Chief Justice Michael Stailey has got his magic feather. Now all he has to do is jump.
Our review of Dumbo: Big Top Edition, published June 26th, 2006, is also available.
"Why didn't I think of this before? The very things that held ya down are gonna carry ya up, and up, and up!"—Timothy Q. Mouse
The least expensive of all the Disney animated features, one Walt had little interest in making and was almost derailed by a bitter animators strike, turned out to be his personal favorite.
Facts of the Case
A newborn baby elephant with unusually large ears becomes an object of ridicule for his fellow pachyderms and circus patrons, igniting his mother's fiercely maternal instincts and causing a riot. With the once docile Mrs. Jumbo chained up and locked away, little Dumbo becomes ostracized by his pack, only to be defended and befriended by Timothy Q. Mouse, a slick wheeler dealer who sees Dumbo's abnormality as their ticket to fame and fortune. But Timothy's big plan goes horribly wrong, nearly destroying the circus and everyone in attendance. And yet, in their moment of deepest despair, our heroes discover something astounding about Dumbo that's been right under (or should we say over) their noses the entire time.
As a child of the '70s, back when Disney employed a brilliant strategy of re-releasing their classic films every seven or eight years, I had the opportunity to see Dumbo on the big screen in 1976. Only eight years old at the time, the film left an indelible impression. Thirty five years later, the emotional impact remains just as strong. Truth be told, for a simple story done on the cheap that only runs 64 minutes, this may well be one of Walt's finest pictures.
Given the scope of accomplishment from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Sleeping Beauty that may seem like an odd statement to make, but it's the honesty of the tale that makes it shine. For the same silent magic Charlie Chaplin displayed in City Lights and Modern Times works equally as well here. Our hero is a variation on the lovable tramp, put upon by society and circumstance, but somehow managing to rise above. And while there's dialogue aplenty for the supporting characters, between Dumbo and is mother there are a total of two words spoken, both uttered by Mrs. Jumbo early in the film. This gave the animators a golden opportunity to tell their story through facial expression and body language, something Chaplin perfected 15 years earlier.
The thing most people don't realize is that Walt's famed stable of "Nine Old Men" weren't working on this picture. They were all off mired in nine years worth of production on Bambi. Instead, it was the talented artists who trained those now legendary animators, the cartoonists who built the Disney studio on a backbone of Silly Symphonies and Mickey Mouse shorts that were given one final chance to take center stage. And damn if they didn't make the most of it. But therein lies an interesting disconnect amplified by this stunning Blu-ray presentation; a distinct difference in style between principal character animation and the establishing shots. For example, the sweeping stork delivery sequence that opens the film offers an effortless fluidity and emotional richness on par with Fantasia and the Fleischer Bros. Superman adventures. However, when the camera shifts to the one stork delivering Dumbo to Mrs. Jumbo, the visuals are far more reminiscent of those classic Disney shorts; clean, bright, and toony. And that dichotomy is carried throughout the film.
The other noticeable difference between Dumbo and the classic features that followed hinge on story development. There wasn't much to the original book Disney bought the rights too, and even though Joe Grant and Dick Huemer fleshed it out a great deal more, this is still an easily digestible film. There's no B-story, no scheming villain, and no dramatic twists or turns we take on Dumbo's journey to self-actualization. Plus, Walt and his team were at the height of the gag phase, so many moments exist solely to generate laughs, as opposed to serving some overarching narrative. Again, this does nothing to detract from the experience, but rather simplifies its existence and heightens the emotion. And since these were the days before Disney features became full-blown musicals, numbers like "Baby Mine" and "Pink Elephants on Parade" carried even more weight. Who can't instantly recall those brief moments of Dumbo curled up in the comfort of his mother's trunk through the bars of a makeshift prison? Or the demonically surreal menagerie of alcohol-induced pachyderm hallucinations (elephant worms, an elephant made out of elephant heads)?
Yet for all its simplistic beauty, there are those who still find fault with Dumbo. The element that sticks in the craw of most detractors are the scenes which feature the nameless, faceless African American roustabouts, and the broad comic stylings of the crows, whose leader happens to be named Jim Crow. Granted, the bantering antics seen during "When I See an Elephant Fly" are no different than any stage performance by the orchestras of Louis Jordan or Cab Calloway. But those beloved musicians escape the scrutiny given the five or six minutes on display here. I'm not a fan of whitewashing history, as we wouldn't be the culture we are today for not having transcended those transgressions. So parents sensitive to such issues should take this opportunity to educate their children on just how far we've come as a society in treating racial equality. Sure, we have a very long way to go, but at least you can see and appreciate the progress we've made from 1941 to now. What I'm trying to say is don't crucify a film for reflecting back the nature of its time. Besides, after all these decades, those damn circus clowns still freak me out. So we each have our own issues to work on.
I've said all that to tell you this…Dumbo looks phenomenal in 1080p high definition. It's like a classic Golden Book brought to life in the most pristine way. You don't need 3D for these colors to jump off the screen, nor appreciate the fine detail found in the watercolor backgrounds or the classic hand drawn animation. It took an army of men and women to bring these characters from pencil drawings to finished frame, and each of them are to be thanked for their tireless efforts. And there's not a single instance of modern digital tampering to besmirch any of it. Now, since Disney's animated features prior to Lady and the Tramp were shot in 1.37:1, the company has once again utilized the skills of a talented artist to paint the unused portion of the 16:9 frame to match the topography of the scene. You can also watch the film without the new framing, if you so choose. In terms of the audio experience, the studio offers up its enhanced 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix, which separates and balances the sound elements. Remember, this isn't Transformers, so you're not going to find some booming circus ambience enveloping your living room. What it does is give you the best possible presentation of the source material recorded a lifetime ago. Yes, the orchestral score lacks the richness of the modern age, and the sound effects are a bit tinny, but consider the technology Disney's talented sound designers were working with and everything they were able to accomplish with it. And for comparison, you can switch over to a remastered 2.0 mono track to hear the difference.
Like any high profile Disney release, the Dumbo (Blu-ray) 70th Anniversary Edition is stocked with bonus material. Thankfully, we aren't overwhelmed by the omnipresent Leonard Maltin holding our collective hand through the archive. Instead, we're offered a mix of new HD content and previous standard definition features found on the two previous DVD releases.
• Cine-Explore Experience NEW!—Join Pixar's Pete Docter, Disney animator Andreas Deja, and animation historian Paula Sigman for a running picture-in-picture journey through the film. While there is some overlap with other features, there's plenty of new material to enjoy.
• Taking Flight: The Making of Dumbo (28 min) NEW!—Following back to back financial disappointments in Pinocchio and Fantasia, Walt was in trouble. Dumbo happened to be a project the boss had no interest in making, but ultimately turned the studio around. Disney and Pixar staffers, as well as animation historians, look back at the history of the original storybook, the studio's development of the project, and all the weirdness that got in the way.
• Bonus Short (9 min)—Elmer Elephant This 1936 Silly Symphony finds a little elephant ridiculed and physically abused by his classmates for his big nose, only to have it be the one thing that saves them all from a fire.
• Bonus Short (9 min)—The Flying Mouse This 1934 Silly Symphony finds a young mouse envying the birds ability to fly and his failed attempts to recreate it. When his bravery rescues a butterfly from the web of a spider, it turns out to be a fairy who grants his wish for wings, only to have them create more problems than he bargained for.
• Deleted Scene (6 min) NEW!—"The Mouse's Tale" Timothy explains the history of why elephants are afraid of mice. In a role usually reserved to film critic Leonard Maltin, Disney producer Don Hahn introduces a rare sequence excised from Joe Grant and Dick Huemer's original story treatment, with vocals by an actor mimicking Edward Brophy's voice over vintage story sketches from the Disney archives.
• Deleted Song (4 min) NEW!—"Are You a Man or a Mouse?" Timothy attempts to cheer up Dumbo, following his comical clown debut. Wisely dropped, this comic vaudevillian number would have only clashed with the emotional punch to follow as Dumbo visits his mother.
• The Magic of Dumbo: A Ride of Passage (3 min) NEW!—A loving tribute to the Dumbo ride in Fantasyland. As a self-professed Disneyland addict, I appreciate the nostalgia people have for the ride, but the gushing about it being "the best ride in the park" is a bit much.
• Celebrating Dumbo (15 min)—The retrospective created for the film's 2006 DVD release. Features interviews with Roy E. Disney, animator Andreas Dejas, producer Don Hahn, Leonard Maltin, and more. If nothing else, it makes you appreciate how much more beautiful this Blu-ray transfer is, compared to the standard definition release.
• Sound Design (6 min)—An excerpt from the Disney short feature The Reluctant Dragon with Robert Benchley; a behind-the-scenes look a recording the soundtrack and effects for Disney's films. The sound "All Aboard!" from Dumbo is actually taken from this custom piece of animation. It also happens to be the first appearance of Casey Jr. Not sure why they used this unrestored version, as opposed to the print used in the Walt Disney Treasures Collection.
• Walt's TV Intro (1 min)—When Dumbo premiered on ABC's Disneyland, Walt gave the episode this brief setup. Interestingly enough, that presentation lopped off the entire opening the film and starts with the arrival of Sterling Holloway's Mr. Stork.
• Trailers (3 min)—The original 1941 and the 1949 re-release.
• Art Galleries—Eight different slideshow presentations covering Visual Development, Character Design, Layouts and Backgrounds, Storyboards, Production Stills, Research Stills, Publicity, and the original storybook on which Dumbo is based.
• Interactive Games—"What do you see?" asks you to guess the scrambled image. "What do you know?" tests your knowledge of elephants. You can play as an individual or as a family (up to four people).
• Screen Savers
• DVD Copy
Until now, I don't believe I've ever truly given Dumbo it's due. Overshadowed by it's far more ambitious and over-achieving siblings, this little gem showcases more heart and beauty than anyone gives it credit for. You have my unabashed recommendation to upgrade your Disney video library and donate those DVD editions to your local library, nursing home, or daycare center.
"I been done seen 'bout everything, when I see an elephant fly."
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