Dumbo is a 1941 American animated fantasy film produced by Walt Disney Productions and released by RKO Radio Pictures. The fourth Disney animated feature film, it is based upon the storyline written by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, and illustrated by Helen Durney for the prototype of a novelty toy ("Roll-a-Book"). The main character is Jumbo Jr., an elephant who is cruelly nicknamed "Dumbo", as in "dumb". He is ridiculed for his big ears, but in fact he is capable of flying by using his ears as wings. Throughout most of the film, his only true friend, aside from his mother, is the mouse, Timothy – a relationship parodying the stereotypical animosity between mice and elephants.
|Directed by||Supervising Director|
|Story by||Otto Englander|
|Based on||Dumbo, the Flying Elephant|
by Helen Aberson
|Produced by||Walt Disney|
|Narrated by||John McLeish|
|Music by||Frank Churchill|
|Distributed by||RKO Radio Pictures|
|Box office||>$1.3 million (est. United States/Canada rentals, 1941)|
Made to recoup the financial losses of both Pinocchio and Fantasia, Dumbo was a deliberate pursuit of simplicity and economy for the Disney studios. At 64 minutes, it is one of Disney's shortest animated features. Sound was recorded conventionally using the RCA System. One voice was synthesized using the Sonovox system, but it, too, was recorded using the RCA System.
Dumbo was released on October 23, 1941, where it was met with generally favorable reviews. It has since been considered to be among the greatest animated films of all time. In 2017, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant".
While a large circus spends the off-season in the "Winter Grounds" in Florida, a flock of white storks delivers babies to the animals. One elephant, Mrs. Jumbo, does not receive her baby, and keeps scanning the sky. The circus sets out on a new tour, and a belated stork catches up with the moving train and drops off the expected baby elephant, Jumbo Junior. The other elephants are initially delighted, until they see the baby has far-oversized ears, and promptly nickname him "Dumbo". However, Mrs. Jumbo shows her baby great care and love, defending him from the teasing of the other elephants.
Dumbo, clumsy due to his ears, is made into a sideshow attraction. When some rowdy boys start blowing in and pulling Dumbo's ears, Mrs. Jumbo spanks their leader and throws hay bales at them. Circus staff remove Dumbo from the pen, and Mrs. Jumbo flies into a rage, eventually dousing the ringmaster in a water tub. She is subsequently deemed mad and locked in a cage. Dumbo is blamed for the incident and shunned by the other elephants.
Timothy, a mouse that travels with the circus, befriends Dumbo and decides to make him a star. He whispers in the ringmaster's ear while the latter sleeps, and convinces him to try a new stunt with Dumbo as the top of a pyramid of elephants. However, Dumbo trips on his ears during the show and knocks over the pyramid, injuring the other elephants and bringing the big top crashing down. After this, the other elephants exile Dumbo completely, and he is put in with the clowns' firemen act, regularly jumping from a "burning building" prop into a vat of pie filling. Despite his newfound popularity, he hates the job and becomes depressed.
Timothy decides to take Dumbo to see Mrs. Jumbo, but they cannot see each other's faces and can only intertwine trunks. Meanwhile, the clowns decide to increase the popularity of their fireman act by dangerously raising the platform Dumbo jumps from. In celebration of the plan, they drink champagne, and a bottle of it falls into a water vat. Dumbo, crying after visiting his mother, gets the hiccups, so Timothy takes him to the vat for water. Both of them get drunk, and hallucinate pink elephants.
Dumbo and Timothy are later discovered asleep high up in a tree by Dandy Crow and his friends. Initially making fun of Timothy's assertion that Dumbo flew with his ears while drunk, the crows are soon moved by Dumbo's sad story. They decide to help Timothy, giving him a "magic feather" to help Dumbo fly. Holding the feather, Dumbo does indeed take off a second time, and he and Timothy return to the circus with plans to surprise the audience.
During the clowns' act, Dumbo jumps off the platform and prepares to fly. He drops the feather, but Timothy assures him it was only a psychological aid, and Dumbo successfully flies about the big top, much to the delight of the public. Dumbo gains fame and fortune, Timothy becomes his new manager and signs him to a Hollywood contract, and Mrs. Jumbo is freed. She and Dumbo are given a private coach on the train, and the crows wave goodbye to the elephants as they travel away.
The voice actors are uncredited for their roles in the film.
- The title character is Dumbo, the nickname given to Jumbo Jr. He is an elephant who has huge ears and is able to use them to fly, carrying what he thinks of as a magic feather. Like Dopey in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Gideon in Pinocchio, and Tootles in Peter Pan, Dumbo does not have a word of spoken dialogue.
- Edward Brophy as Timothy Q. Mouse, an anthropomorphic mouse who becomes the only friend of Dumbo, along with the crows, after his mother is locked up and does his best to make Dumbo happy again. He teaches Dumbo how to become the "ninth wonder of the universe", and the only flying elephant in the world. He is never mentioned by name in the film, but his signature can be read on the contract in a newspaper photograph at the finale.
- Verna Felton as Elephant Matriarch, the well-meaning but pompous leader of the elephants who is initially cold toward Dumbo. Felton also voices Mrs. Jumbo, Dumbo's mother, who speaks only once in the film to give Dumbo's name.
- Cliff Edwards as Dandy Crow (previously named Jim Crow on the original model sheets), the leader of a group of crows. Though he initially jokes and ridicules Timothy's idea that Dumbo can fly, he hears Dumbo's tragic history and becomes determined to help Dumbo fly for real. He is never mentioned by name in the film.
- Herman Bing as The Ringmaster, who, though not truly evil, is a strict, greedy, and arrogant man who exploits workers and animals. The Ringmaster later appears as an outright villain in the video game Disney's Villains' Revenge.
- Sterling Holloway as Mr. Stork, Dumbo's carrier stork seen at the beginning of the film.
- Margaret Wright as Casey Junior, the sentient 2-4-0 tender locomotive hauling the circus train.
- The Hall Johnson Choir as Crow Chorus
- The King's Men as Roustabout Chorus
- Noreen Gammill as Elephant Catty
- Dorothy Scott as Elephant Giddy
- Sarah Selby as Elephant Prissy
- Billy Bletcher as Clown
- Malcolm Hutton as Smitty
- John McLeish as the narrator
Dumbo is based upon a children's story written by Helen Aberson-Mayer and Harold Pearl, with illustrations by Helen Durney. The children's book was first brought to the attention of Walt Disney in late 1939 by Kay Kamen, the studio's head of merchandise licensing, who showed a prototype of the Roll-A-Book that included Dumbo. Disney immediately grasped its possibilities and heartwarming story and purchased the rights to it.
Originally it was intended to be a short film; however, Disney soon found that the only way to do justice to the book was to make it a feature-length film. At the time, the foreign markets in Europe had been curtailed due to World War II, which caused Pinocchio and Fantasia to fail at the box office. With the film's modest budget, Dumbo was intended to be a low-budget feature designed to bring revenue to the studio. Story artists Dick Huemer and Joe Grant were assigned to develop the plot into a feature-length film. From January 22 to March 21, 1940, they wrote a 102-page script outline in chapters, much like a book, an unusual way of writing a film script. They conceived the stork-delivery and the pink elephants sequences and had Dumbo's mother renamed from "Mother Ella" to "Mrs. Jumbo". They riffed on elephants' fear of mice by replacing a wise robin named "Red" found in the original story with the wisecracking mouse character, Timothy. They also added a "rusty black crow", which was later expanded into five. Regardless of this, very little was changed from the original draft. In March 1940, a story team headed by Otto Englander translated the outline into story sketches.
From Disney's perspective, Dumbo required none of the special effects that had slowed down production and grew the budgets of Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi. When the film went into production in early 1941, supervising director Ben Sharpsteen was given orders to keep the film simple and inexpensive. As a result, the character designs are simpler, background paintings are less detailed, and a number of held cels (or frames) were used in the character animation. Although the film is more "cartoony" than previous Disney films, the animators brought elephants and other animals into the studio to study their movement.
Watercolor paint was used to render the backgrounds. Dumbo is one of the few Disney features to use the technique, which was also used for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and regularly employed for the various Disney cartoon shorts. The other Disney features used oil paint and gouache. 2002's Lilo & Stitch, which drew influences from Dumbo, also made use of watercolor backgrounds.
Disney animators' strike
During a story meeting for Bambi on February 27, 1940, Disney observed that Dumbo was "an obvious straight cartoon" and that the animators that were assigned on Bambi were not appropriate for the look of Dumbo. Animators such as Art Babbitt and Ward Kimball were considered for the film. For that reason, less experienced animators were brought on to animate the characters. Kimball recalled that Disney approached him in a parking lot about Dumbo and summarized the entire story in five minutes. "And listening to him tell that story," Kimball noted, "I could tell that the picture was going to work. Because everything sounded right. It had a great plot." In spite of this, Bill Tytla, who was one of the studio's top animators, animated the title character, but admitted that "it was in the nature of the film to go very fast and get it out in a hurry." To speed up production, Disney used photostats of story sketches instead of full layout artwork for the film, and had experienced animators to supervise the younger, less experienced animators assigned on the film.
Production on the film was interrupted on May 29, 1941 when much of the Disney animation staff went on strike. Kimball chose to not to strike, but his close friend Walt Kelly, who was an assistant animator helping him on the crow sequence, left the studios shortly after for reasons unrelated to the strike.
The clowns' requests to get a raise from their boss is a reference to the Disney animators that went on strike in 1941 (during the creation of the film), demanding higher pay from Walt himself. Moreover, the clowns, or at least their silhouettes, are caricatures of those animators.
Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace scored the film while Ned Washington wrote the lyrics to the songs. For their work on the score, Churchill and Wallace won the Academy Award for Best Original Score. Churchill and Washington's work on "Baby Mine" also garnered a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Original songs performed in the film include:
|1.||"Look Out for Mr. Stork"||The Sportsmen|
|2.||"Casey Junior"||The Sportsmen|
|3.||"Song of the Roustabouts"||The King's Men|
|4.||"Baby Mine"||Betty Noyes|
|5.||"The Clown Song (A.K.A. We're Gonna Hit the Big Boss for a Raise)"||Billy Bletcher, Eddie Holden & Billy Sheets|
|6.||"Pink Elephants on Parade"||The Sportsmen|
|7.||"When I See an Elephant Fly"||Cliff Edwards & The Hall Johnson Choir|
|8.||"When I See an Elephant Fly (Reprise)"||Chorus|
Dumbo was completed and delivered to Disney's distributor, RKO Radio Pictures, on September 11, 1941. RKO initially balked at the film's 64-minute length and asked Disney to add another ten minutes. Disney refused, "No, that's as far as I can stretch it. You can stretch a thing so far and then it won't hold. The picture is right as it is. And another ten minutes is liable to cost five hundred thousand dollars. I can't afford it." The film was re-released in theaters in 1949, 1959, 1972, and 1976.
Dumbo had its television premiere on September 14, 1955, albeit severely edited, as an installment of the Disneyland television show. The film was shown unaltered on September 17, 1978, as part of a two-night salute to the program's 25th anniversary.
Along with Alice in Wonderland, Dumbo was the first of Disney's canon of animated films to be released on home video. The film was originally released on June 26, 1981 on VHS and Betamax, which was followed with a release on Laserdisc and CED in June 1982. It was again re-released on VHS and Betamax as part of the Walt Disney Classics series on November 6, 1985. The film was re-released on VHS and Laserdisc on July 12, 1991. It was followed by another re-issue on VHS and Laserdisc on October 28, 1994 as a part of the Walt Disney Masterpiece Collection. On October 23, 2001, a 60th Anniversary Edition was released in VHS and DVD formats.
In 2006, a "Big Top Edition" of the film was released on DVD. A 70th Anniversary Edition of the film was released in the United States on September 20, 2011. The 70th Anniversary Edition was produced in two different packages: a 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack and a 1-disc DVD. The film was also released as a movie download. All versions of the 70th Anniversary Edition contain deleted scenes and several bonus features, including "Taking Flight: The Making of Dumbo" and "The Magic of Dumbo: A Ride of Passage," while the 2-disc Blu-ray version additionally includes games, animated shorts, and several exclusive features. The film was re-released on Blu-ray and DVD on April 26, 2016 to celebrate its 75th anniversary.
Despite the advent of World War II, Dumbo was still the most financially successful Disney film of the 1940s. After its October 23 release, Dumbo proved to be a financial miracle compared to other Disney films. The simple film only cost $950,000 (equivalent to $16,720,000 in 2020) to produce, half the cost of Snow White, less than a third of the cost of Pinocchio, and certainly less than the expensive Fantasia. Dumbo eventually grossed roughly more than $1.3 million (equivalent to $28,150,000 in 2020) during its original release. The film returned a profit of $850,000.
Variety wrote that Dumbo was "a pleasant little story, plenty of pathos mixed with the large doses of humor, a number of appealing new animal characters, lots of good music, and the usual Disney skillfulness in technique in drawing and use of color." Cecelia Ager, writing in PM, called Dumbo "the nicest, kindest Disney yet. It has the most taste, beauty, compassion, skill, restraint. It marks a return to Disney first principles, the animal kingdom—that happy land where Disney workers turn into artists; where their imagination, playfulness, ingenuity, daring flourish freest; where, in short, they're home."
Bosley Crowther, reviewing for The New York Times, wrote that the film was "the most genial, the most endearing, the most completely precious cartoon feature film ever to emerge from the magical brushes of Walt Disney's wonder-working artists". Time wrote: "Like story and characters, Dumbo's coloring is soft and subdued, free from picture-postcard colors and confusing detail—a significant technical advance. But the charm of Dumbo is that it again brings to life that almost human animal kingdom where Walter Elias Disney is king of them all." Harrison's Reports praised the film as "one of Walt Disney's most delightful offerings. Technically, it is excellent; the color is exceptionally good. The story itself is pleasing; it combines comedy with human appeal. The only fault is that occasionally the action slows down."
Additionally, Time had originally scheduled to run a story with an appearance cover for "Mammal of the Year" (a play on its annual "Man/Person of the Year" honor) on December 8, 1941. However, the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 of that year had postponed it, and the story was later published on December 29.
Among retrospective reviews, film critic Leonard Maltin stated that Dumbo is his favorite of Disney's films and he described it as "one of Walt Disney's most charming animated films". In 2011, Richard Corliss of Time named the film as one of the 25 all-time best animated films. On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 98% based on 43 reviews, with an average score of 8.3/10. The website's consensus reads "Dumbo packs plenty of story into its brief runtime, along with all the warm animation and wonderful music you'd expect from a Disney classic." Metacritic has assigned a weighted score of 96 out of 100 for Dumbo based on 11 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".
The film has been criticized by some for its handling of race. The Encyclopedia of Racism in American Films (2018) notes that "All of the circus laborers are African American, the only time that blacks are seen in any great number in the entire movie." The lead crow, voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards in an imitation of Southern African American dialect, was named "Jim Crow", after the pre-Civil-War minstrel character. The term had become a pejorative term for African Americans, and commonly referred to racial segregation laws, and the character's name was changed in the 1950s to "Dandy Crow" in attempt to avoid controversy.
Film scholar Richard Schickel, in his 1968 book The Disney Version, argued that the group of crows in the film were African American stereotypes. They were voiced by African American actors and singers of the popular all-black "Hall Johnson Choir", including actors James Baskett (Song of the South) and Nick Stewart (The Amos 'n' Andy Show). Ward Kimball, the chief animator of the crows, used famous African-American dancers Freddie and Eugene Jackson as live-action reference for the characters. The personalities and mannerisms of the crows—specifically their fast-paced, back and forth dialogue—were inspired by the backchat found on the band records of Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong. Karina Longworth, exploring the history of Song of the South in her podcast You Must Remember This, discussed the basis of the crows in minstrel show culture, as part of a wider use of minstrel culture by Walt Disney.
In his 1973 book The Disney Films, film historian and critic Leonard Maltin argued that the crows "are undeniably black, but they are black characters, not black stereotypes. There is no denigrating dialogue, or Uncle Tomism in the scene, and if offense is to be taken in hearing blacks call each other 'brother', then the viewer is merely sensitive to accuracy." Animation historian John Canemaker felt that the crows were amongst the very few characters in the film that sympathize and are empathetic with Dumbo's plight since being a marginalized ethnic group themselves, they can relate to Dumbo as a fellow outcast. He further added the crows "are the most intelligent, the happiest, the freest spirited characters in the whole film." In 1980, film critic Michael Wilmington referred to the crows as "father figures", self-assured individuals who are "obvious parodies of proletarian blacks", but comments, "The crows are the snappiest, liveliest, most together characters in the film. They are tough and generous. They bow down to no one. And, of course, it is they who teach Dumbo to fly."
In 2017, Whoopi Goldberg expressed the desire for the crow characters to be more merchandised by Disney, "because those crows sing the song in Dumbo that everybody remembers." In 2019, Floyd Norman, the first African-American animator hired at Walt Disney Productions during the 1950s, defended the crows in an article entitled Black Crows and Other PC Nonsense.
The crows and Timothy Q. Mouse were not included in the 2019 live-action/CGI remake of Dumbo. In 2019, it was reported that an edited version of the animated film without the crows would be featured on the forthcoming Disney+ service. However, the film does appear on Disney+ uncensored, with an advisory in the synopsis warning "it may contain outdated cultural depictions." In 2021, the film was one of several that Disney limited to viewers 7 years and older on their service Disney+, citing similarity of the crows' depictions to "racist minstrel shows".
Awards and honors
Dumbo won the 1941 Academy Award for Best Original Score, awarded to musical directors Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace. Churchill and lyricist Ned Washington were also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song for "Baby Mine" (the song that plays during Dumbo's visit to his mother's cell), but did not win for this category. The film also won Best Animation Design at the 1947 Cannes Film Festival.
|1941||Academy Awards||Best Scoring of a Musical Picture||Won|
|Best Original Song
(For the song "Baby Mine")
|1947||Cannes Film Festival||Best Animation Design||Won|
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
Media and merchandise
Dumbo's Circus is a live-action/puppet television series for preschool audiences that aired on The Disney Channel in the 1980s. Unlike in the film, Dumbo spoke on the show. Each character would perform a special act, which ranged from dancing and singing to telling knock knock jokes.
- Walt Disney's Dumbo: Happy to Help: (ISBN 0-7364-1129-1) A picture book published by Random House Disney, written by Liane Onish and illustrated by Peter Emslie. It was published January 23, 2001. This paperback is for children aged 4–8. Twenty-four pages long, its 0.08 of an inch thick, and with cover dimensions of 7.88 x 7.88 inches.
- Walt Disney's Dumbo Book of Opposites: (ISBN 0-307-06149-3) A book published in August 1997 by Golden Books under the Golden Board Book brand. It was written by Alan Benjamin, illustrated by Peter Emslie, and edited by Heather Lowenberg. Twelve pages long and a quarter of an inch thick, this board edition book had dimensions of 7.25 x 6.00 inches.
- Walt Disney's Dumbo the Circus Baby: (ISBN 0-307-12397-9) A book published in September 1993 by Golden Press under the A Golden Sturdy Shape Book brand. Illustrated by Peter Emslie and written by Diane Muldrow, this book is meant for babies and preschoolers. Twelve pages long and half an inch thick, this book's cover size is 9.75 x 6.25 inches.
Dumbo the Flying Elephant is a popular ride that appears in Disneyland, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Park (Paris), and Hong Kong Disneyland. It is located in Fantasyland.
The Ringmaster appears as one of four villains in the 1999 PC game Disney's Villains' Revenge. In the game, the Disney Villains alter the happy endings from Jiminy Cricket's book; in particular, the Ringmaster forces Dumbo to endlessly perform humiliating stunts in his circus. In the end, the Ringmaster is defeated when he is knocked unconscious by a well-aimed custard pie.
Dumbo appears in the popular PlayStation 2 game Kingdom Hearts released in 2002 in the form of a summon that the player can call upon in battle for aid. Sora, the protagonist, flies on Dumbo while he splashes enemies with water from his trunk. Dumbo reprises his role as a summon in the follow-up game Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories released in 2004 for the Game Boy Advance.
In 2001, the "60th Anniversary Edition" DVD of Dumbo featured a sneak peek of the proposed sequel Dumbo II, including new character designs and storyboards. Robert C. Ramirez (Joseph: King of Dreams) was to direct the sequel, in which Dumbo and his circus friends navigated a large city after being left behind by their traveling circus. Dumbo II also sought to explain what happened to Dumbo's father, Mr. Jumbo. Dumbo's circus friends included the chaotic twin bears Claude and Lolly, the curious zebra Dot, the older, independent hippo Godfry, and the adventurous ostrich Penny. The animals were metaphors for the different stages of childhood. Dumbo II was supposed to be set on the day immediately following the end of the first Dumbo movie. John Lasseter cancelled Dumbo II, soon after being named Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2006.
On July 8, 2014, Walt Disney Pictures announced that a live-action adaptation of Dumbo was in development. In the same announcement, Ehren Kruger was confirmed as the screenwriter, as well as co-producer with Justin Springer. On March 10, 2015, Tim Burton was announced as the director. On January 11, 2017, it was reported that Will Smith was in talks to star in the remake as the father of some children who befriend Dumbo. That same day, it was revealed that Tom Hanks had reportedly been offered to play the film's villain. The following month, it was announced that Smith would not be starring in the film. Smith had apparently passed on the project due to a disagreement over salary and scheduling as well as to star in Bad Boys for Life, however, went on to play the role of the Genie in the 2019 live-action remake of Aladdin. In March 2017, it was reported that Eva Green was in talks to play a trapeze artist. Following this announcement, Danny DeVito was cast as a ringleader named Medici. Two weeks later, it was reported that Colin Farrell had entered negotiations to play the role of Holt, which was originally offered to Will Smith. On April 4, 2017, Michael Keaton, Burton's former frequent collaborator, entered talks to star as the villain. Keaton confirmed his involvement with the film on June 26, 2017. Filming took place at Cardington Studios in Bedfordshire, England. On July 15, 2017, Disney announced the casting for all of the principal roles and that the film would be released on March 29, 2019. DeObia Oparei, Joseph Gatt and Alan Arkin also play new characters created for the film.
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Tim Burton’s Dumbo is also building sets at Cardington, so some of these props and set pieces could be for that film as well. What do you think the structure could be? Hall of Justice? Watchtower? Steppenwolf's lair? Dumbo's circus?
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