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Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Dumbo

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.” (This article was originally posted on the Disqus site.)


Title: Dumbo

Year: 1941

Budget: $950,000

Gross: $1,600,000

Directed by: Supervising director: Ben Sharpsteen


A flock of storks deliver babies to circus animals while they stay at their winter quarters in Sarasota Florida. Mrs. Jumbo, one of the elephants, eagerly waits for her visit, but it doesn’t come. The circus boards the train, Casey Junior, and Mrs. Jumbo finally receives her baby who is soon tormented by the other elephants because of his large ears, and they nickname him “Dumbo”.


The elephants help to raise the circus tent. Mrs. Jumbo loses her temper at a group of boys for tormenting Dumbo, and is locked up and deemed mad. Dumbo is shunned by the other elephants and with no mother to care for him, he is now alone. Timothy Q. Mouse appoints himself as Dumbo’s mentor and protector.


After being secretly encouraged by Timothy circus director makes Dumbo the top of an elephant pyramid stunt. Dumbo trips over his ears and misses his target, injuring the other elephants and bringing down the big top. Dumbo is made a clown as a result, and plays the main role in an act that involves him falling into a vat of pie filling. Despite his newfound popularity and fame, Dumbo dislikes this job and is now more miserable than ever.

To cheer Dumbo up, Timothy takes him to visit his mother. On the way back, Dumbo cries and then starts to hiccup, so Timothy takes him for a drink of water from a bucket which, unknown to them, has accidentally had a bottle of champagne knocked into it by the clowns . As a result, Dumbo and Timothy both become drunk and see hallucinations of pink elephants.


The next morning, Dumbo and Timothy wake up in a tree. Timothy wonders how they got up in the tree, and concludes that Dumbo flew up there using his large ears as wings. With the help from a group of crows, Timothy is able to get Dumbo to fly again, using a psychological trick of a “magic feather” to boost his confidence.

Back at the circus, Dumbo performs the same stunt which involves jumping from a high building, this time, from a much higher platform thanks to the clowns speaking to the circus director earlier. On the way down, Dumbo loses the feather; Timothy quickly tells him that the feather was never magical, and that he is still able to fly. Dumbo is able to pull out of the dive and flies around the circus, finally striking back at his tormentors as a stunned audience looks on in amazement.


After this performance, Dumbo becomes a media sensation, Timothy becomes his manager, and Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo are given a private car on the circus train.

Source Material: Dumbo is based upon a children’s story written by Helen Aberson and illustrated by Harold Pearl

Background: The Disney studio was in a financial bind. Even though Snow White was a financial success, Walt used the money to build his studio in Burbank. When World War II broke out, it cut off foreign distribution for his films, so even though both Pinocchio and Fantasia were critical successes, they both initially lost money. Disney had to take a loan from Bank of America and they wanted him to keep his costs down. He was focusing on Bambi, and felt it needed time to be perfect, but in the meantime, Walt needed a hit. Disney’s head of merchandise licensing Kay Kamen brought him the story, and Disney realized that he could make the simple, straightforward story ln a tighter budget.

Animation: Watercolor paint was used to render the backgrounds. Dumbo and Snow White are the only two classic Disney features to use the technique, which was regularly employed for the various Disney cartoon shorts. The other Disney features used oil paint and gouache. However there was no lack of color, the hues in the background in the Casey Jr. sequence for example, are still vibrant.


Disney chose to go with a broader style with the picture. The characters were anamorphic animals, so they did not have to adhere to reality. The more cartoinish style allowed the animation to move faster than Bambi was taking. Even Casey Jr. was a much more stylized figure. The humans in the piece were sometimes seen in silhouette, like the roustabouts, or shadows on a canvas wall, like the clowns. This is easier and quicker to both animate and color.


Vladimir Peter “Bill” Tytla was the primary animator on the title character. He had previously animated the scene where Grumpy is kissed by Snow White. He then animated Stromboli, Yen Sid, and Chernabog. He grew tired of drawing the heavies, and Disney noticed his ability to bring out the psychological characteristics of his characters, so he was assigned to Dumbo. This time his reference was his own infant son, Peter.


Voice Actors: Although the title character does not speak, his friend Timothy Q. Mouse was played by Edward Brophy, best known as a gangster in The Thin Man.


Dumbo marks the first Disney appearances of two well-known voice actors:

Verna Felton as the Elephant Matriarch, as well as Mrs. Jumbo, Dumbo’s mother. She went on to play The Fairy Godmother, The Queen of Hearts, Aunt Sarah, Flora, Queen Leah, and Winifred the Elephant.


Sterling Holloway as Mr. Stork. He later played the adult Flower in Bambi, the Cheshire Cat, Lambert the Sheepish Lion, Kaa, Roquefort, and most famously Winnie the Pooh.


Cliff Edwards (“Jiminy Cricket”) as Jim Crow, Herman Bing as The Ringmaster, and Margaret Wright as Casey Junior. They are joined by the Hall Johnson Choir as Crow Chorus

Critical Reception: Time Magazine planned to name the character as its “Mammal of the Year” with an appearance on the cover of the magazine’s edition of December 29, 1941. However, the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 of that year shifted the news cycle away from Dumbo,

Dumbo won the 1941 Academy Award for Original Music Score, awarded to musical directors Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace. Churchill and lyricist Ned Washington were also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song for “Baby Mine”

Writer Richard Schickel charged that the crow characters in the film are African-American stereotypes in his book, The Disney Version. Defenders note that the crows form the majority of the characters in the movie who are sympathetic to Dumbo’s plight, that they are free spirits who bow to no one, and that they are intelligent characters aware of the power of self-confidence.

Legacy : Theme parks


Dumbo the Flying Elephant is a popular ride that appears in Disneyland, Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Park (Paris), and Hong Kong Disneyland. The ride is so popular they added a second wheel of elephants to the Orlando park.