production budget for Dumbo was a paltry $950,000 in 1941 dollars. (Adjusting for inflation, that would be roughly $15.3 million in today’s dollars. For comparison, the recent animated misfire Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return cost a reported $70 million. The first Planes film cost a reported $50 million.) It’s well-known that Dumbo was made on the cheap deliberately, primarily because of how much money Disney’s previous animated features had lost compared to their budgets. But even those other films cost a pittance relative to the modern animated film. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs cost just under $1.5 million in 1937, which is just under $25 million today, not nearly as expensive a folly as was perceived in the mid-1930s; Pinocchio cost $2.2 million in 1940, which is nearly $40 million in 2014, and Fantasia, which opened the same year, cost just about the same; last, Bambi cost $858,000 in 1942, which is barely over $12 million today. Thus, if you added the inflation-adjusted budgets for these five films, you’d get roughly $130 million, or half of Tangled’s publicized budget. No doubt, the reasons why these various productions cost what they did are different; far more people worked on Tangled, and rare is the animated film that doesn’t cast celebrities of various types to play the lead roles.
While it’s true that budgetary concerns are almost always secondary to the final impact a film has on its audience, it’s important to consider how thrifty Disney and his animators had to be while creating Dumbo; the Great Depression may have ended the year of its release, but the company was still suffering financially. The tiny budget was also in part because the film was made under duress due to the controversial animators’ strike that lasted 5 weeks in the summer of 1941. Rough animation on the project was completed, but there was still enough time to create caricatures of the striking animators, in the guise of outlandishly ridiculous circus clowns who decide to press their boss for a raise after a particularly successful show. There are myriad reasons why Disney’s feature animation output changed drastically in the 1940s, after Bambi; the Second World War made it so the United States government essentially contracted Disney to make animated propaganda, thus making it impossible to work on features. But the 1941 strike had a deleterious effect on Disney the man, as well as his company. While he chose to depart for a trip of Latin America, the strike was resolved and the Screen Animators’ Guild won all of its claims. English to Hawaiian phrases In doing so, the family environment Disney had hoped to engender, in spite of his choice to tackle animators’ salaries in such a way that became staggered and unequal, dissipated for good.
So in some respects, Dumbo is the beginning of the end of this golden age. Bambi was released the year afterwards, and is equally spare in its storytelling and character, but is a fine capper on a period marked by jaw-dropping perfection. Dumbo may not be the most vibrant or frightening or memorably tuneful film of this quintet, but it is, in many ways, the most elemental. By breaking the story down to its core, stripping it to the bare necessities, the people behind Dumbo told a story that appeals universally, communicating as much through its visuals as through dialogue. The animation is less detailed, but that allowed the animators to come up with ingenious little effects like a birds’-eye view of the United States akin to that of an elementary school globe. domain info . In the opening scene where storks descend upon the central circus train with bundles of joy, we don’t just get to see the outline of the state of Florida; we see the name imprinted on the state, along with associated items placed next to the railroad tracks that Casey, Jr. travels. Another stroke of genius in the childlike representation of events in the film is Casey, Jr. itself, which speaks via its chugging engine. Moments like these are as effective in placing the story at a child’s level of comprehension, akin to Steven Spielberg placing his camera at a child’s line of sight in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. This is not so much a choice on the animators’ or Disney’s part to make a film solely targeted at youngsters; it’s a way to make the story work on a widespread level, to appeal to that emotional side in all of us that still engages in a youthful way of thinking and perceiving the world.
Like the other pre-WWII films that began the Disney animated feature canon, Dumbo relies heavily on sequences, instead of a truly full story, and does so to its advantage. (It can be easy to appreciate or, at least, ignore the sequential way of these stories being told; Pinocchio, for instance, feels much more open in its world-building, even though there are very few locations. Its opening half-hour, as an example, takes place in Geppetto’s tiny workshop over the course of one night.) The first act of this brief film emphasizes how Dumbo is, his big ears aside, very much the same as the other young animals delivered to adult animals by those mailman-like storks. (The concept of babies being delivered by stork is another way the film feels intentionally childlike.) The presumed importance of family is realized not just through this montage, where kangaroos, tigers, and hippos receive this gift from the heavens, but during the iconic and emotionally primal “Baby Mine” sequence. We remember the image of Dumbo crying into his mother’s trunk as she sways him back and forth from her heavily barred cage, but the scene is not so specific on the whole. It cuts from Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo to the other animals in the circus, all finding some brief solace before falling asleep and waking up again as caged creatures gawked at by humans.
That negative presence of humanity versus the positive presence of animals is as obvious in this film as it is in Bambi. (One imagines that film’s most memorable scene, wherein an unseen man kills Bambi’s mother while hunting, would inspire the same controversy among the gun lobby today that it did back in 1942, if not a greater one.) With very few exceptions, the animals in Dumbo don’t talk. Among those who do—for more than one line of dialogue, which is all Mrs. Jumbo has—they have mostly become so anthropomorphized to the point of echoing the distinctly human emotion of disdain, if not outright cruelty. Mrs. Jumbo’s fellow elephants are a gaggle of gossips who gleefully mock Dumbo and pretend that they’re the true victims when called on their terrible behavior; the crows who Dumbo and Timothy Q. Mouse encounter in the third act are initially just as happy to make fun of Dumbo simply because he looks different. Timothy is the closest to a goodhearted animal character with the gift of speech, but sounds like as much of a huckster as the circus ringleader. The actual humans depicted in Dumbo are not as deadly as the unseen Man in Bambi, but they are equally unfeeling; they do not become better people by the end of the story, having learned a valuable lesson. Instead, they just appreciate how they can better profit from our hero, thus allowing him a superficially happy ending. We’re overjoyed that Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo are reunited in the closing moments, but there is a hint or two of leftover tragedy simply because they’re still part of a traveling circus. They may no longer have to help out the roustabouts (about whom more in a bit) in building the circus tent in shattering rain, but they still have to perform or else. At least now, again, they have each other without bars separating them.
If the “Baby Mine” sequence is the baseline for the power of emotion in Disney animation (the first strains of violin, coupled with the devastating imagery, are arguably more instantly moving than recent tearjerking scenes in Pixar films), then the “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence is a highlight of sheer daring and guts. A common refrain these days among (typically) older filmgoers is the notion that “they don’t make movies like this anymore.” It might not be totally accurate to employ that refrain here regarding all of Dumbo, but this much can be said: a scene like “Pink Elephants on Parade” would almost certainly never be created these days by any major animation studio. The first strike would be how Dumbo ends up hallucinating a series of strange elephants; even though he and Timothy accidentally end up drunk on champagne, totally unaware that what they’re guzzling down isn’t water, there’s no way the executives at Disney—who have more of a creative veto now than was the case back in the 1930s and 1940s—would allow any animated character sip some booze. The second strike would be that alcohol, in a way, ends up being the best thing that could’ve happened to Dumbo. It’s not as if a swig of champagne is the same as the magical feather Dumbo uses at first to muster up the courage to fly, but without getting drunk, he might never have ended up flying to a tree to begin with. And the third strike would be the product of the alcohol-inspired hallucination.
Leaving aside the specifics of how Dumbo ends up hallucinating, what his addled brain concocts is still a series of arresting, truly singular images, as potent now as they were 70 years ago. In some respects, what happens in this scene is as terrifying as Bambi’s mother being killed, or Snow White being “attacked” by monstrous-looking foliage, or Pinocchio watching a real boy be transformed into a donkey, because of how intentionally confusing it is. Aside from being dazzled by the imagery, we are meant to be taken off-guard by this montage. We can presume that the “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence exists in part to let the Disney animators show off, to let them indulge in non-essential visuals that don’t directly inform the story. But this virtuosic display remains truly baffling, even though it exists as an attempt to actively create hallucinatory imagery. The detail and innovative design—an elephant made completely of heads, trunks, and ears, as an example—is hard to shake when you consider how modern animation rarely attempts to compete with it. Most computer-animated films, good and bad, strive for photorealism of a sort. Many have succeeded, especially those from Pixar, and they don’t lack for distinctive beauty. But in aiming to be photorealistic, these films often avoid absurdity and a sense of the unreal. (Pixar’s most photorealistic film, WALL-E, even grounds the decision to make future humans grossly overweight in reality.) Snow White being beset by the darkened forest may be visually inspired by how trees actually look—or how children presume that trees look—but the execution of the concept feels like the product of a nightmare, untethered to the real world. So too is the “Pink Elephants on Parade” scene, which notably doesn’t rely as much on Dumbo’s reaction as much as on what he’s looking at. We don’t need reaction shots to these images; nothing could possibly be as stunning as how we react in the audience. It may be that Dumbo drinking alcohol is what propels him to greatness, but the nightmare inspired by his drunken stupor is that much scarier because of its inexplicable nature. Few moments in modern animation approach that level of deliberate, artistically driven chaos.
Dumbo, like the other films before the package era, is imperfect and painfully so. Just as Walt Disney is something of the quintessential 20th-century American male, he’s equally thought of as harboring the same racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Communist tendencies that marked most powerful men of the century. Though it would be inaccurate to presume that Disney was as intensely racist or sexist as believed (his anti-Communist beliefs are well documented in historical record and impossible to discount), his early films don’t always back him up positively. Certain choices in earlier Disney films, such as the ways in which the female characters are far less empowered than modern audiences would want or demand, can be explained away—if not always satisfyingly. We can presume that Disney and his animators were less maliciously sexist than casually so, unaware that their belief systems were outrageously outdated. But what occurs in Dumbo feels less like a product of a film with a low budget, and more of an active and misguided decision in terms of racial depiction. The most obvious, and frustrating, example is that of the crows who encounter Dumbo and Timothy in the tree, singing “When I See An Elephant Fly.” The song itself is fairly clever, playing around with common, anthropomorphized turns of phrase. technical data about website The problem, then, is who’s singing it: Cliff Edwards, famously the voice of Jiminy Cricket, as a character named Jim Crow. The other crows are voiced by the Hall Johnson Choir, a group of African American performers, but Edwards was white and doing some kind of Amos ‘n’ Andy-esque accent as Jim. The song, in a different context, is delightful to listen to; in this one, it’s presenting something akin to a blackface performance, for no good reason (or for any reason).
In another musical scene, we’re introduced to the circus roustabouts, who are all African Americans, instead of racially coded animals. They perform the “Song of the Roustabouts,” while we watch Dumbo, Mrs. Jumbo, and the other elephants help them pitch the circus tent, a scene that could have been removed with no ill effect to the story. (“When I See An Elephant Fly,” in spite of its unfortunate racial aspect, does inform the plot.) What about this scene is necessary? Dumbo’s plight as a physically different character is already firmly established, and becomes more so when the humans allowed to yank on his ears with little recourse make their appearance. Even if we argue that the scene has some kind of value, it’s difficult to imagine that the roustabouts had to be African American, especially since, for budgetary reasons, these characters, unlike many other humans in the picture, literally have no faces. Though the portrayal of African American characters in Dumbo is less prevalent than that of the characters in Song of the South, it’s equally troubling. Frankly, seeing as Dumbo is more readily accessible to watch on DVD, Blu-ray, and even on demand—unsurprisingly, Song of the South isn’t on the Disney Movies Anywhere service—it might be more troubling because apologists can only fall back on the tiniest contextual counterargument.
However, to confront its flaws is not to diminish the overall power of Dumbo, a film whose mistakes—even leaving aside the issue of the roustabouts, the animation quality is not nearly as immersive here because of the low budget—have been trumped over time by its many charms. Disney’s more financially risky early films only ended up paying off over long periods of time, whereas Dumbo was a success instantly, in a somewhat ironic turn. But just because Dumbo was a relatively inexpensive effort, one that partially existed in the hopes that Disney could keep making more movies like Fantasia, movies that never truly materialized, doesn’t mean the final product was of lesser quality. The restrictions and challenges of making a feature film were far greater in the late 1930s and early 1940s than they are today, in part because the first five Disney animated features were created in an era when people presumed feature-length animation was a soon-to-perish fad. (Animation being perceived as a fad. It is to laugh.) That feature animation survived past its infancy is due to legitimate classics like Dumbo. Here is why cinema exists: to create gorgeous, transcendent, triumphant moments that live forever. Images like Dumbo soaring to the heavens, or cradling next to his mother, or dreaming up a group of gleefully strange elephants, are such bits of iconography that cemented Disney’s status as the king of animation well before the Disney Renaissance or Pixar came along.