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

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.”

Title: Operation Dumbo Drop

Year: 1995

Source materials: based on a true story by United States Army Major Jim Morris.

Budget: $24 million

Box office: $24,670,346

Plot: During the Vietnam War in 1968, Green Beret Captain Sam Cahill has been working hard to create good relations between the United States and Montagnard Vietnamese in the village of Dak Nhe, which occupies an important observation point near the clandestine Ho Chi Minh trail. Cahill is coming close to his discharge, and explains to his successor, Captain T.C. Doyle, the delicate nature of Vietnamese customs as well as the counterintelligence involving covert enemy activity.


In a lapse of judgment with surrounding village children, a child steals a Nestlé Crunch bar from Doyle’s backpack; the wrapper, when found, lets the NVA know of the local villagers’ cooperation with the Americans. As punishment, Brigadier Nguyen of the NVA, orders his subordinate, Captain Quang, to kill the villagers’ elephant right before a spiritual festival. To aid the villagers, Cahill promises to replace the slain elephant before their upcoming ceremony while Doyle (whom the villagers blame for the elephant’s death) reluctantly agrees to help.

At camp, Major Pederson assigns Cahill and Doyle, with Doyle in command, to secure and deliver a new elephant to the villagers, as well as two soldiers, Specialist 4 Harvey Ashford and Specialist 5 Lawrence Farley. Cahill blackmails Chief Warrant Officer 3 David Poole into helping as well. They purchase an elephant known as Bo Tat from a local Vietnamese trader. They also agree to take along Bo Tat’s handler, Linh, who has experience with verbal commands in guiding the elephant.


Along the way, NVA soldiers attempt to stop them. Following a failed air transport, the soldiers use a combination of methods to reach Pleiku Air Base before the final stage of their journey to Dak Nhe. At Pleiku Air Base, Major Pederson notifies the captains that the mission has been cancelled. The Ho Chi Minh trial has changed direction, and they no longer need the support of the local village. A CIA airstrip near Dak Nhe has already been destroyed by the NVA, making a landing by plane impossible. Against regulations, they commandeer a cargo aircraft, intending to parachute themselves and Bo Tat into Dak Nhe. The aircraft comes under enemy fire, forcing them and Bo Tat to parachute out early.


They land unharmed in and around the village, except for Ashford, who gets stuck in a tree and becomes separated from the rest. NVA forces suddenly appear, threatening to take the remaining soldiers hostage and kill the elephant. Ashford, however, is able to free himself and create a diversion long enough to distract and incapacitate the NVA troops. The villagers hold their festival with Bo Tat in the place of honor. When Cahill radios the Air Base, he is informed that the supply route has changed direction again, back to the village. That fact, combined with their capture of high-ranking enemy officers, has prompted the U.S. Army to sanction their relief mission post-facto, and confirm Doyle’s original mission, to replace Cahill as liaison officer in the village.

Background: The premise is based on the cooperation of South Vietnamese villagers and the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. The U.S. Army viewed many villages as having a strategic value due to their proximity to enemy weapons supply routes, such as the Ho Chi Minh trail. Elephants found in villages were typically the primary source of farm labor. To appease hostile villagers, the U.S. offered elephants as a token of appreciation. The film is based on a story depicted by retired United States Army Major Jim Morris, who related his experiences surrounding the elephant air-drops during the war.


Production: Principal filming took place primarily on location in Thailand. Other filming locations included film studios in Los Angeles, California and Miami, Florida.

“The movie was so painstakingly terrible — because it took a long time to shoot — that all of us actually had pictures of the things that we were gonna buy with our money to keep us going. I had a picture of this property in Connecticut. Ray Liotta had a picture of a house that he was building outside L.A., and Danny Glover had a picture of a property in San Francisco he was gonna buy. That’s how we would get through it.” -Denis Leary

A 26-year-old Asian elephant Tai was used for the part of Bo Tat. The female elephant was chosen for the part because of her calm demeanor and friendly disposition, which allowed her to be placid and relaxed during scenes with simulated gunfire. Certain scenes where the elephant was shown aboard a marine boat actually had I-beams under the deck to support the animal. Additionally, ballast was added to the boat to keep it afloat. One of the later scenes where the elephant was supposedly aboard the aircraft while under gun and missile fire was filmed in cuts, with both fake elephants and a mechanical elephant being used in the jump. The real elephant was used only for close-ups.

During the village food cart scene, a trainer as an extra, ran alongside the elephant telling her to keep moving. There was also another trainer in front of her encouraging her constant movement and ensuring that nothing got in her path. Wire was attached to crates and tables to pull them over as the elephant ran by, making it appear as though she were knocking everything aside.

To ensure the health of the elephant, her food and water, including her bathing water, was shipped from the U.S. to Thailand throughout the production. Furthermore, she was bathed in purified water every day. Young Thai men were hired to hold umbrellas over the elephant when the cameras were not shooting. Throughout filming, almost everything the elephant walked on was reinforced with timber and steel.

Cast: Denis Leary returns as Chief Warrant Officer 3 David Poole. James Hong returns as Y B’ham.

Danny Glover as Captain Sam Cahill. He is known for his role as Roger Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon film series. He also has leading roles in the films The Color Purple, To Sleep with Anger, Predator 2, Angels in the Outfield, Silverado, Witness, The Royal Tenenbaums, Saw, Shooter, 2012, Death at a Funeral, Beyond the Lights, Dirty Grandpa, and Sorry to Bother You. Ray Liotta as Captain T.C. Doyle. He is known for playing Henry Hill in Goodfellas. His other roles include Ray Sinclair in Something Wild, Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams, Officer Pete Davis in Unlawful Entry, Officer Gary Figgis in Cop Land, Paul Krendler in Hannibal, Fred Jung in Blow, Tommy Vercetti in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Chief Gus Monroe in John Q, Samuel Rhodes in Identity, himself in Bee Movie, Markie Trattman in Killing Them Softly, and Peter Deluca in The Place Beyond the Pines. He also starred as Lieutenant Matt Wozniak in the television drama Shades of Blue.

Doug E. Doug 1 as Specialist 4 Harvey Ashford. He has appeared in a number of films, including Jungle Fever, Hangin’ with the Homeboys, Class Act, Cool Runnings, the remake of Disney’s That Darn Cat, and Eight Legged Freaks. He was the star of his own short-lived ABC sitcom, Where I Live. He had a voice role in Shark Tale, and also appeared on two episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Corin Nemec 2 as Specialist 5 Lawrence Farley. Nemec is known for playing the title character in Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Jonas Quinn in Stargate SG-1, and Harold Lauder in the miniseries The Stand. Nemec is known in India for his role as Allan in Parzania.

Critical Reception:

  • Hal Hinson, writing in The Washington Post said, the film is “so peculiar that one barely knows where to start.” He noted that “the real audience for the film—the kids—will have not the slightest hint of all this. They’ll be far too consumed—as well they should be—with the goofy antics of Bo-Tat, who, as movie elephants go, is actually pretty wonderful.” In mixed fashion, he concluded by saying, “Operation Dumbo Drop isn’t a shoddy piece of work or a cynical one. It’s well acted, well directed and far more interesting visually than most children’s films. In its heart of hearts, though, it is more than slightly schizoid. On the one hand, it’s a diverting entertainment for children and young adults; on the other, it’s a ludicrous fantasy about a war whose complexities cannot be contained by facile metaphors.”
  • Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times offered a mostly negative review commenting, “the story is so sentimentalized, so sanitized into a family comedy, that I do doubt the reality was anything like this.” He expressed disappointment by saying, “There is a moment when Nguyen can shoot the elephant, but chooses not to, using dialogue that I somehow doubt was uttered by any member of the Viet Cong at any time: ‘I did not join this army to shoot elephants – especially ones that fly.’ ” In conclusion he sadly noted, “As a family movie, “Operation Dumbo Drop” is sort of entertaining. As history, it’s shameless.”
  • In the Deseret News, critic Chris Hicks reserved a mild compliment for some of the lead acting and directing saying, “Glover and Liotta play against each other pretty well, though there is none of the chemistry Glover has with Mel Gibson in the “Lethal Weapon” films.” He noted how director Wincer “moves things along quite well, and there is some impressive stunt work”. But overall, he felt the film’s screenplay was “strictly by-the-numbers stuff and contains some wildly implausible elements.”
  • Janet Maslin writing in The New York Times felt the film was at its most, “pleasantly innocuous when it doesn’t strain itself with that kind of moralizing and instead concentrates on the logistical nightmare of elephant-moving. Beyond that, it doesn’t have much plot, but the idea of tossing an elephant out of an airplane certainly makes for adequate suspense.”
  • In comparison to other films, Maslin thought, “The model for this is a lot closer to “McHale’s Navy,” which is mentioned here, than it is to “Platoon.” But in the end, this generally lighthearted Vietnam caper does try to teach a lesson of sorts, since the gift of an elephant becomes a form of war reparations.”
  • In a mostly positive review, Joe Leydon writing in Variety, felt Operation Dumbo Drop was “a well-crafted and entertaining pic with broad, cross-generational appeal.” and that “Glover is well cast and establishes an effectively edgy give-and-take with Liotta.” He also reserved praise for “Russell Boyd’s splendid cinematography and Rick Lazzarini’s convincing animatronics.”
  • Film critic Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film a thumbs down review gruffly calling it, “preposterous” and saying “I’m not buying it all the way through.” He also ridiculed the outdoor market scene as “the world’s most dangerous profession in the movies; selling fruit on a city street.”
  • Lisa Schwarzbaum writing for Entertainment Weekly gave the film a positive “B Grade” rating and viewed the film as a “concept, supposedly based on a true story, is weird — this is what Vietnam movies have come to? But at least the Disney quadruped has the grace to say nothing, and Leary, still an interesting motormouth, knows enough not to smoke or swear when there are elephants around.”
  • Peter Stack writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, saw the film as “not the terrible movie that its ubiquitous trailers would indicate. But it is an odd one,” and that “Glover and Liotta, though not exactly great comic actors, play off each other with real spark, the two vying for command of the outlandish mission to deliver the elephant across 200 miles of impossible jungle terrain to the mountain village.”

My take: Well it was cute in places, but otherwise rather forgettable.

Available on Disney +?: yes

Next Week: Princess Diaries