In his first years as a producer of animated features, Walt Disney was the most ambitious man in Hollywood; Orson Welles’ dreams were pallid by comparison. Disney topped the breakthrough Snow White with the pinnacle of Pinocchio, then set about wedding classical music to sophisticated, sometimes abstract cartooning in the two-hour Fantasia. (“Gee,” Walt said about the movie’s “Rite of Spring” segment, “this’ll make Stravinsky!”) But between Fantasia and the 1942 Bambi — the last fully animated single-narrative feature the studio would make until the 1950 Cinderella — the team tossed out one “little” film that nobody was planning as a classic. Just 64 min. long and made quickly for under $1 million, Dumbo was filler. Also prime and primal Disney.
In director Ben Sharpsteen’s telling of a story by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, a circus elephant named Jumbo Jr., is cruelly renamed Dumbo because of his big ears. Adhering to the by-now-standard Disney torture test for young viewers, Dumbo’s frantic mother is taken away to a “mad house” after causing a stampede. Alone in the world, the child pachyderm must take his friends where he finds them: in a sprightly mouse named Timothy and some wisecracking crows. In the tradition of children’s literature, Dumbo’s deformity proves an asset: he can fly!
Today’s moviegoers may take offense at the black stereotyping of the crow quartet, though their saucy humor is indistinguishable (in a G-rated way) from the antic characters in Barbershop or Friday. Dumbo, who never speaks, is a poignant silent clown in the tradition of Buster Keaton (the “Great Stone Face”) or Harry Langdon (the big baby), except that this big baby — and the simple, lovely fable he stars in — kept moviegoers from infant to senior smiling and sobbing for 70 years straight.