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So it seems quite a few people were confused by my “Next Week” bit last review where I talked about crossing a picket line to review Dumbo. Was this some obscure in-joke or was I just being weird for the sake of it? Well I like to think you know me well enough by this stage to realise that I would never stoop to bizarre nonsense just for the sake of it.
I was actually referring to the Disney Animators Strike of 1941 that occurred around halfway through the production of Dumbo and led to the movie being completed by scab labour. And boy, if there ever was a movie that looked like it was partly done by trained professionals before being finished by desperate, guilt-ridden blackleg hacks…
I’ve already mentioned how, as a kid, all Disney movies seem to be on the same plane of quality and that it’s only coming back to them as an adult that you realise the vast disparity that can exist between one film and the next in terms of quality. For example, I’ve already mentioned how bowled over I was by the animation in Pinocchio (I know, I know, I’ll only gush over Pinocchio four, five times more in this review, tops). Dumbo is…well, the opposite of that.
There’s really no way around it, this is a rough looking movie. The quality leaps all over the shop. At it’s best it’s at the level of a really high quality short, at it’s worst…I was expecting these guys to show up:
So what happened? How did a studio famous for the consistency and quality of their animation produce a film so horribly uneven?
Well, to understand that we have to look at the background to the 1941 strike. In the late thirties animators had started to unionise and had formed The Screen Cartoonists Guild. The Guild was led by Herbert Sorrell and under his leadership obtained contracts with practically every cartoon studio in Hollywood.
Leon Schlesinger, whose studio animated Looney Tunes for Warners Bros, attempted a lockout, but Sorrell crushed him like a coyote beneath an anvil and forced him to unionise. At which point, Leon is said to have asked Sorrell, “What about Disney?”
Sorrell, sensing an adversary at last worthy of this megaphone, approached Disney and demanded that he sign a salary agreement with the Guild. Disney refused, instead offering to put it to a vote with the National Labour Relations Board. Sorrell, apparently unable to refrain from acting like a dick, said that Disney was a fool and that he would “crush him to a dustbowl”.
I rip on Disney a lot, and will almost certainly continue to do so, so in the interest of fairness it should be stated that no-one in Hollywood at the time paid his animators as much or treated them as well as Walter Elias Disney. They had the best working conditions in the industry, certainly better than what the Looney Tunes artists working for Schlesinger had to endure:
But by 1941 the mood had definitely soured in Walt Disney studios. You see, back in the days when they were still focusing on shorts, Disney would pay his animators 20% of the profits from every cartoon on top of their salary, which was already higher than industry average. Unfortunately, when the studio made the move to feature length movies he had to discontinue this practice, and after the double whammy losses of Pinocchio and Fantasia, the studio had to endure painful layoffs and paycuts to stay above water. The firing of one animator, Art Babbitt, by Disney because of his attempts to get Disney to unionise was the final straw. The animators went on strike.
With only the rough animation done on Dumbo, the rest had to be completed by scabs which gives the film it’s incredibly uneven quality. The strike eventually ended, of course, and Disney has been a union shop ever since. But the comaraderie and morale of the studio never really recovered. Part of the reason the strike was so ugly was that it was personal. The animators felt that they’d been given the shaft by a man they had loved and admired, Disney felt that he had been as good an employer as anyone could ask for and had been stabbed in the back. The fact that so many of his animators, people he thought of as true friends, would strike against him was a major blow, one which he may never quite have recovered from.
Watching Dumbo with the knowledge of what went on behind the scenes makes it a very uncomfortable experience, like listening to an album by a band you love which they made in the middle of a horrendous falling out.
The movie begins with the song “Look Out for Mister Stork” set to a squadron of storks dropping baby animals over a circus.
Practically every animal ends up with a smaller version of themselves sleeping beside them.
It’s a very sweet and funny scene, and the bouncy song stops it from getting too cutesy pie. It is however, a completely unrealistic depiction of child birth.
One of the elephants then gives him the nickname “Dumbo” because…big ears…dumb…you know the whole connection there.
The circus stops in town and some of the local kids start teasing Dumbo, which causes Mrs Jumbo to go berserk and start whaling on one kid who I’m convinced is Lampwick from Pinocchio. The Ringmaster and the carnies try to get her under control (hilariously, the Ringmaster’s tactic for calming an enraged animal is whipping her repeatedly while screaming “CALM DOWN!!!) and she gets locked up in elephant Arkham.
The other elephants turn their backs on Dumbo because elephants are notorious for their hatred of anyone different and their contempt for the weak and helpless.
He’s befriended by Timothy Mouse who promises to help Dumbo get back with his mother. The relationship between Timothy and Dumbo is probably the movie’s strongest element. They’re clearly trying to recreate the Jiminiy Cricket/Pinocchio dynamic, the blue eyed naive innocent and the tiny wiseass, but it works mostly. Timothy speaks to the Ringmaster in his sleep and tells him to use Dumbo in his new act. Dumbo ends up tripping over his ears and causing an accident that injures the other elephants and causes the big top to collapse. As punishment he ends up getting demoted to clown, because apparently in the circus hierarchy a human being who spent years studying a highly demanding performance style is outranked by a jungle animal.
After the show, which involves Dumbo being thrown out of a mock skyscraper, the clowns celebrate the success of their new act and reason that if the audience laughed when Dumbo fell twenty feet, they’ll laugh twice as hard when he falls forty feet. Not content with inventing troll math, the clowns leave to demand a pay raise from the Ringmaster. Interesting fact, the clowns are all caricatures of the striking animators.
The clowns accidentally pour what I can only be assume to be absinthe into Dumbo’s drinking water. Aaaaaand Dumbo and Timothy proceed to trip balls.
Okay, you know when I said the animation in this movie was not close to Disney’s usual standard? Well it’s not. There are continuity errors, bad lip synching, and often the chracters lack any sense of weight and solidity. The elephants in particular seem to stretch and contort and have little consistent physical presence. But you know when I said all that I wasn’t including the Pink Elephants scene, right?
There are some scenes that singlehandedly justify a movie. The Pink Elephants sequence is gorgeous, fluid, creepy, hilarious and beautiful all at once. The action gels perfectly with the music and unlike some of the Fantasia sequences it never rests on its laurels. It’s constantly shifting, changing, finding a new way to enage and thrill you like a dream that gets faster and faster until finally you leap awake with the most confused erection…
It lasts almost five minutes, in a movie that’s only a little over an hour, but it feels like seconds.
The next morning Dumbo and Timothy awake to find themselves high up a tree and are confronted by these guys…
Okay, so the awkward question. Are the crows racist? Um, let me think.
They made the CROWS black stereotypes, their leader is voiced by a white guy doing his best black guy voice and, oh yeah, he’s named Jim Crow.
So by today’s standards, yeah. This shit’s as racist as a drunken grandparent.
By the standards of the time though? No. I’m actually serious. Compared to the shit that was going on in cinema at the time as regards race? This is a three, tops, on the Stepin-Fetchit-O-Meter. The crows are funny, smart, independent minded guys who display more emotion and depth than almost any other character in the movie. So I guess it depends on whether you believe movies should be judged by the standards of their own time or of ours. Your call. I have to admit to liking the crows, mostly because they have the best song not only in the film but one of the strongest entries in the entire Disney songbook, “When I See an Elephant Fly”.
Timothy figures out that the only way Dumbo could possibly have gotten up the tree was by flying.
And with the crows’ help, Dumbo learns to fly, returns to the circus, flies before the crowd and wreacks a terrible revenge on the Ring Master and those lefty, unionising clowns.
And that’s it. Dumbo becomes a huge star, gets his mother out of the clink and rides off into the sunset while the crows sing a reprise of “When I See an Elephant Fly”.
Alright, so I may have been a bit hard on this one. It’s certainly got its charm, and it has some truly great songs. But there’s no denying that this is one of the weaker Disney movies. Which is why it’s so surprising that Dumbo was a huge hit. Partly that’s just because Disney had finally learned how to make a movie that didn’t cost more than it could ever possibly make back. But something about this movie really resonated with American audiences. Maybe it was just because Disney seemed to have backed away from all that highbrow stuff and was now back doing fun little animal cartoons. Whatever the reason, Dumbo was a blockbuster that really entered the public consciousness. In fact, it was even going to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. Then this happened…
Regardless of it’s quality, Dumbo may have saved Disney. Another financial loss after Fantasia could have sunk the studio. And Disney could at least comfort himself with the fact that he had another film up his sleeve. Something that he’d been working on since the late thirties, that was going to reaffirm Disney’s reputation as the absolute gold standard of what was possible with animation.
The Pink Elephants scene is fantastic, but everything else never rises above acceptable, and at times it’s downright shoddy.
The Leads: 15/20
Dumbo is genuinely adorable, and the decision to never have him speak is a good one. Timothy comes across as a slightly less funny retread of Jiminiy Cricket, but is still very likeable.
The Villain: 7/20
Probably the Elephant Matriarch comes closest to being an actual antagonist, but she doesn’t do anything and she’s not even particularly evil. She’s more just mean, and when you’re going up against villains like Scar or Jafar, that’s just not good enough. Bad enough. Whatever.
Supporting Characters: 11/20
The crows are fun, if not exactly PC. But the animators seem to forget at times which crow has which voice. Ditto with the elephants.
The Music: 17/20
Some fantastic songs here, “When I see an Elephant Fly”, “Baby of Mine”, “Pink Elephants”. One area of the film that holds up very well with its predecessors.
Final Score: 58%
NEXT WEEK: The Unshaved Mouse lost his mother to a mousetrap. So he can certainly sympathise with Bambi, AKA “How Disney Animation Got Its Groove Back.”
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright and blogger living in Dublin. You can follow him on Twitter. The blog updates every Thursday. Thanks for reading!