Confession: I'm 32 years old and I haven't seen Dumbo.
With that out of the way, I figured it would be a good time to watch it with my kids ages 2 and 5. Needless to say, Dumbo is a classic and we all thoroughly enjoyed it.
The story of Dumbo is one of the simplest in the Disney archives. Mrs Jumbo is an elephant in the Casey Jr. circus and like most Disney parents (or parents to be in this case) she is single. The film begins with storks dropping off babies to the animals in the circus. All except Mrs. Jumbo. never fear, her stork is merely late and she is dropped off a beautiful baby elephant - with enormous ears. Dumbo becomes an outcast and resigned to the duties of a circus clown. When he meets Timmy, a small mouse, he is shown the way of courage and belief in himself.
And that's it. Very simple and to the point. As a result, the film is only an hour long, which is prefect for today's short-attention span kids. My son loved the movie and was talking about it for hours after watching it.
What Kids will Learn
Dumbo is full of special meaning told in a simple, accessible manner. First and foremost is the idea of loving who you are. Timmy the mouse didn't think Dumbo's ears were too big and kids will learn that it's ok to be different. We all have qualities that make us different and no matter what they are, we shouldn't be ashamed of them.
My son also picked up on bravery. After watching Justice League and Rescue heroes, he knows what bravery is. However it's always good to reinforce the idea of standing up and doing what's right. And Dumbo manages to do it in a way that is devoid of true superheroes or tons of dialogue or action. It is bravery through sheer will and human spirit.
The first thing to realize when talking about the animation of Dumbo is that it was made in 1941. That means that every cel was hand drawn and colored (they haven't been hand-colored since Little Mermaid). So while the animation is less than fluid at times, it was done by the hands of a small dedicated crew of people who mostly worked for the Disney company for life. So there is a passion that comes with the animation and it shows.
Certain scenes stand out as absolutely perfect. The first one is when Mrs Jumbo is in solitary confinement and Dumbo comes to visit. Mrs. Jumbo can't see Dumbo, but she explores his face with her trunk. Then she caresses and cradles him and the love you can feel at that moment is as real as any moment put on film, live or animated.
The other scene is the now famous Pink Elephant scene which happens when Timmy and Dumbo get drunk on spiked water. This could very well be a scene out of Fantasia as the pink, blue, green, plaid elephants all go dancing in a choreographed salute to busby Berkely and LSD. While harmless, it can be spooky and beautiful all at the same time. The finishing touch is when the elephants now drawn only in highlights skate off into the black. Beautiful and oh so odd. Forever the stuff of animation school discussion.
Remembering that it was a film made in 1941, forgiveness should be given when considering the transfer to DVD. Silver celluloid of that era has not been kind over the years and the film shows signs of wear. There are times when the grain is highly evident along with a few glimpses of washed-out color. But for the most part, Dumbo is a grand kaleidoscope of color and imagery. Kudos the restoration team for making such a work of art come alive in today's Technicolor world.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is it's surprising lack of audio. Not music, which is in abundance, but bare bones sound effects and dialogue. Our hero, Dumbo, never utters one line. But he doesn't need to. There is never a doubt as to what he is feeling because we are feeling it too. The voices in the film tend to lean toward ethnic stereotypes,particularly the crows and for some this is offensive. I didn't find it offensive since it is a reflection of the times in which it was made. Plus none of them are bad or buffoons. They end up being heroes and helping Dumbo discover his inner strength. If anything, the film was ahead of its time by not lampooning people of color.
By today's standards, the sound effects (or Foley) take a minimalist approach. Since each sound is hand-made and Dumbo was made on the cheap, the only sound effects are those that are absolutely necessary. The music acts as a foley of sorts with the occasional drumbeat emphasizing an action. But the sound and music have held up magnificently over the years. Bright and clear, there are no muted sounds that often accompany older films whose sound was recorded on more primitve equipment. Kudos yet again to the restoration team for fosucing on sound as well as picture.
Disney is notoriously cheap with their DVD extras, especially with the first few films they released, Dumbo being one of them. Given that, we should be thankful for the extras on the DVD. Since the film is only an hour, there is plenty of space for some goodies. Disney delivers in a modest way.
The audio commentary by film historian John Canemaker is excellent and runs the entire 64 minutes of the film. He gives in-depth information about all of the animators as well as the impact of World War 2 on the film. His love of the film is very evident.
Also included is an interesting (albeit staged) demonstration of how sound effects are made. This seems to be part of an older presentation called the Reluctant Dragon (?). It's unclear the origins of this piece, but it is interesting nonetheless.
Also of interest is a featurette with some well-known people in the film and animation industry. They give some information about the making of the film, but running at around 10 minutes, it amounts to a puff piece for the film. The biggest problem is that it never tells who some of these talking heads are. They seem to be relatives of the animators or animators themselves, but how would your average viewer know this?
Rounding out the DVD are the obligatory sing-along sections and photo galleries. And of course no Disney DVD would be complete without some cross-promotional music videos and trailers. In all, a decent, if not extensive set of extras.
Dumbo tends to be the red-headed stepchild of the Disney archives. And for this reason it didn't get the Platinum Collection title of such films as Snow White or Aladdin. But don't be fooled, there is a reason why this is a classic. I'll put this up against almost any of the modern Disney "Classics" such as Pocahontas or Hunchback. Dumbo is a masterwork and it deserves a place in your collection.
Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children up to Age 4
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