At just over an hour Dumbo is the shortest of the narratively driven Disney movies. Originally this tale about a cute, but shunned, circus elephant was meant to be one of the Disney Silly Symphonies – however they found that the story needed more time in order to be done proper justice. This, combined with the last two films flopping, meant a more rushed production and the short running time.
With all that in mind, it is a wonder that Dumbo is such a strong entry in the Disney animated canon. The shortcuts that they took in the animation means that this is the first distinctly ‘cartoony’ looking film in the canon – something that does end up becoming more of a standard. It also means that this is a really fast-paced story where nothing is wasted and, as a modern viewer, some obvious scenes are missing. For example, we don’t get a reunion scene where Dumbo sees his mum after she’s released from solitary confinement.
On that, the scene where Dumbo is cradled in his incarcerated mother’s trunk to the tune of ‘Baby Mine’ is the only part of a Disney movie that is guaranteed to make me cry every time. There are times where I only need to think of it and I get a bit misty eyed. Out of context the scene is bad enough, but watching it in context as the pinnacle of all the psychological torture that Dumbo goes through in the first weeks of his life just makes it incredibly hard to bear.
Re-watching this as someone turning thirty next year really made me wonder if this is the cruelest that Disney has ever been to one of their protagonists – a baby protagonist at that. Let’s not forget that if Dumbo couldn’t fly by the end of the film, everyone in the circus (except for Timothy the mouse, who might be the first true Disney hero) was content to watch him plummet to his death before an audience (which, as one of the clowns says, is fine because “elephants have no feelings”). This makes looking back at some of the contemporary reviews so weird – they refer to this as a incredibly heart-warming offering, when it’s actually one of the saddest (until the last few minutes).
You then also have the Pink Elephants sequence which, outside of the Fantasias, might rank as some of the trippiest and most psychedelic the Disney animated canon has ever been. It’s a brilliant sequence that is sadly cut out in some showings for being ‘too scary’ or because it shows the protagonist of a children’s movie hallucinating after a bit too much alcohol. I would love to know what they cut from this sequence for being too odd.
So that’s it for Dumbo and, seeing how the next film is Bambi, there really is not a lot of time for the tears to dry before they get a fresh coat. I need to cherish these early films as, very soon, it’s going to be the run of six Disney package films. I guess I’ll be going more into that when I watch them.