“Dumbo” (1941) Film Review
Written by Jambareeqi
Posted 15th June 2017
Dumbo is a Disney animated film about a baby circus elephant called Dumbo, who has extraordinarily large ears. Unfortunately, Dumbo’s mother Mrs. Jumbo has been caged away after fighting off humans that teased her baby. Luckily though, a little field mouse called Timothy is willing to look after the little guy.
Dumbo is another one of those Disney animated features that I’ve not seen since my VHS days of viewing entertainment. Revisiting the film certainly brought back vivid memories, and returned me to the innocent charm of yesteryear. The film itself left me scratching my head though, stuck wondering what Disney were even going for with this one. The film’s biggest issue is that it’s way too disjointed in terms of narrative, mainly thanks to the lack of focus on behalf of Timothy; who has the attention span of a 2 year old on caffeine.
Even though Timothy promises Dumbo to help him free his mother, he actually spends most of the movie just helping Dumbo improve his Circus career. Hang on, why should Dumbo even take a Circus career so seriously? Especially when said Circus caged his mother! Why try and get Dumbo to impress a culture that ruined his childhood?
Maybe Timothy wants to use Dumbo’s circus career to impress the ringmaster enough to free his mom? Something that the ending suggests was the plan all along, but I don’t recall Tim ever making that the clear goal, plus that plan seems pretty flimsy when you really think about it (Timothy can’t ultimately guarantee that Dumbo’s success will make the ringmaster free Dumbo’s mom, this is still an elephant that he deems too dangerous for his circus).
Yes, small children will enjoy seeing these animals being silly in a circus, but I spent the whole movie thinking “Erm… what’s Dumbo’s new act got to do with freeing his mom?” throughout all these big top sequences. There’s something frustrating about watching a film setup an engaging dramatic predicament, then suddenly lose sight of said conflict in favor of wacky antics.
Sure, Timothy does take Dumbo to his mother at one point, leading to the iconic trunk cradling moment between mother & son, but then he halts this visit so that the film can cue the famous “Pink Elephants on Parade” scene; in which Dumbo and Timothy get so drunk, that they start seeing wild pink elephant related imagery. Yes, these psychedelic hallucinations are visually inventive and colourful, but they’re not exactly necessary to the story.
The movie is also uncertain about how it wants to portray the Circus, is it a whimsical place to make Disney’s audience smile and laugh? Or is it a cruel form of entertainment? The movie wants it to be both, resulting in a bizarre passive aggressive take on Circus culture; one that left me confused about how Disney even feels about using animals for Circuses.
The thing is, the movie does open up criticism towards animal exploitation, but it’s not willing to make any kind of active protest or conclusive judgement. The film ends on a note that left me feeling bitter too, because while it is meant to be happy, it doesn’t really make the humans develop mercy or stop using animals for exploitative entertainment, casually acting like the brutality we saw at the start of the film wasn’t that bad after all.
What’s unfortunate, is that there is some potential hidden in the film’s rusty cauldron of mixed ideas. The heart of the film IS the bond between Dumbo and his mother, whose relationship is beyond sweet. Dumbo’s mother is movingly protective, kind, and loving to her disabled son; despite the ill mannered commentary made by those around her.
Any scenes involving Dumbo and his mother are almost perfect, because their connection is so beautifully tender. There’s a powerful mother-son love between them that’s rich in heartfelt affection. These scenes between Dumbo and his mother are also profoundly nuanced thanks to Dumbo’s lack of dialogue too, because his actions speak louder than words. We really do want them to reunite again, so it annoys me that freeing Jumbo takes a backseat to silly Circus acts, because seeing this family being back together is the emotional core of the film.
Dumbo himself makes the sporadically unfocused narrative watchable though, because he’s just so so so damn cute! Seriously, all his expressions and gestures make him gorgeously precious. Seeing him being bullied by judgmental mean spirited elephants is so hard to stomach, because he’s such a sweet innocent little guy, this will be especially painful for parents in the audience.
Before I end this review, I think I should address the real elephant in the room… the crows that Dumbo meets towards the film’s end. These crows have been criticised for being racist, due to them all acting like African American stereotypes, and one being uncomfortably named “Jim”. Yes, these characters could be read as offensively dated, but I’ve seen MUCH less dignified portrayals of African Americans in 1940’s animation. The crows themselves speak with intellectual manner and cool confidence, plus actually show sympathy towards Dumbo’s story; so I can’t get TOO mad at Disney for these birds.
To conclude, “Dumbo” can be sweet at times, it’s tale of a mother’s love will hit the hearts of everyone, but it’s lack of direction and focus stops it from being a satisfying well paced story. Apparently, the movie was made for cheap, plus animated by animators who specialised in shorts, and this REALLY shows in the finished product.
It had dramatic potential regarding the mother-son aspect, but clearly a lack of resources hindered the movie from being anything more than just “Okay”. If you’re after a simplistic film with hints of dark cruelty and psychedelic visuals, then Dumbo is for you; but if you want a Disney film with a strong story and conclusive coherent ideas, then Dumbo won’t be your cup of tea.