In 1941, the fate of the Disney Studios rested upon a single film, for the second time in four years. The one-two punch of Pinocchio and Fantasia, both of them costing astronomical sums and both of them crashing and burning at the box office, had left the company teetering right on the edge of bankruptcy. The last-ditch effort to get some money in the studio coffers was to make an extremely cheap little circus movie based upon a story that Walt Disney had to be tricked into liking, by two story men: the great Joe Grant and the less famous but still pretty great Dick Huemer. Lucky for Walt that they managed to change his mind, for Dumbo proved to be a massive hit at a moment when the studio needed a massive hit rather desperately, grossing more than its two immediate predecessors combined on a budget smaller than any other feature-length film in the studio's history.
In the process, Dumbo also redefined what Disney animation was going to be all about. The artistic zenith achieved in Pinocchio and Fantasia would never again be equaled, nor was the attempt really even made, except in small ways in the 1990s. The lesson learned in 1940-'41 was this: ambition bombs, charm and sentiment sell. Exceptions spring to mind, of course, but for the most part, if we can suggest that there is a Dumbo-style Disney feature or a Pinocchio-style Disney feature, the overwhelming majority of them were Dumbo-style. Make no mistake, I flat-out adore Dumbo: it is in my Top 5 Disney features of all time. Much of what I adore about it is indeed the scaling-back, the simplicity of the visuals and story. I'm just observing what seems to me a trend towards warmer, family-friendly narratives and bright visuals, away from the opulent visuals and ultimately chilly tone of the two 1940 features.
Dumbo is the shortest of all Disney features (save one of the "package films"), and even so its narrative is hardly robust enough to fill 64 minutes. A little elephant is delivered by a prim stork to a circus traveling north from Florida; he becomes the subject of ridicule because of his large ears; his mother is imprisoned for trying to protect him; a mouse befriends him when no-one else will, through his increasing humiliations in the circus; one night he gets drunk and wakes up in a tree, and realises he can fly, thanks to the very same ears that have given him so much shame; fame, fortune and the sincere contrition of those who belittled him follow. Even more than the studio's actual fairy-tale adaptations, this has the tang of a fable to it. Not least because of its relative dearth of dialogue (Dumbo himself is the only non-speaking protagonist in any Disney feature) and an editing pattern which serves to divide the already slender film up into three or four-minute chunks; in essence it's a series of pantomimed vignettes, and after a while it no longer feels like a traditional drama, but something like a "stations of the cross" play. Forgive me the idiotic comparison, but I couldn't think of anything else that captured the feeling of what I was looking for - certainly, I'm not arguing that Dumbo is a Christ figure! But the movie has a "scenes from the life" feeling that pulls it out of time - ironic, considering that it was the first Disney feature with a contemporary setting.
For all that, it is undoubtedly one of the most emotionally potent of all animated movies; I might be inclined to say, of all movies, period. Dumbo himself is a horribly appealing character, with his large eyes and soft lines (courtesy of Bill Tytla, looking to get away from the villains that had defined his career to this point), the kind of protagonist that you rather ache for than sympathise with; sympathy doesn't cover the viewer's desire to shield the little elephant from all misery and wrong (which is not to say we take the place of his mother; we rather take the place of Timothy the mouse, demonstrated especially in the heartbreaking "Baby Mine" sequence, one of the sweetly saddest moments in all of cinema, when we adopt his POV watching Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo). This is an emotionally enervating film to watch in a way that none of the previous Disney films even began to approach (Pinocchio is enervating, but in a wholly different way); yet many, many Disney films would copy it in the future. "Kill the parent" becomes almost a sick joke in Disney history, beginning with the film immediately to follow Dumbo, Bambi, but somehow not a one of those films achieves, in its bloodlust, the same emotional crush that comes from Dumbo be separated from his mother by caprice and the indifference of others, rather than death. The knowledge that a parent has died can be processed. The knowledge that a parent lies just on the other side of some iron bars, and you can't get to her, that is a much crueler thing.
Way back when, I think I suggest that Dumbo was a light movie, which is clearly not what I've just argued. What I was referring to then was both its unabashed sentimentality, complete with triumphant ending, and it's easy, simple visual style. This is second of only three Disney features with watercolor backgrounds, after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the effect is largely the same in both films: the world of the movie is softer and warmer, like a picture book, and it's far more inviting than the richer and more detailed oil and gouache paintings that are found everywhere else in Disney's canon. At the same time, owing I imagine more to cheapness and haste than to an actual choice on the part of Walt Disney or (less likely) supervising director Ben Sharpsteen, who also co-directed Pinocchio, the film is animated with a markedly reduced level of detail not just from the three earlier features, but even from the Silly Symphonies shorts. This could be a desperate flaw in a number of other contexts, but it works very well here: the animals and people sketched out in the smallest number of visual traits necessary (sometimes lacking even a face!) give the film a hazy, dreamy quality unique to itself; not only is like a child's book, it is somewhat like a child's illustration, solid colors and smooth surfaces all 'round. This half-formed art, I think, contributes a great deal to the film's innocence, and the wide-eyed joy it takes in its own slight story.
With one exception, and it's arguably the most famous part of the film. "Pink Elephants on Parade", directed by Norm Ferguson and animated by Hicks Lokey, Howard Swift and Frank Thomas (who would later become prominent as one of the great creators of villainous women characters, and was one of the Nine Old Men), is a nightmarish masterpiece of design and animation and music, a dizzying blast into a drunken stupor that looks nothing like actual intoxication, but when something has this much nightmarish power, it seems awfully silly to complain about something minor like that. The beyond-bold use of neon colors married to jet black backgrounds looks absolutely unlike anything else in mainstream animation in 1941 (it looks pretty un-mainstream in 2009, for that matter), to say nothing of the constant morphing of objects that seem to have no physical permanence whatever - the classic squash and stretch technique in service of a hallucination, rather than goofy physical comedy.
Visually and emotionally, Dumbo is a masterpiece. There's just one sticking point: it is the first Disney movie with really significant race problems, if you will. Fantasia had its infamous Sunflower the Black Centaur, but sanitised history has swallowed her up whole. You can't do anything to cut the crows out of Dumbo, not least because they sing the film's absolute best song, "When I See an Elephant Fly". And they are pure, unmitigated stereotypes, not necessarily the most insulting stereotypes imaginable, mind you, but stereotypes. It is possible, though shallow, to defend the crows by pointing out that they are the only characters who show any affection for Dumbo at all; and I noticed at times that the specific language of the other elephants' rejection of Dumbo takes a distinctly segregationist pitch. So a thoroughly dedicated apologist could make the argument that Dumbo is a coded pro-civil rights statement: the obviously African-American crows giving aid and comfort to the elephant because he is a metaphorical stand-in for oppressed non-white people in America. I am not going to be that apologist, because it's a flimsy argument, and the crows are unabashed stereotypes, and you can't change that. Racist representation is something that just happened in movies in the 1940s, and it's a terrible pity, but if we're to discount any film with racist overtones, we will have to throw out a great many masterpieces, and not all of them made by white American men. Am I bothered by the crows? Absolutely. Do they invalidate Dumbo? Absolutely not. Besides, as racist caricatures in the '40s go, there is a great deal of room for them to have been infinitely worse.
That was a touch heavy and strident, so let me end on a happier note by simply reiterating what I've said already: Dumbo is an extraordinarily charming little movie made from a wholly innocent perspective that was never captured so perfectly by Disney's story men or animators. It is, perhaps, the first Disney "family" film, rather than a "everybody" film - the difference is not incidental - and thus the beginning of the road that led to the complete ghettoizing of animation in Hollywood; but that's not Dumbo's fault, except that it's so good that, like Snow White before it, it couldn't help but spawn armies of imitators.