We tend to live in a filmic world where more is better – the explosions have to be bigger, the dialogue more outrageous, the gore more disgusting. Everything is continually ratcheted up a notch in order to, allegedly, improve our experience. However, sometimes smaller is better; an economy of story, an economy of scale, an economy of dialogue can lead to a great film.
Celebrating its 70th anniversary this year with a solid Blu-ray release is the Disney classic, Dumbo. This simple tale of one small elephant who just happens to look different clocks in at a mere 64 minutes and packs as much of a punch as something far more “grand.”
All these years later the movie still has emotional resonance for children and adults alike. Dumbo does a brilliant job of speaking to kids who are, naturally, terrified of being different with the story of Dumbo’s finding out that his massive ears make him special, not a freak. The film also speaks to parents with the tale of Dumbo’s mother, Mrs. Jumbo, who simply wants to protect her son from the cruel taunts of those who should know better. Her desire gets her in a whole lot of trouble, but one never gets the sense that she does absolutely anything wrong.
On his personal journey of discovery Dumbo is helped by Timothy Q. Mouse who teaches the elephant that there’s nothing wrong with being different. It is a lesson that Dumbo doesn’t take to heart until he takes flight without his magic feather, but as that’s the climax of the film, that’s exactly when Dumbo is supposed to work it all out. And, as the film is so brief, it doesn’t feel as though Dumbo needs to be repeatedly hit in the head with the information until he gets it. The problem is setup, explored, and then overcome without a lot of unnecessary distractions in the middle.
Please note, I said “without a lot,” there are certainly a few (wonderful) distractions here and there. Most notable of these is the incredibly memorable “pink elephants on parade” sequence. This is a dream Dumbo has after getting himself truly drunk and one of those things that—perhaps to its detriment—no animated children’s film would do today. The sequence does end up with him waking up in a tree which is how he learns that he can fly, but to call it necessary still may be a stretch. What it is, like the rest of the film, is incredibly engrossing.
Also pretty great is the entire stork sequence where first multiple storks drop off new babies and then, very late, the stork with Dumbo arrives. The story at these moments—and for much of the film—is told in a whimsical, lighthearted fashion that, perhaps counter-intuitively, juxtaposes itself exceedingly well with the more serious, dark, moments (of which there are a few).
As wonderful a film as much of Dumbo is, it seems impossible to discuss the movie and not give at least cursory nod to towards the crow sequence. After the pink elephant scene, Dumbo and Timothy (as stated) wake up in a tree and encounter a group of crows who sing and tell jokes and generally make fun of Dumbo and Timothy. Voiced by African-Americans, and with a leader named Jim Crow, the crows’ appearance in the film has been subjected to much speculation (just give it a Google). Earlier in the film, African-Americans are seen to be setting up the circus tents and are completely faceless individuals doing hard manual labor which can be seen as establishing a mode of thinking on the film’s part which argues for the racist interpretation of the movie. There are certainly counterarguments as well, and it is something worth considering when you sit down to watch the movie.
As for the technical side of the release, Disney has continued its winning ways with their restoration of classic films. This 70th anniversary Blu-ray looks absolutely stunning. You won’t find a scratch or bit of dirt or anything whatsoever to distract you from the absolutely brilliant picture. The colors are rendered beautifully and while the entire piece isn’t as rich in detail as a modern animated film, it is unquestionably the best version of the film many of us will have ever seen. Disney has added a new 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack and have included a 2.0 restored audio track as well. Again, the film is 70 years old, you can’t expect a brilliantly immersive soundtrack, but the surrounds do come into play with music and ambient noises. What is more impressive here, is what impressive about the video, and that’s the perfect clarity of it all. The style of animation and storytelling may give away the film’s age, but the audio and video presentation won’t.
There are several ways to watch the release, from the original 1.33 format to one with “Disney View” (static drawing are placed on the sides of the moving image), and a picture-in-picture track which provides information about what went into the work and its reception. The release also features previously released material as well as some new stuff. On the new side there is a deleted scene, a new song, a “making of” piece and one on the Disneyland Dumbo ride. This last one is somewhat disappointing as it is overly short and never really gets into any detail on the ride itself. The piece on the making of the movie is more interesting, providing good great background on the company at the time as well as the details on the making of the film. I would have liked it to be more detailed still, but it a good look at the film.
Dumbo is little more than the universal tales of a scared child and a protective mother. The story of Dumbo is not the story of an elephant which can fly, but of an elephant just wanting to be accepted and mother who will do anything to make him be accepted. It is because of those themes that the movie has stood the test of time and remains an emotional viewing experience today. It may be a lot of fun to watch Dumbo fly, but that’s not why the film works as well as it does.