Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Dumbo

Original 1941 poster for Walt Disney's Dumbo.

Any retrospective project like this one runs the risk of viewing history as a straight line subject to cause-and-effect. First this happened, then this happened and so on and so forth. But history itself is rarely that neat and the nature of animation production emphasizes that fact.

After Snow White, many of Disney’s next films were all in various stages of production at the same time. Movies like Pinocchio and Bambi took years to make. Some of the films Disney was actively developing around this time, including Peter Pan and Alice In Wonderland, wouldn’t come out for another decade or more.

Dumbo was a bit of an exception to the rule. The original story by Helen Aberson-Mayer and Harold Pearl was published in 1939 as a book/toy hybrid called a “Roll-A-Book”. Disney bought the rights almost immediately and story artists Dick Huemer and Joe Grant began developing it into a film in January of 1940. By the time it was ready to go into production, the studio was already losing money on Pinocchio and Fantasia.

Because of those losses, Disney badly needed a hit. If Dumbo was going to be made at all, it would have to be done quickly and economically. The film went into production in late 1940 or early 1941. And even with work interrupted by an animators’ strike in May, the movie was finished and released to theaters in October of 1941. Even by today’s standards, that’s a quick turnaround for an animated feature.

Of course, it helps that Dumbo barely qualifies as a feature. Clocking in at a brisk 64 minutes, it’s easily Disney’s shortest film. At the time, movies of that length weren’t exactly uncommon but they were usually B-pictures or cheapies turned out by such Poverty Row studios as Monogram or Republic. RKO, Disney’s distributor and a studio that knew a thing or two about B-movies, actually asked Walt to add about 10 minutes or so. Either out of artistic integrity or economic necessity, Walt declined.

This was absolutely the right choice. Part of what makes Dumbo so charming is that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It fits squarely into the misfit underdog story template that resonates with everyone, regardless of age, gender or cultural background. But when we think about Dumbo, we don’t think about the plot. We think about individual moments and sequences. Dumbo isn’t really much more than a short sequence of vignettes. What’s magical about it is that any one of those vignettes would be another movie’s highlight. Dumbo is nothing but highlights.

Dumbo announces it’s different from its predecessors right from the get-go. This isn’t the fairy-tale world of Snow White or the cobblestone European streets of Pinocchio. This is America. Florida, to be exact. And it isn’t once upon a time. It’s 1941. The opening song, “Look Out For Mr. Stork”, makes a pop culture reference to the Dionne Quintuplets, who had fascinated the world since their birth in 1934. The tone, the style, the music, everything suggests that this is going to be a much looser, more casual movie.

But in spite of all that, Dumbo also has a reputation as one of Disney’s most emotional movies. If you watch Dumbo with a group of people and somebody doesn’t cry at least once, watch out because you’re hanging out with some cold-hearted sociopaths. The heart of the film is the relationship between mother and child, encapsulated beautifully in the “Baby Mine” sequence. It’s a testament to both the animators and to the Oscar-nominated song by Frank Churchill and Ned Washington that this sequence lands as powerfully as it does. This is character animation at its finest and the song is simple, lovely and perfect.

The animation has to be perfect in a sequence like this. It’s shouldering the entire storytelling burden. Dumbo has no dialogue throughout the film and Mrs. Jumbo’s only line comes when she christens her son Jumbo Jr. The lack of dialogue is another brilliant choice. It allows every single member of the audience to project their own identity and their own relationship with their mom onto Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo. When Dumbo is mercilessly teased because of his big ears, we empathize because we’ve all been picked on for one thing or another. When Mrs. Jumbo cradles Dumbo in her trunk, we all know that feeling. Dialogue would only get in the way.

Dumbo has a number of sequences built entirely on the interplay between music and animation. The movie starts with back-to-back songs, the aforementioned stork tune and “Casey Junior”. It’s little wonder that it won the Oscar for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. But apart from “Baby Mine”, the most memorable song and sequence in the film is undoubtedly “Pink Elephants On Parade”.

Over 75 years later, this sequence remains one of the most startling and exciting animated sequences in Disney’s history. Walt’s interest in surrealism and abstract art had already been on display in Fantasia but “Pink Elephants” took it to a new level. The sequence is a hallucinatory masterpiece. A few years later, Walt would strike up a friendship with Salvador Dalí. One imagines the subject of Dumbo must have come up in conversation once or twice.

A surreal image from Pink Elephants On Parade.

Even though so much of Dumbo is unencumbered by dialogue, the characters who do speak manage to leave a big impression. Sterling Holloway makes his Disney debut as Mr. Stork. He, of course, would have a long association with the studio in everything from The Jungle Book to Winnie The Pooh, eventually becoming the first voice actor honored as a Disney Legend.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Edward Brophy as Dumbo’s friend and protector, Timothy Q. Mouse. Brophy had a lengthy career as a character actor, usually playing sidekicks and comic relief tough guys. He worked frequently in radio but this was his one and only foray into animation. It’s a standout character that could have been just a Jiminy Cricket knockoff. Brophy’s attitude and delivery gives Timothy a more contemporary edge.

Cliff Edwards, the voice of the actual Jiminy Cricket, also turns up as Dandy Crow (or, as he was originally called…ahem…Jim Crow). All right, let’s talk about the crows. These characters were in the news again recently after Disney+ felt the need to slap a disclaimer on Dumbo and its “outdated cultural depictions”. And sure, they are exaggerated African-American caricatures and their leader is voiced by a white guy (not that anybody would have known that at the time, since none of the voice actors were credited).

But animation, especially this particular cartoony style of animation, is built on caricature. What is the herd of gossiping elephants if not an exaggerated caricature of matronly women? Now, it would be disingenuous to claim that those two things are exactly the same. Jim Crow is too loaded to simply wave it away like that (and, to be fair, they did have the good sense to not actually refer to Edwards’ character as “Jim Crow” in the movie itself). But it would be equally wrong to ascribe any malicious intent to the characters and not acknowledge that this is simply what cartoonists and animators have done since the invention of the form.

Besides, the crows are by far the most fun characters in the movie. You empathize with Dumbo and his mom. You appreciate Timothy’s friendship and positive outlook. But you want to hang out with the crows. They get the catchiest song, the terrific “When I See An Elephant Fly”. And they’re not exactly making fun of Dumbo and Timothy in the same way that the movie’s other characters did. Finding a baby elephant and a mouse passed out in a tree gives them a pretty good reason to be incredulous at first. It doesn’t take long for them to change their tune and help Dumbo and Timothy out by providing the “Magic Feather”. They’re smart, they’re free, they’re funny. The crows are awesome and I find it hard to believe that anyone could be genuinely offended by them.

Dumbo went on to become a huge hit for Disney, almost single-handedly bringing the studio back from the brink of bankruptcy. Appropriately enough, the studio has continued to use it as a cash cow ever since. For years, Disney has floated Dumbo as a sort of test balloon for new technologies and formats. In 1955, Walt allowed it to be shown on television for the first time. At the dawn of the home video era, Disney was reluctant to embrace the VCR. But in 1981, Dumbo and Alice In Wonderland became the first Disney animated classics to be released on VHS and Betamax.

Dumbo VHS Clamshell release from 1981.

Since then, it’s become one of the studio’s most frequently re-released titles on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray. Disney has worked hard to cultivate a mystique around certain titles, locking them away in the notorious Disney Vault for years at a time. But Dumbo is one of the few that you can grab a copy of pretty much any time you please. You can order it from Amazon right now for about 10 bucks, a bargain compared to most of the other movies we’ve looked at so far.

Perhaps because it’s so ubiquitous or perhaps because it’s so deceptively simple, even devoted Disney fans tend to overlook Dumbo. It’s definitely an unusual film. We all know it as a movie about a flying elephant but the movie ends moments after Dumbo masters the skill. It’s an abrupt but somehow still satisfying conclusion. After being bullied, ridiculed and traumatically separated from his mom, Dumbo’s been through enough. He’s earned his happy ending.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Fantasia

In various interviews over the years, George Lucas, a filmmaker who will eventually have dealings with the studio under consideration in this column, has mentioned his apparently life-long desire to make experimental, avant-garde films. As recently as the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, Lucas told Stephen Colbert that he’d be focusing on experimental filmmaking now that the burden of running the Star Wars Cash Printing Machine® had been passed to the House of Mouse.

Assuming he’s actually making these movies (and that’s a pretty big “if”…he’s been talking about it for several decades now), don’t expect to see them any time soon. He claims he’ll only be showing them to his friends. Frankly, that kind of makes sense. After all, who would expect the creator of one of the most populist entertainments of all time to make an experimental, art-house film and release it to a wide audience?

And yet, in 1940, that is exactly what Walt Disney did when he released Fantasia, his most ambitious feature to date and arguably the riskiest project the studio has released to this day. Where Snow White and Pinocchio aimed to showcase animation’s potential as a storytelling medium, Fantasia wanted nothing less than to elevate the form to the realm of pure art. This wasn’t just another cartoon. This was an event. This was something new.

It didn’t start off that way. Disney’s original plan was simply to create a deluxe Silly Symphony to help boost the flagging popularity of his signature star, Mickey Mouse. He acquired the rights to Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and set to work adapting the story as a starring vehicle for Mickey. By chance, Walt happened to meet Leopold Stokowski, the famous conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, right around the same time and told him about the short. Stokowski liked both the music and Disney and agreed to conduct the piece.

As Walt continued to get more excited by the possibilities of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the budget kept going up. Going over-budget seemed to be a recurring theme for Disney in these days. But unlike the feature-length Snow White or Pinocchio, it quickly became apparent that there was no way a short film like this would be able to recoup its costs at the box office. So it was decided to make The Sorcerer’s Apprentice one segment of a longer concert feature (imaginatively titled The Concert Feature at the time). Disney and Stokowski contacted music critic and radio personality Deems Taylor, who would end up providing on-screen commentary throughout the film, to help the Disney story department with the music selection.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice remains the one thing everyone remembers from Fantasia. Even if you haven’t seen the movie (and I’d wager that it’s probably the least-seen of the movies widely considered to be top-tier Disney Classics), you’ve probably seen this one segment. Disney wisely put Mickey front-and-center in most of the advertising materials and the Sorcerer Mickey look has been widely merchandized. And it is a terrific piece of animation. The music is wonderful, the animation is lovely and Mickey is his usual fun and friendly self. It’s also kind of scary, especially for little kids. The Sorcerer himself is an imposing figure and the sight of Mickey axe-murdering a sentient broomstick is pretty intense, even in shadow. But it’s just one small part of Fantasia and it takes some patience to get there.

The movie’s first segment, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, is either startlingly bold or mind-numbingly boring, depending on your perspective. As an animation fan, it’s a stunning display of abstract visuals and state-of-the-art effects work. But if you’re a kid or even a more casual movie fan, it’s a bit of a litmus test for how you’ll respond to the rest of the movie. If nothing else, Disney sequenced Fantasia brilliantly. You’ll know within the first ten minutes if this movie’s going to be your jam or not.

The next segment is slightly less abstract as Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite is brought to life with flittering fairies, dancing mushrooms and flowers, and cascading leaves. Again, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the artistry on display in this sequence. But you can admire the craft and still be left finding this all a little dull. It’s lovely to look at but not much more. The last time I saw Fantasia theatrically, one impatient little girl spent much of the sequence asking her mom, “When’s Mickey coming?”

Mickey does finally show up next, only to be followed by another lengthy, ambitiously abstract piece, this one set to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Again, this is a stunning piece of animation depicting nothing less than the dawn of life on Earth up to the extinction of the dinosaurs. But the rhythm of the sequence is very different from what most people expected from animation, especially at that time. Most animated shorts and features had a predictable gag structure: loosely connected vignettes with set-ups and punchlines. The Rite of Spring has none of that. It simply flows along at its own pace, making big leaps here and there before settling back into its languid groove.

Most of the highlights of Fantasia are found in its second act. Following an intermission and a fun “Meet the Soundtrack” vignette, we find ourselves in the mythological world of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. This is done in a more traditionally cartoonish style and it’s cute, if not particularly memorable.

(I should add that this is also one of our earliest examples of Disney’s long line of revisionist history. In the late 1960s, a few shots depicting stereotypical black female centaurs were removed. You can find images of them online if you’d like. I’m somewhat torn on the subject in this case. On the one hand, I think art should reflect the time in which it was made and shouldn’t be altered after the fact. But on the other, I think most modern audiences would be completely thrown out of the movie if these racially exaggerated characters suddenly popped up out of nowhere. So I do think the studio made the right call here. Disney’s complicated history with race will definitely come up again in this column.)

Fantasia saved its best segments for last, starting with Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours. If there’s a major criticism that can be leveled at Fantasia it’s that most of the segments feel exceedingly self-serious. Even Mickey Mouse feels like he’s straining for artistic credibility at times. Coming toward the program’s end, Dance of the Hours, directed by Disney veterans Norm Ferguson and T. Hee, feels almost like a parody of the rest of the film. A slapstick ballet performed by ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators, Dance of the Hours is genuinely inspired.

Finally, we come to the grand finale: a proto-mash-up of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and Schubert’s Ave Maria. Night on Bald Mountain is a masterpiece of animation: intense, stark and unforgettable. In the late 1960s, a new generation discovered Fantasia for…let’s say, completely different reasons than Walt Disney had intended. What’s surprising is that the Disney studio made no effort to discourage that audience. Instead, they leaned into it with a new psychedelic ad campaign that emphasized Bald Mountain‘s demonic Chernabog over Mickey Mouse.

Fantasia debuted in November of 1940 and played around the country roadshow-style utilizing an early stereophonic sound system called Fantasound. Critically, it was a resounding success. Film critics hailed it as a significant milestone, not just in animation but in cinema in general. The Academy couldn’t figure out how to squeeze it into one of their usual categories, so they gave it two Honorary Oscars.

Audiences packed houses for months but even with the more expensive roadshow admission prices, Fantasia didn’t turn a profit. Part of the problem was the expense of installing the new Fantasound system into theatres. As World War II broke out, plans for a European release were cancelled and the Fantasound equipment was given over to the war effort.

Not everyone was impressed by Fantasia. Classical music critics took issue with everything from the music selection to Stokowski’s arrangements to the very idea of the film itself. The only living composer whose work was represented in the film was Igor Stravinsky and he absolutely hated it.

Despite these setbacks, Walt remained proud of what he’d accomplished. He envisioned Fantasia as an evolving program that could be refreshed every few years with new segments added and old ones taken out. He kept the story department busy developing potential new segments for months. But when the US formally entered World War II, Walt was forced to drop his ambitious plans for future Fantasias. More than 50 years later, a new Fantasia program would finally arrive in theatres. But we’ll get to that later.

In the end, Fantasia is a movie that you can’t help but admire even if it remains a difficult movie to truly love. It’s an audacious experiment and a dazzling showcase for some of the finest animation the medium would ever produce. But it’s also an anthology film, which means that as a movie, it’s only as strong as its weakest segment. Sure, Fantasia can be a little boring, a little saccharine, even a little cornball. But in this case, it’s the effort and intent behind the film that matters more than the movie itself. I may not love Fantasia. But I do love that Fantasia exists.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Pinocchio

After the phenomenal success of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, a dream project that had taken years to bring to the screen, Walt Disney wasn’t entirely sure what to do for an encore. Snow White had been a meticulous demonstration of the capabilities of feature-length animation. For his next trick, Walt knew he had to push the envelope even further.

In spring of 1937, about 8 months before the premiere of Snow White, Walt bought the rights to Felix Salten’s novel Bambi, A Life In The Woods, intending it to be the studio’s second animated feature. A few months later, animator Norm Ferguson brought in a copy of the Italian children’s book The Adventures Of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. Walt immediately saw its possibilities and put Pinocchio in line to become Movie #3.

But by 1938, the team had run into trouble with Bambi. The challenge of animating realistic deer had proven to be more difficult than anticipated. So Walt switched things up and moved Pinocchio to the head of the line.

In many ways, Disney simply stuck with what worked about Snow White. Both are based on classic works of children’s literature. Indeed, both films start with the literal opening of a book, a bit of cinematic shorthand for “based on a classic story” that the studio and countless other filmmakers still use to this day.

But there are some key differences in the source material. Snow White was based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. Their version dated back about a century or so and different variations of the Snow White story had been around before the Grimms codified it. Pinocchio was based on an Italian novel that had originally been serialized in a children’s magazine beginning in 1881. Those stories were collected in 1883 and first translated into English in 1892. With astounding speed, it became one of the most translated and beloved children’s books of all time. So even though Pinocchio may have seemed like a tale as old as time (to borrow a phrase from a much later Disney fairy tale), it had really only been around for about 50 years.

The episodic nature of Collodi’s book leant itself to Disney’s gag-focused style of storytelling. But some of the darker elements of the book would need to be cut or changed to suit Walt’s taste.

Over the years, I’ve heard people say that Pinocchio is their favorite Disney movie. I’ve also known people who absolutely hated it as a child. More often than not, both of these groups cite the exact same reason for either loving or hating it: it’s too scary. Well, it’s nothing compared to Collodi’s book. In the original, Pinocchio is a horrible little brat and compulsive liar who immediately starts kicking Geppetto the second the old woodcarver finishes giving him feet. The book does have a talking cricket who tries to give Pinocchio some advice but the puppet kills it with a hammer. Talk about a grim fairy tale.

Disney’s first order of business was to make Pinocchio himself more likable. He softened and humanized the design of the character considerably. It’s a testament to the animators’ talent that you can even tell the difference when Pinocchio does eventually turn into a real boy. Apart from his exposed wooden arms and legs, his dominant feature is his head, with its expressive face and floppy shock of black hair. It’s very easy to forget that Pinocchio is a puppet.

Another key to that illusion is the casting of young Dickie Jones as the voice of Pinocchio. Jones would have been around 11 or 12 when he recorded the part, which I believe would have made this one of the first times an actual child provided the voice of an animated child. (There might be others…don’t @ me about this.) The other main juvenile role, the ill-fated Lampwick, was voiced by Frankie Darro, who was 10 years older than Dickie Jones.

Disney’s other brilliant idea was promoting the dead cricket to co-star status. Jiminy Cricket (voiced by popular singer/actor Cliff Edwards) became the prototype for a long line of Disney supporting characters voiced by celebrities. He starts the movie singing “When You Wish Upon A Star,” then breaks the fourth wall and comments on it (“Pretty, huh?”). He’s quick with a snappy comeback or an aside and speaks a modern American dialect. It is not a big leap to get from Jiminy Cricket to Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin.

Jiminy Cricket also became one of the few characters introduced in a feature that became a full-fledged, stand-alone star in his own right. Sure, Disney is happy to keep their characters active through little cameos and appearances in comics, games and merchandising. But Jiminy Cricket was able to join the Disney pantheon alongside such icons as Mickey, Donald and Goofy. His cheery, home-spun demeanor made him an ideal host for educational films and TV specials throughout the 1950s and 60s.

Dickie Jones and Cliff Edwards make a terrific pair as Pinocchio and Jiminy. Together, they provide a real feeling of innocence and optimism, which certainly helps the movie stay warm and inviting even when things get dark. And let’s face it, Pinocchio gets pretty darn dark even with Collodi’s sharpest edges filed down.

It’s clear from the get-go that characters like Honest John (a.k.a. J. Worthington Foulfellow), Gideon and the puppet-master Stromboli are up to no good. But it isn’t clear just how bad things are going to get until Stromboli tosses Pinocchio into a birdcage as Geppetto braves a torrential rainstorm to track him down. It’s right around the time the Blue Fairy demonstrates that lying causes Pinocchio’s nose to grow (something that only happens once in the movie, despite how indelible that image has become) that the movie really crosses over into nightmare territory.

Pinocchio’s next stop is Pleasure Island, where the sinister Coachman rounds up disobedient little boys, offers them every hedonistic delight a prepubescent mind could imagine, then sells them into slavery once they’ve made literal jackasses of themselves. This sequence alone is probably responsible for countless bad dreams. Pleasure Island itself is like a cross between Atlantic City, Coney Island and Thunderdome: one of the “attractions” is just a big tent where everybody beats each other up. And Lampwick’s transformation into a donkey is genuinely disturbing. A lot of it happens in shadow but you actually see his hands transform into hooves. No other movie, animated or live action, would come close to an effect like that for decades.

But I think one of the biggest reasons that the Pleasure Island sequence had such a big impact on kids is that it remains unresolved. Lampwick and the rest of the kids are not rescued. Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio consider themselves lucky to escape with their own lives. Of all the little details in Pinocchio that I think would be changed if Disney made this movie today (including all the smoking, drinking and the weird sexual tension between the obviously underage Pinocchio and the various female puppets during the “I’ve Got No Strings” number), this is one that stands out the most. Today’s play-it-safe filmmaking by committee would demand that Jiminy and Pinocchio go back to rescue those kids. It’d probably derail the rest of the movie but they’d still try to shoehorn it in somehow.

All of this brings us to Monstro the whale. If Pleasure Island didn’t give you nightmares as a kid, Monstro probably did. Monstro lives up to his name. He looks completely unlike any other character in the Disney canon. He looks less like a character and more like a background painting come to life. Monstro is a force of nature that dominates the screen. And the final showdown with Monstro offers some of the most stunning effects animation ever produced, every frame of which was produced by hand. It’s simply breathtaking.

To this day, Pinocchio remains a high-water mark for hand-drawn animation. Every single frame is rich with extraordinary detail, whether it’s Geppetto’s workshop, Pleasure Island or the belly of the whale. And the Disney animators took everything they learned from Snow White and kicked it to the next level. The characters are a fluid, seamless blend of realistic humans (ironically, the Blue Fairy is the most realistic character in the film), slightly caricatured figures (Geppetto, Stromboli and the Coachman), anthropomorphized animals (Jiminy Cricket and Honest John), regular animals (Cleo, Figaro and Monstro), and puppets, both living and otherwise. Somehow, this odd mix works. You never question why a fox and a cat are walking around, dressed in people-clothes and making shady deals with humans. The animators give each character weight and personality that establishes their place in this fantastic world.

Pinocchio would also make history as the first animated feature to win competitive Academy Awards, for Best Original Score and Best Original Song. These days, Disney wins one or both of those categories more often than not but back then, it was very much the exception, not the rule. “When You Wish Upon A Star” was an instant classic that soon became the official theme of Walt Disney Studios. Today you hear it every time you watch a Disney movie.

Creatively, Pinocchio was a home run, at least as good if not better than Snow White. Financially, it was another story. Pinocchio had cost twice as much as Snow White but it didn’t come close to matching its spectacular box office success. At least part of this was due to the fact that European and Asian markets were closed off thanks to the outbreak of World War II. But even taking that into account, Pinocchio was a huge disappointment for both the studio and for Walt Disney personally.

Today, of course, Pinocchio is widely regarded as a masterpiece. Some even consider it to be Disney’s crowning achievement. I don’t know if I’d go quite that far. It’d be kind of depressing to think that it’s all downhill from here when I’m only two columns in to this project. But Pinocchio has more than earned its reputation as one of the finest animated features of all time. It’s funny, touching, scary, dazzling to look at and impossible to forget.

VERDICT: Disney Plus