Welcome to Jesse Hecht CREATIVE!
You are about to witness a review so…
Cerebral… Refined… Exquisite… Awesome…
Thoughtful… Imaginative… Visionary… Exceptional…
And also so short.
Dumbo (Unvoiced), a young elephant, is mocked by everyone he meets for his large ears. When his mother (Verna Felton) is put in confinement for protecting him, it’s up to Dumbo to prove his worth to the world with the help of a friendly mouse (Ed Brophy) and some crows (Cliff Edwards, Nicodemus Stewart, James Baskett, and Hall Johnson).
Dumbo is a film that lasts 63 minutes. Yes, an hour and change. The plot, as a result is easy to understand, and moves very quickly. It reels you in with the “otherness” of Dumbo (Jumbo Junior), a baby who not only was late on arrival (thanks to The Stork) but also has a birth defect of having large ears. Literally everyone of high social status (the other elephants and the humans) mocks this fact, and as a result, the rightfully angry Mrs. Jumbo lashes out after teenagers pull on Dumbo’s ears and is sentenced to quarantine (don’t we all know that feeling).
This all happens a third of the way into the film. It’s first, second, and third acts are all spaced evenly, around 20 minutes each, yet a lot of scenes take their time and re-iterate their points before coming to a head, and this film could easily shave off fifteen minutes or so. The film has the structure of a shaggy dog joke: an incredibly long setup with a quick, cheap punchline. Dumbo’s suffering and doubt lasts around an hour, and he only gets five minutes or so of happiness or so before the film wraps up, and there seems to be no real resolution to problems that supporting characters have aside from Mrs. Jumbo and Dumbo.
My PLOT Rating is 2 / 5.
Dumbo (Unvoiced) himself is the protagonist, yet he has no agency. He is the driving force of the plot, and he does nothing. Several other characters imprint their desires onto him, and yes, he is just a baby, yet I would have preferred a more Pinocchio-like protagonist that could talk and make decisions for himself.
Timothy Q. Mouse (Ed Brophy) is a character that seems to have stepped out of another film. He has a strangely unfitting New York accent (British would have fit him better… someone like Terry Thomas?) and he appears out of nowhere. He doesn’t seem to have a great reason to help Dumbo, not for greed or power, but out of pity. It’s nice and all, but knowing his ambitions and aspirations would have strengthened the character. I also must say that after watching Pinocchio, he comes off as a discount Jiminy Cricket and that is not really a good thing.
Mrs. Jumbo (Verna Felton) is the heart of the film. You really feel for her as much as Dumbo. She really is a great mother character, and loves her son dearly. She is somewhat of a martyr figure, but history shows what mothers are willing to sacrifice for her children. She inspires Dumbo through her song and love, and while he is more inspired by the “Pink Elephants” blackout and the crows, she gives him the ‘ok’ to explore the world on his own with her song.
The crows in the film (Cliff Edwards, Nicodemus Stewart, James Baskett, and Hall Johnson)… A point of contention amongst fans is if they are racist or not. At the time the film was made, probably not, but now? Yes. So much so that Disney Plus has a warning on the description. As far as characters? Liveliest of the film. Their song is catchy, their dialogue is slick, they dress sharp, and they work well as a team. The lead, Jim Crow (oh boy…) was voiced by Cliff Edwards (Jiminy Cricket from “Pinocchio”… If they had him he could have voiced Mouse and avoided several character issues) who was a white actor, and while his voice kind of blends in with the rest, this fact taints the character somewhat. Essentially this is an animated minstrel show (early 19th century theater centered on mocking those of African descent). As somewhat of a saving grace, the crows’ singing was performed by the Hall Johnson Choir, an all-black choir, but even then, the damage has been done, and it’s a shame, because on the surface, these are the best characters in the film.
The Ringmaster (Herman Bing) is an Italian stereotype (I thought we were done with this) and he is somewhat of an antagonist, but he’s just trying to keep his circus going. He eventually sees the worth in Dumbo and helps he and his mother out, but by the time that happens, it’s too little too late. The clowns he employs are also hysterical in costume, but rude outside of the ring, yet I can’t get enough of them when they’re performing. Sight gags galore.
The Female Elephants (Verna Felton, Noreen Gammill, Dorothy Scott, and Sarah Selby) are secondary antagonists that instigate the rudeness towards Dumbo, and give him his name. They get somewhat of a comeuppance at the midpoint of the film, yet they still don’t like him. They are like neighbors that congregate on the corner and gossip, and they’re very relatable, even now.
The Stork (Sterling Holloway, who I didn’t even look up the credit for) is one of the best characters in the film. He has a short cameo scene, yet it’s impactful. Holloway has an almost bored delivery (pun intended) to his words, and he really makes it sound like the miracle of birth is almost clinical, like a transaction rather than the bundle of joy a baby is. He sings Happy Birthday (which is now in the public domain) quite well, also, and his scene is just great.
My CHARACTERS Rating is 3 / 5.
The dialogue pushes the film along, yet it is fast and clipped, as if the characters are rushing. It’s like we’re peering into their lives instead of being told a story, and while that is somewhat realistic, it’s unintelligible sometimes. Some sound effects block out dialogue as well and it was hard to hear in certain parts.
My DIALOGUE Rating is 3 / 5.
The “Pink Elephants On Parade” sequence is amazing, especially when two outlined elephants dance. The “bubble” scene before it is also creative. The art during the Casey Junior’s departure is gorgeous, with several different subtle lighting effects. The lighting is best shown during night scenes, such as within Mrs. Jumbo’s cage or inside the tent, where the light is brightest at the center, and fades to dark once it gets to the audience. There is also a vast array of varied animal designs that are well done and much appreciated. The parade scene in particular shows this as well as the myriad of moving characters during a single shot.
My EFFECTS Rating is 5 / 5.
“Look Out for Mr. Stork” is a nice introductory song, and immediately tells the viewer what era the film comes from.
“Casey Junior” is a fun little ditty that is still stuck in my head. A nice song for driving, shopping, roller-blading, or doing anything with wheels.
“Song of the Roustabouts” is another song… It details the working conditions of the presumably African American men setting up the circus tent in the rain. The dialogue of the song is obscured by the rain and thunder, and with some good reason. Many lines are questionable as of this writing, and I was genuinely shocked to hear them. It does bring a solemness to the scene with real gravity. Events that are usually fun for the consumer are sometimes incredibly difficult for the ones working them.
“Baby Mine” is quite the tearjerker. It’s made of love and I dare you not to tear up while listening to it. It’s a wonderful song that exemplifies the feeling of safety that a parent provides for their child, and that they are loved.
“The Clown Song” is a short one, but at least gives a song to those funny guys. The song is funny in itself, as it is literally all of them shouting for a raise and it fades out quickly.
“Pink Elephants on Parade” is a doozy. It’s threatening, loud, and in-your-face. Cymbals, drums, and horns assault your ears for the duration, and voices come and go in the blink of an eye. Enjoy the nightmares.
“When I See an Elephant Fly” is the best song in the film. It’s jazzy, fun to listen to, and upbeat. It’s sung by Cliff Edwards and the Hall Johnson Choir, which is all right (again, read above for my thoughts), but as purely a song, it’s awesome.
The score is done well, no real complaints. Fast and frantic when it needs to be, slow and nice when it needs to be.
My MUSIC Rating is 5 / 5.
This film is definitely a product of it’s time. It’s short, contains several depictions of stereotyping and racism, and has great music. That is not to say that this film isn’t worth watching. How certain characters are depicted provides a lesson to children, or possibly even some grandparents or relatives. The music is fantastic, with a lot of still-remembered songs, the effects are beautiful and complex, the characters and dialogue are again, products of their time, and the plot is too lengthy at points and too foreshortened in others.
The ride at Disneyland is fun, at least.
My OVERALL Rating for Disney’s “Dumbo” is 72%.
Next time, a great sadness will befall this website.
The greatest and most memorable sadness in the Disney Animated Canon.