Walt Disney’s short-and-sweet tale of a big-eared circus elephant hit Irish cinemas in the summer of 1942. To celebrate, animation expert Joseph Learoyd pays tribute its enduring legacy.
It is hard to think that Dumbo, one of the earliest Disney animated movies, has turned 80. Timothy the Mouse said in that film, “The very things that held you down are gonna carry you up and up and up.” No truer words were spoken in Dumbo, and 80 years on, I have the privilege of writing about this animated gem – celebrating what has made it stand tall, wave its trunk and flap its ears for viewers through the years.
Although a recent modern adaptation was made, incorporating 3D and visual effects, there is a certain 1940s charm that accompanies the original and helps us see the beauty of a foundation film that would push Disney into the behemoth it is today, and capture the hearts of children the world over.
Dumbo is a movie that is dated, that is the first thing that needs to be addressed. Is it a flawed movie, yes. Is it a movie filled with racist elements that make some of it cringey to watch in a modern era? Extremely. Through all of this, however, there is something here that, in its sixty-four-minute runtime, managed to leave us with memorable songs, quotes, moments of comedy, sadness and anguish, love and happiness, and let’s not forget the pink elephants – a sequence that to this day, despite its subject matter, is a piece of weirdly wonderful animation.
We see relationships form between the protagonists as they embark on a wonderful journey. We see animation that looks at the 12 principles of animation and allows us to watch as the creators try to tease out the modern animated feature. We get to see a main character that in his silent, adorable nature, creates a visual study of how body language can convey emotion, how the movement of something as simple as a trunk through the bars of a cage, can create powerful, anthropomorphic meaning. We feel for the characters, the sheer emotional impact that is created between a mother and son, gives us a film that pushes the boundaries of emotion and will stand up there with Bambi, as one of the saddest Disney films. Dumbo looks at differences, teaching its audience about those differences and accepting them for what they are: a uniqueness, a lesson that, with modern media constantly pushing perfect body norms and an ideal look, is as vital today as it was 80 years ago.
Now, that brings me from the narrative and the themes to the animation itself. Although we can see some clear errors, it is also clear that we can see Disney’s animators looking at ways to tell a story through movement, from the way the camera is animated in Dumbo’s flight scenes, to the silhouetted shadow scene of the clowns getting changed, even going as far as the sheer creepiness that is the pink elephant scene, a scene that has been known to give children nightmares. All of this and more helped Disney to experiment, explore and develop, using what it learned, like a mad scientist prepping his next creation. Only the fourth Disney animated feature, Dumbo is an incredible feat of dedication and craft.
Fast forward 80 years later, and Dumbo remains one of Disney’s most popular films. Why is that? Well, there’s no doubt that the story’s simplicity and emotional power have contributed to its enduring legacy, two elements that still resonate with people after all this time. But visually speaking, Dumbo is a marvel to behold, combining old and experimental ideas in order to push the medium forward, providing a bedrock from which Disney would build on. 80 years on, Dumbo doesn’t just fly, it soars. Here’s to 80 more.