Creativity is often at its best when it has to work with restrictions. Disney’s Dumbo is a fine testament to just that. After Fantasia ended up being a financial loss for the studio, the Walt Disney company’s fourth animated feature was one that was going to be more cost-effective and small-scale. Though that does mean that Dumbo didn’t end up being the most ambitious Disney animated feature, it is inarguably one of their sweetest and most endearing.
Dumbo tells an incredibly simple story, but one that can resonate with just about anyone: A circus elephant named Jumbo longs for a baby, and her dream comes true when a stork arrives with an infant elephant just for her. Though Jumbo names the baby Jumbo Jr., his comically oversized ears earn him the nickname “Dumbo” by the circus’ other elephants.
Dumbo’s ears are so large that the poor baby elephant often trips over them, and he quickly becomes a laughing-stock to the performing elephants, as well as the humans who visit the circus. But Jumbo still loves her son dearly, and even swaddles him in his ears like a blanket. One day, after Dumbo’s bullying goes to far, Jumbo gets angry, and she is soon labeled as a “mad elephant” and locked up in a cage. Dumbo is downtrodden without his mother, but he makes a friend in Timothy the mouse, who is accepting of Dumbo and his large ears. Timothy then sets out to try to build Dumbo’s confidence and make him a star, so that he can see his mother again.
It’s easy to see that Disney was going with a much smaller story here than their previous three features. Yet, because of its emotional resonance, it probably trumps its three predecessors in the story department. The silent Dumbo is simply adorable, and the fact that the plot revolves the baby elephant simply wanting to see his mom makes him lovable and easy to root for. Just the same, you feel heartbroken every time he’s picked on, and you can relate with Jumbo wanting to protect her son from such bullying.
The story works well because of its simplicity, and – like most worthwhile Disney features – includes a number of memorable songs, the most stand-out of which being “Baby Mine,” a heartbreaking lullaby sung to Dumbo by his mother from opposite sides of her cage. It’s arguably the first tear-inducing moment in Disney’s catalogue of animated films, and still one of their most effective. It’s hard not to get misty-eyed during the scene.
In terms of its animation, Dumbo is another standout in the early Disney canon, featuring the cutest character designs the studio made up to that point, with everything being as fluid as ever. Unfortunately, the film’s safe budget does mean that the animation isn’t nearly as detailed as Pinocchio or Fantasia, with the background characters lacking defining features. The film also plays things safe in regards to what it does with its animation (at least when compared to its predecessors), with the studio only allowing for a single moment of the film (the infamous Pink Elephants segment) to test new waters in the medium.
The only real downside to Dumbo is that it ends all too abruptly. Dumbo remains one of Disney’s shortest animated films, as it barely exceeds the hour mark. Every minute of it is charming, but you kind of wish that it could keep it all going just a little bit longer.
Still, Dumbo is an all too easy recommendation. It may have been intended as a small film to regain some lost profits, but its earnesty and emotion have helped make it one of the most endearing of all Disney features.