The first memory I have of Dumbo is an album for collecting stickers from the Dumbo film that my grandmother had. The stickers you would find in Rich’s coffee packages, a particular brand of coffee substitute on the Danish market in the years of coffee shortage during and just after the war. That would place the age of the album to somewhere between 1946 and 1954. No American films reach Denmark during the German occupation. Even back then in the late seventies and early eighties this album felt ancient.
I used to leaf through this album when I was a child. I had little comprehension of the story from the stickers, but I was fascinated by the little elephant with the big ears and his little mouse friend.
Then for years Dumbo would remain a film I felt I knew of but could not really tell what was about.
That changed shortly after Christmas when I brought home a Dumbo DVD along with a new batch of films from the List. The explanation is simple: My son loves Dumbo. No, “loves” does not cover it. He is absolutely NUTS about Dumbo. I must have seen that film at least a dozen times over the past month and those are just the times where I was watching it with him.
It is entirely amazing how this cartoon does not age. As an adult I find it adorable, touching and beautifully made. As a child of 3 years my son shouts “oh no!” when the pyramid of elephants collapse, he plays with his train during the train scenes, the pretends he is hammering in spears with the work crew, he dances with the pink elephants and he is laughing like berserk when Dumbo blows bubble (okay, my son is also nuts about bubbles in general). I know no other film that engage him like this, not even Pinocchio, his former favorite.
Dumbo himself is super cute. This tiny elephant with big big ear breaks your heart. There is motherly love from Mrs. Jumbo, both when she defends him against harassment (from an equally big eared idiot of a boy) and when she comforts him in a cradle made of her trunk. That scene in itself is pure Kleenex. Not an eye is dry. We also get real friendship between Timothy the circus mouse and Dumbo. An odd couple, but it works beautifully.
But Dumbo is facing so much adversity, primarily due to his big ears and the intolerance they generate in others. Besides the heartbreaking confinement of his mother for defending him there are the mean aunts. Those other elephants are behaving in an all too human and heartless way, deriding him, freezing him out and blaming him for all the trouble facing them and his mother. We feel so sorry for Dumbo.
His career in the circus is also a deroute. He is relegated to mockery in the clown show. They are actually funny the clowns and they actually do recognize that their success is due to Dumbo, but he is not included in their camaraderie.
Instead Dumbo and Timothy are having their own party accidentally drinking champagne resulting in the aforementioned bubbles and the most peculiar scene of the film: the surreal parade of the pink elephants. The first time I saw this scene I was thinking “what the f…?”, but I have come to love this part. This is an extraordinary psychedelic trip. There are lines back to the classic Busby Berkeley musical with surreal formations, but the scene has itself also been referred, notably by Pink Floyd in “The Wall”. I can understand if children got scared from this scene, I know I would have been, but my son takes it in stride and dances with the elephants.
Finally Dumbo meets the crows, a bunch of characters living a free life on the outskirts of society. This is a clear reference to black culture, complete with lingo, dance and song, to an extend I doubt would be considered political correct today. But these characters are happy and though initially spiteful, they become true friends and help Dumbo learn to fly and thus get back at all his adversaries. Thus again help and support is found from the most unlikely side.
The drawing is outstanding. It may not be as beautifully detailed as in Pinocchio, but the watercolors used gives the pictures a beautiful and gentle hue. That helps the atmosphere immensely. It is also notable that the animals are all drawn in detail with a lot of personal character, while the humans are faceless extras with the exception of the idiot boy who is clearly a villain. It is an interesting angle.
The music of Dumbo is also outstanding, both the general circus theme music and the individual songs. “Elephants on Parade” of course stands out but my personal favorite is “When I See an Elephant Fly”. I find myself humming it unconsciously. Pure brilliance.
I am not sure if this is the best Disney Classic so far, personally I like Pinocchio better, but if you ask my son there can be no doubts: Dumbo rules.