Dumbo 70th Anniversary Blu-Ray
Okay, hear me out here…this is definitely not my normal review fare, but I’m writing this for a reason. Every time I start a movie collection on a particular format, it seems to take a different shape. Sure, some movies will always get repurchased, but I try to do something different with the overall collection. My VHS library was a catalog of 70’s and 80’s horror, along with a lot of obscure cartoons. When DVD came around, well…honestly my DVD collection was kind of a mess. I’ve easily owned over a thousand, and I just kind of bought whatever. Right now though DVD is my 80’s and 90’s cartoon library, the only thing keeping the format alive in this house. With Blu-Ray, the intent is to purchase the best films in a wide variety of genres, the titles one would need to teach a film class or render educated services as a critic. When it comes to Disney movies, everybody’s got a favorite, usually Aladdin or The Lion King. The thing is though, a lot of Disney’s animated features are a time capsule of their era, representing a timeline of innovation for animation. Knowing this, I have recently become all panicky regarding Disney’s ridiculous “vault” policy for their classics, and well…I’ve sort of started just getting all of them. And you know which one really surprised me? Yeah, that’s right.
I know I saw it a handful of times as a kid, but honestly over the years I had kind of written Dumbo off. It doesn’t enjoy the same street cred as other less mainstream classics like The Black Cauldron or Robin Hood, and it doesn’t have that same set of indelible memories and ridiculously catchy music that the 90’s Disney renaissance did. You know what though? Turns out the movie’s great. I have it because of vault-induced completionist panic, but you should buy it because I’m telling you right now that you won’t regret it.
First of all, let’s have a little backstory. When Dumbo was released in 1941, Disney was in actual danger of going out of business. As hard as it is to believe now, Pinocchio and Fantasia were both financial disasters with huge budgets and poor theatrical receptions. Having run through all their profits from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and without today’s merchandising empire to fall back on, Disney needed money fast. Walt Disney came across the story for Dumbo via an obscure children’s toy called a Roll-a-Book, and immediately licensed the story and put his team to work. With many of the studio’s A-list feature animators already working on 1942’s Bambi, a secondary team was assembled, mostly from animators who had previously worked on the “Silly Symphonies” theatrical shorts. The result of this is a feature film that looks entirely unique from Disney’s other feature output, and one that takes a lot of risks with new techniques and experimental animation.
Everybody knows the story of Dumbo, right? A baby circus elephant has huge ears, and gets made fun of. His mother tries to defend him and is locked up, then the baby elephant learns he can fly and everything ends happily. Everybody remembers it primarily because it’s relatable for most of us, but also because the story is incredibly well told. While the movie is filled with exceptional voice work from the likes of Sterling Holloway and Cliff Edwards, the main character has no spoken dialog whatsoever. The result of this is extremely emotive animation born out of necessity, as well as impressively economical storytelling. This is not only a film that aspiring artists and animators should be looking at, but also any writers looking to hone their craft. The film is absolutely packed with unique setpieces: all the train rides, the various complex circus acts, Dumbo’s encounter with the crows, the “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence, and more. And the entire thing still comes in at a compact 64 minutes, making it one of Disney’s shortest features ever and an excellent example of concise storytelling on a budget.
Now let’s talk about a few things that make Dumbo unique. First of all, how about those crows? If I hear anything said about this film today, it’s about the supposedly racist stereotype perpetuated by the group of crows who help Dumbo realize his hidden talent for flight. To those with this opinion, I’d have you look at literally any other animation being output in the late 30’s and early 40’s, especially the Warner Bros. “Merry Melodies” shorts such as Sunday Go To Meetin’ Time and All This and Rabbit Stew. In actual fact the group of crows in Dumbo were among the first positive portrayals of black characters in animation. They play perhaps the most integral part in Dumbo regaining his self esteem, and their contribution to the soundtrack is not only catchy, but packed with incredible wordplay for the time. Seriously, if you’re mad because a group of crows in a 1941 animated feature are voiced by black actors, regardless of their positive contribution to the film, you probably need to reassess your priorities.
Another great stand-out sequence in Dumbo is the “Pink Elephants on Parade” scene, where Dumbo drinks from a bucket of water that has had champagne spilled into it. The drunken hallucination that follows is an incredible bit of animation inspired by surrealist painters such as Salvador Dali, as well as German expressionist horror films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It’s unlike anything else in Disney’s catalog, and the transitions as elephants morph into various shapes and colors are impressive to watch. It stands out clearly from the rest of the film but still fits into the narrative, and it’s a great example of talented animators stretching their skills in a way that would not be seen in today’s environment. And while we’re talking about the surrealist touches on this film, I’d like to just point out that the train engine is apparently alive but his cars are not, and neither are any other normally inanimate objects in the film. This isn’t like Beauty and the Beast where a bunch of housewares are all alive and frequently break into song, this is one living train for no discernible reason, which I find to be pretty interesting.
So hopefully you’re now inching towards that “BUY” button on some retailer’s website, but if not, let me just say again that this is a purchase you will not regret if you are at all a fan of animation. The transfer quality is absolutely beautiful, and the included special features are pretty impressive, especially by typical children’s movie standards. Disney may have needed the money in 1941 but they certainly don’t now, and I am by no means shilling for them. I’m just saying that as a fan of both film and animation, I feel that others with the same interests would benefit greatly from owning this disc. Dumbo is not a film heavy with awards (except for the score), but it’s a moment in animation history that would be a shame to overlook.