Dumbo, the little elephant with the big ears and an even bigger heart, has been with us for 70 years. Walt Disney's fourth animated feature film, Dumbo, originally was released during the fall of 1941, then re-released in theaters in 1949, 1959, 1972, and 1976. It made its debut on the Disney TV series in 1956 and first appeared on video in 1981.
Unlike other Disney features, Dumbo always has remained available on video, first on VHS, then DVD. This week, a 70th anniversary edition marks its debut in high-definition Blu-ray, restored from the film's original nitrate camera negative stored in the U.S. Library of Congress (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, $39.99, Blu-ray and DVD Combo Pack, rated G). The movie also is available in a standard DVD edition ($29.99) and as a download from disney.com/dumbo ($29.99/$39.99 high definition).
Shorter, at 64 minutes, and made at a quicker pace and for a far smaller budget (between $800,000 and $900,000) than the Disney features that preceded it (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, and Fantasia) and immediately followed it (Bambi), Dumbo was an instant success at the box office and with film critics. In his Oct. 24, 1941 review, the New York Times' Bosley Crowther, for one, called it "the most genial, the most endearing, the most completely precious cartoon feature film ever to emerge from the magical brushes of Walt Disney's wonder-working artists."
While Dumbo remains in many ways a delightful story about a baby elephant overcoming adversity by turning a physical abnormality (his oversized ears) into an attribute (he can fly!), the film always has had its problematic aspects. It is at times too scary and threatening for younger kids, and one scene has long been viewed by some critics as an example of racial stereotyping.
As is explained in the DVD's audio commentary by Pete Docter (the Oscar-winning Pixar Animation director of Up), film historian Paula Sigman, and Disney Studios animator Andreas Deja, Dumbo was more like a cartoon short than the other Disney animated features, with bright colors, simple backgrounds, an easy-to-follow story and circus animals which were drawn more like caricatures than in the naturalistic style of Snow White or Bambi. The commentary also notes that the film was made while the Disney Studios was in financial difficulty caused by the elimination of much of the European movie market by the onset of war in 1939 and the building of a new plant. And principal animation of Dumbo was completed just before the onset of a long and bitter strike by some of Disney's animators.
Many enjoyable, even thrilling, moments are packed into Dumbo, especially the little elephant's friendship with the brash, New York-accented Timothy the Mouse and, of course, his discovery of his own ability to fly. The brave little guy continually has to confront and triumph over the ridicule heaped upon him by mean female elephants, who first ignore, then ostracize Dumbo, and the circus' human clowns.
Film historians have long observed the absence of mothers in Disney films (sometimes replaced by evil stepmothers); in the case of Dumbo, the baby elephant's loving mother is chained, imprisoned, and separated from him after causing a disturbance when she thinks her child is in danger. This leads to one of the film's most tender and powerful moments -- when the little elephant visits his mother late at night and their trunks intertwine through the prison bars -- and most moving songs, "Baby Mine." But Dumbo's forced separation from his mother also is a very disturbing moment for kids, even if the two are reunited by the film's end.
The much-heralded "Pink Elephants on Parade" scene, in which Dumbo and Timothy experience strange and shocking hallucinations after drinking champagne that had been poured into a water barrel, is a tour de force of animated creativity. But the scene gets crazier and scarier, and the music becomes more sinister, as it proceeds. Its frightening images can induce nightmares in some children.
The most controversial scene in Dumbo involves the little elephant and Timothy's encounter with a group of crows in a tree high above the ground. The five crows, who are incredulous of Timothy's claim that he and Dumbo flew up to a high tree branch, are presented as black males. They all speak in a combination of jive slang and African American dialect. They wear hipster hats and sing and dance the song "When I See An Elephant Fly" in a jazzy, quick-witted style. The lead bird is named Jim Crow (a term "Safire's New Political Dictionary" defines as "laws and customs that discriminate against, segregate, or humiliate blacks," as in "Jim Crow laws") and his voice was provided by a white actor, Cliff Edwards; the other crows were voiced by members of an African-American vocal group, the Hall Johnson Choir.
In his book The Disney Films, Leonard Maltin defends this scene, writing that "most" of the controversy it has spawned is unjustified. "The crows are undeniably black," Maltin writes, "but they are black characters, not black stereotypes. There is no denigrating dialogue, or Uncle Tomism in the scene." In the DVD commentary, historian Sigman states that the scene "wasn't meant in any way to be derogatory." And it is noted that the crows become Dumbo's enthusiastic supporters and it is Jim Crow who comes up with the idea of the "magic feather" that enables Dumbo to gain the courage to fly.
The problem with these defenses of Dumbo is that they miss the context of the times. Although there were some exceptions, in the early 1940s African Americans were regularly featured in Hollywood films as comic relief for white audiences. They were often portrayed as happy-go-lucky types who loved to sing and dance. That music and dance constituted an important aspect of African-American culture is undeniable, but the reduction of African-American characters to jive-talking singers and dancers is precisely what is meant by stereotypical.
The kind of stereotyping we see in Dumbo wasn't just a product of the perspective of Disney and his crew; it was shared by many in white society, from audiences to film critics. Consider this pertinent part of the previously quoted review of Dumbo in the New York Times: "There is Jim Crow, the loud and fancy sport who cackles, 'Well, hush mah beak!' and his raffish crew of dusky satellites ..."
The point is not to suggest that Dumbo is somehow unfit for audiences of all ages on its 70th anniversary. It's simply that parents might want to consider discussing some of these matters of scariness and stereotyping with their kids before viewing the film. Then we can all cheer as the little elephant soars above the crowd, saves his mother and becomes a national hero.