DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images used below are property of the Walt Disney Corporation unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material.
(You can listen to an audio version of this review HERE.)
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!
“Sarcastic map of wartime Europe” is my new favourite thing.
That is his actual name!
I enjoy reading your blog (I stumbled upon it and have been following ever since). The brief history with Disney reminded me of this documentary, do watch it. As an animator I can relate to what the artists went through: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Anxoxx2KTNI
I was wondering who was reading the blog from Singapore! Hi Maureen, thanks for reading and I’m really glad you enjoy it. That’s fascinating that you’re an animator, what have you worked on?
hi Neil! i’ve recently worked on Transformers 3 and the recent The Avengers. i’m currently working in a vfx studio but i used to work on TV animation. my time in that TV production house has similar conditions to those artists working on Dumbo =/
i’m looking forward to your next blog post!
That’s very impressive. Avengers was a fantastic movie, and Transformers 3…looked great, so you were doing YOUR job. I hope they’re treating you better where you are now.
Piping up here: The leader of the crows isn’t named “Jimmy Crow”. He isn’t named at all, neither during the movie, nor in the end credits. “Jimmy Crow” was a name the animators used between themeselves as a joke (they were a very diverse bunch and also gave each other stereotypical nick-names), and which somehow made it to public upon the second or third rerelease of Dumbo. If nobody tells you how the crow is named, you can never tell just from watching the movie.
And the crows are actually self-portraits of the animators who were working on this scene…the small crow with the glasses for example is the self-protrait of an irish animator.
Oh, and I don’t think that there is actual a villain in this movie…if anything, the “villain” is the society itself, which can be very cruel to everyone, who is different.
Interesting fact that the leader of the crows is voiced by the same guy who voiced Jiminy Cricket!
Yeah, I agree with you that this film is one of the weaker ones in this era. The animation, characters, and plot are not as strong as the others in this era, but it’s charm works to its advantage. This film ranges from okay-good.
Funny, this is John Lasseter’s favorite movie. It’s my least favorite of the first five Disney features, but I think it’s simplicity works to its advantage. It’s warm and uplifting, and I suppose compared to the darkness of Pinocchio and the highbrow nature of Fantasia, the audience was more responsive to those aspects. Maybe that’s part of the reason the ambition of the studio plummeted so much in the 1950s.
Great review! Definitely picking up the laughs here, and I love how each of these reviews starts with a bit of history about what was going on during the making of each movie. Entertaining and educational, this is what I love about your blog. And interesting to learn the clowns’ portrayal was apparently meant to be a jab at the striking animators. Apparently Charles Muntz wasn’t the first unpleasant character based on someone who displeased Walt in some way.
Funny you should mention Durex making anti-aircraft, I always thought that playing a clip of Look Out For Mr. Stork with the final word of the first stanza being cut off by the stork’s flying into a wall of latex which subsequently sent him flying would be a perfect condom commercial. Though I guess the footage would cost the company more than it gained sails, but still.
Also, the shots at the Republicans and about Dumbo’s “demotion” made me laugh. And yes, Pink Elephants On Parade was definitely the movie’s highlight. Unforgettably, hauntingly surreal.
And as for racism, the crows were all right with me, if a bit insensitive. I’ve actually heard Jim Crow may have been given a worse name in retrospect, kind of like Uncle Tom. According to some reports I’ve heard, the original character was on the clever side and managed to outwit his owner frequently. A more charged scene, which wasn’t mentioned in this review, was the musical number where the train arrives at the station and a group of black roustabouts put up the tent while singing a song about basically being uneducated bumpkins who would blow their entire salary on booze. Having heard what you said about the clowns, I do wonder though if that portrayal partly came from Disney’s not exactly loving the working class at the time.
My story with Dumbo is actually kind of funny because it was one of the movies we didn’t have in our home, but our grandmother in California did, so my main memory of the movie is frequently watching it with my grandmother and cousin who lived there, who happen to be black. My grandmother never seemed too bothered by the movie somehow. My sister stopped liking Dumbo after she was old enough to notice the racism, but it’s always had a positive spot with me, largely because of the nostalgia of childhood memories of California trips. I also kind of find it to be progressive in a way. I can’t think of any earlier piece of work which so bluntly portrayed the realities of the miserable life of a performing animal. It takes the audience to the point of view behind the cheery, flamboyant façade to a bleak experience of exploitation. Watching the elephants’ performance scene, they seem pretty miserable about it even before Dumbo’s flop. It’s pretty ironic really that this movie could be so ahead of its time in terms of empathy towards animals while so conspicuously behind towards recognizing lower-class people as equals. I’m almost wondering, if the higher-ups put in some digs at the animators, maybe the workers also slipped in some commentary of their own? Though the theme is pretty central to the plot, so in a way, it’s really interesting Disney would make a movie like this during the circumstances it was in.
Man, all this talk about crows and communists and not a single appearance from the Comrade? Unless… Hey, Jim! One Maury Povich would like to have a word with you!
I watched this film for the first time 4 years back (maybe 8 or 10 years) and the Pink Elephants on Parade scene sent me to Bahia.
Bahia, right Mouse?
Mouse, why’d ya delete my review? Whatcha mad about? I’m showing you a great series because I want you talk about the dark stories that inspired movies. What, you only allowed to make Bahia jokes? You mad I didn’t say anything about Fantasia? I don’t care about Fantasia. I’m like you, I prefer story… Umm, can I hide with you in your angry fan bunker? I see the angry mob coming.
What are you talking about?
Oh, my first review (which is now above us) was being moderated, then disappeared, so I thought you deleted it because I’m linking you to a web series whenever a movie is based on something (if Jon Solo has a video on it, at least).