Directed By: Samuel Armstrong, Norman Ferguson, et al
Starring: Sterling Holloway, Edward Brophy, James Baskett
Tag line: "Walt Disney's Latest . . . Most Lovable . . . Funable Characters !"
Trivia: In December 1941, Time magazine planned to have Dumbo (1941) on its cover to commemorate its success, an idea that was dropped due to the attack on Pearl Harbor
Strangely enough, my first experience with Disney’s Dumbo came courtesy of Steven Spielberg’s 1979 World War 2-era comedy, 1941. Set in Los Angeles a short time after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when many southern Californians were convinced Japan would be attacking them next, 1941 featured an impressive cast, including Robert Stack as Major General Stillwell of the U.S. Army. In a late scene, Gen. Stillwell decides to take in a movie, and the film he and several of his aides check out is Dumbo. He cries when Dumbo and his mother reunite after she’s been locked away, and smiles when Jim Crow (voiced by Cliff Edwards) and his buddies make fun of the little elephant with their song “When I See an Elephant Fly”. Though played entirely for laughs, this sequence made me want to see Dumbo, and when I finally had the chance to do so, it quickly became one of my favorite Disney offerings.
The film opens with a stork (Sterling Holloway) delivering a little bundle of joy to Jumbo (Verna Felton), a circus elephant. But when the other elephants catch a glimpse of her new baby son, they can’t help but laugh at his enormous ears, leading them to give the youngster the rather cruel nickname “Dumbo”. When a group of kids also taunt poor Dumbo, Jumbo intervenes, and as a result is placed in a cage, separating her from her new son. Now all alone, Dumbo is quickly befriended by Timothy Q. Mouse (Edward Brophy), who tries his best to cheer the little tyke up. But it isn’t until the two have an unfortunate run-in with a bucket of water (which, unbeknownst to them, had been laced with champagne) that Timothy discovers Dumbo’s true talent, a gift so wonderful that it could make Dumbo the star of the entire circus!
Part of the magic of Dumbo is its simplicity, from the story itself (an outcast who discovers he has something to offer the world) right down to the title character. Throughout the entire film, Dumbo never utters a word, relying instead on facial expressions and gestures to convey his emotions, and thanks to the wonderful work of the animators, we know, at all times, how the little elephant is feeling. We see the hurt in his eyes when the other elephants ridicule his big ears, and we cry right along with him when he and his mother, who’s been chained inside a cage, interlock trunks, the only way she can show her young son that she’s still there for him.
Other aspects of the film stand out as well, including the music (the above-mentioned “When I See an Elephant Fly” is very entertaining, as is the opening number “Look Out for Mr. Stork”) and a few key scenes (the most memorable being the dreamlike “Pink Elephants on Parade”), but in the end, it’s the movie’s ability to stir our emotions that makes Dumbo a time-honored classic.