Theatrical Release: October 23, 1941 / Running Time: 64 Minutes / Rating: G
Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Voice Cast: Sterling Holloway (Mr. Stork), Edward Brophy (Timothy Q. Mouse), Verna Felton (Matriarch), Cliff Edwards (Jim Crow), Herman Bing (Ringmaster), Margaret Wright (Casey Jr.)
Songs: "Look Out For Mister Stork", "Casey Junior", "Song of the Roustabouts", "Baby Mine", "Pink Elephants on Parade", "When I See an Elephant Fly"
By Aaron Wallace
Released in 1941, Dumbo saved Walt Disney's studio. Four years earlier, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had been a tremendous success, but the two 1940 features that followed it, Pinocchio and Fantasia, had not been so lucky. While the overseas market closed and the threat of US war in Europe loomed, Walt Disney was pressured by a labor union strike inside his own studio and the prolonged production of Bambi.
As it has so often been throughout its history, the studio's vitality was at stake. Unable to rely on cartoon shorts alone, the Disney Brothers turned to another feature film project for support despite their ongoing efforts in the twitterpated deer drama that would premiere the next year. Disney needed cash and Dumbo was their money maker.
Given these circumstances, the movie needed to move through production quickly and the animators found that that wasn't a problem. Though its origins may not have been ideal, the studio found magic yet again and this time, audiences felt it too. Dumbo was a hit. Lasting only a little over an hour, it is the shortest of Walt's most famous animated classics (the oft-forgotten package film Saludos Amigos is actually quite a bit shorter) and a far cry from the two hours-plus of Fantasia. Its brevity becomes it, however, as the story fits almost perfectly inside the 64 minute runtime without failing to satisfy.
The most straightforward in narrative of any of Disney's early works, Dumbo is a very simple story. Mrs. Jumbo, a circus elephant, longs for a son and when Mr. Stork finally brings her one, she couldn't be more content. It doesn't take long for her to realize, though, that her son stands out from other elephants in one very big way -- his gigantic ears. The merciless ridicule inflicted on the young elephant invokes Mrs. Jumbo's ire and she's eventually imprisoned, leaving her son defenseless and without a friend in the world until an encouraging mouse by the name of Timothy comes along.
The quintessential underdog story, Dumbo was no doubt encouraging to the 1941 audience. On the heels of the Great Depression and the cusp of World War II, the triumphs of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck had already connected with moviegoers around the world and Dumbo was an even more resonant character. The film's messages -- never forced or made too obvious -- of overcoming obstacles and shining in the face of adversity are so universal that they remain as accessible to audiences of all ages today as they were in 1941 and have been ever since. The story's timeless potency has enabled its undeniable status as an all-time classic.
Don't be fooled by the circus setting and cute characters; Dumbo is Walt Disney's darkest film. In it, the circus world is a cruel one in which contempt and abuse are the order of the day. The protagonist is downtrodden and destitute for much of the duration. The dark storm clouds and abundant rain set the mood for the unflinching depiction of loneliness and injustice.
The love between Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo is so well-realized and masterfully conveyed that when juxtaposed with the malignancy of the outside world, Dumbo's mistreatment is heart-wrenching. For decades, the film has challenged audiences to not feel Mrs. Jumbo's anguish when she is forced outside of the world that has proven itself so callous toward her child. Yet despite all that is grim inside it, an uplifting optimism purveys throughout, and it manages to convey a warm feeling and most positive message by its end. Dumbo shows us the lowest points of life and then reminds us that it is during these very moments that life picks us back up again. In doing so, it packs an emotional punch like no other.
Its simplicity isn't limited to its story, however. The animation, too, is far more understated than any of the films that surround it. Backgrounds and colors do no more than they need to in representing an object or locale. Rather than the thick forests of Snow White and Bambi or the ornate villages of Pinocchio, Dumbo presents bright patches of blue or yellow sky. Yet along with the story, the animation must also be credited for the pathos of Dumbo.
The character design isn't particularly detailed either, but their expressive capability allows one look on a character's face to define a scene.
The characters are themselves remarkable. Dumbo is one of film history's most sympathetic creations, yet he never speaks a word. Mrs. Jumbo has but one speaking part and she, too, proves herself capable of commanding the screen. Timothy Q. Mouse, a Jiminy Cricket-like surrogate figure, is so effective in his voluntary guidance and protection of Dumbo that he emerges as the hero. The likable crows, who are at first oppositional, come in at just the right time to give leverage to the story's resolution. Even the mean-spirited Matriarch elephant in the circus seems to fit right into place, providing both humor and antagonism. Each is wholly believable and ring trues from beginning to end.
Dumbo also provides the Disney repertoire some of its most memorable numbers. "Look Out For Mr. Stork" and "Casey Junior" are both delightfully charming and a lot of fun. "When I See An Elephant Fly" is one of the most clever cases of wordplay ever assembled into a song and a perennial favorite. "Pink Elephants on Parade" is both playful and haunting; the bold sequence of animation that accompanies it is one of the most daring and memorable ventures in mainstream film. The fact that it comes about as a result of Dumbo and Timothy's drunkenness makes it even more interesting, a case study of a bygone era. Of course the the real breadwinner of Dumbo's soundtrack is "Baby Mine," a beautiful song that could not be more representative of the movie's theme and the love between Dumbo and his mother. In between the singing, the movie is accompanied by a wonderful score that is always in tune with the story.
If Dumbo has one weakness, it is that its ending feels too contained. The film's short length is never an issue except for in the last scene, which certainly works in achieving poignancy, but feels as though it could be granted a few extra minutes in which to resolve. Nevertheless, that complaint is minor in light of everything else about the movie that goes right. Its brevity and simplicity mean that it often gets overshadowed by the studio titans that surround it, but its strong emotional appeal and sensible execution have ensured its enduring legacy.
Originally released to DVD in a "60th Anniversary Edition" in 2001 (recently taken out of print), this classic is being re-released in similar fashion to a new Big Top Edition. There are several noticeable differences in the two releases, all of which are outlined in detail below as the review turns from the movie to its latest treatment on DVD.
1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio (Fullscreen)
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish),
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned
Release Date: June 6, 2006
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
White Keepcase with Side Snaps and Cardboard Slipcover
VIDEO and AUDIO
Given the minimal difference in bonus feature offerings on the new disc (outlined below), it's the advertised "new digital transfer" that everyone's dying to know about. Good news, everyone. The transfer is new and it makes for quite an improvement... for the most part. The transfer used for the previous 60th Anniversary Edition wasn't quite horrible but was hardly satisfying either. Unfortunately, the new transfer pales in comparison to the treatment bestowed upon animated classics in Disney's Platinum Edition line.
Screencap from Dumbo 60th Anniversary Edition DVD
Screencap of same frame from this Big Top Edition DVD
The abundant grain that plagued the last release has been significantly reduced, though not entirely eliminated. The transfer is obviously darker, a change that seems to be for the better, given the wider color range. The animation flows smoothly from one frame to the next with coloration that is richer and seemingly more accurate in most scenes. There are, however, exceptions, the most notable of which comes in the "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence, where the elephants aren't quite as pink as they were before. It's unlikely that the animators intended their pink to look so pale. But then, they'd likely be pleased to find that Dumbo no longer looks like a product of pencil shading, as his darker gray skin seems more appropriate in the new transfer.
The trade-off in this release is the appearance of new artifacts that show up after the restoration. These are less plentiful by far than those that showed up in the last release, again with one primary exception: "Pink Elephants on Parade." That scene bore atrocious picture quality on the last release but it's even worse for the wear on this one. Dumbo and Timothy practically fade into the blackness behind the elephants and the entire screen is littered with visual noise. That said, a few instances within actually surprise with more vibrant color. Screencap from Dumbo 60th Anniversary Edition DVD Screencap of same frame from this Big Top Edition DVD
The trade-off in this release is the appearance of new artifacts that show up after the restoration. These are less plentiful by far than those that showed up in the last release, again with one primary exception: "Pink Elephants on Parade." That scene bore atrocious picture quality on the last release but it's even worse for the wear on this one. Dumbo and Timothy practically fade into the blackness behind the elephants and the entire screen is littered with visual noise. That said, a few instances within actually surprise with more vibrant color.
Screencap from Dumbo 60th Anniversary Edition DVD
Screencap of same frame from this Big Top Edition DVD
Dumbo: Big Top Edition takes up 5.76 GB and presents the film with an average bitrate of 7.25 Mb/s. Compare that to the 6.63 GB usage of disc space and 7.27 Mb/s average bitrate on the last release and you might expect a decline in quality all around for the Big Top Edition. That simply isn't the case. It can't be said that this new transfer is a solid improvement all around. It's also frustrating that a classic as revered as Dumbo isn't getting the same kind of overhaul that its successor, Bambi, did. There is little question, however, that the picture presented by the Big Top Edition is preferable to that of the 60th Anniversary Edition. The one exception is the "Pink Elephants on Parade" scene, which, again, didn't look very good on the last release to begin with and shows a little bit of improvement here despite its general decline in quality. It should be noted that the appearance of some scenes is still quite unsatisfying on the new release despite improving on the previous one.
Some colors are still faded and brightness varies within each scene. Still, the reduction of annoying grain, more consistent presentation of the element, and improvements in coloration result in a far less fuzzy and overall more pleasing transfer. It's also worth noting here that the "RKO" opening logo has been preserved on this release.
As with the previous release, the only audio option available is a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track. Differences between this track and the 60th Anniversary Edition's are minimal, though I did notice a little more background noise in the old version. Well-mixed and dynamic for a film of its age, the presentation is fairly pleasing. Unwanted static occasionally creeps into the background. The rear speakers play an active role and the bass is adequate, which is as much as can be asked from the 1940s. Of course, Dumbo was made during Disney's light-on-dialogue phase, but when speaking does show up, it comes primarily from the center channel. The more prevalent music is spread out evenly and appropriately. While not as crisp as its Platinum brethren, the 5.1 track is not too shabby. It's too bad that the original mono track hasn't been included, however, as that would have gone a long way in pleasing purist fans.
Rumors of a 2-disc Special Edition of Dumbo have persistently circulated for years. When the Big Top Edition was announced, most assumed that the double-disc reissue was confirmed at last, but like the 60th Anniversary Edition, it's turned out as another single-disc affair. The truth is that with the film's short length, a platter of bonus features comparable to Disney's standard two-disc sets can fit on the first disc alone. The Big Top Edition lacks a feature-length documentary, pencil tests or deleted scenes, and music demos, all of which have turned up on the studio's Platinum Edition releases. Of course some of that may not be readily available and a documentary longer than the movie itself would be an unreasonable request. Fortunately, Dumbo's DVD is one of Disney's most fully loaded when it comes to single disc releases. The list of offerings looks pretty similar to that of the 60th Anniversary Edition, though a few notable changes have been made. The bonus features are divided into four sections and in each, we'll look at what has been retained from Dumbo's previous release, what has been added, and what has disappeared:
Though it wasn't advertised, film historian John Canemaker's audio commentary has indeed returned for this release, significantly raising the disc's value. Unlike Snow White and Fantasia, on which Canemaker guided listeners through audio of Walt Disney's own reflections on his films, the critic flies solo on Dumbo. Though he occasionally embarks on dense tangents concerning the life and career of individual Disney animators, his insight on the origins and legacy of the film is fascinating.
"Celebrating Dumbo" (14:50) is also carried over from the previous release. In it, Roy E. Disney, John Canemaker, Leonard Maltin, Don Hahn, Andreas Deja, Ron Clements, and other Disney notables reflect on the artistic merits and cultural legacy of the film. Though it's far from the in-depth productions that have appeared on other animated classics' DVDs (it feels more like an individual segment from one of those), it makes for a stimulating and exciting viewing. True to its name, the piece is truly a celebration of the film and joining in on the commemoration is a lot of fun.
"Walt Disney TV Introduction" (1:04) reappears as well. Originating from the 1950s television anthology series, Disneyland, Walt Disney introduces his film to the audience as his favorite, breaking away just as it transitions into the movie's black-and-white broadcast.
"Dumbo Art Gallery" features the same 167 artworks that appeared on the previous DVD. Clicking on a thumbnail enlarges a single graphic, which then enables easy scrolling between images at their full size. The pieces are categorized and spread over multiple pages within each category. Unfortunately, one can't scroll into a second page and there's no "Play All" feature, which would have been quite nice. The break-down is as follows: "Concept Art" (19 stills), "Character Development" - Dumbo (21), Elephants (12), Timothy Mouse (11), The Black Crows (9), Clowns (11), Casey Jr. (3), Miscellaneous Circus Characters (6), "Pink Elephants" (9), "Story Development" (23), "Roustabouts" (25), "Behind the Scenes" (9), and "Attractions" (9). That last category is a personal favorite, as the Disney films' theme park incarnations so often go overlooked on their respective DVDs. It features photos of Dumbo-inspired attractions inside Disneyland as well as concept art. It's a shame that more stills couldn't have been included and an even greater shame that a featurette on these attractions (however brief they may) hasn't been produced.
Of course the 60th Anniversary Edition came from a time before Disney grouped their DVD menus by these uniform categories, but while the new disc hasn't added anything in this section, it has omitted a few things that would have been filed under "Backstage Disney." The first is a featurette called "Sound Design," which showed a bit of the audio for "Casey Junior" being recorded inside the Disney Studios. It's actually a segment from the 1941 film, The Reluctant Dragon. Given that it's short, available elsewhere on DVD (on the out-of-print Walt Disney Treasures: Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio), and only an excerpt from an entirely separate movie, its deletion from this release is forgivable. The same is true for the promotional "Exclusive Look at Dumbo II", a project which was still on the table at the time of the 60th Anniversary Edition's release but has since been scrapped, meaning it would have only led to confusion and needless speculation had it been included.
Less forgivable is the disappearance of the "Publicity Materials" portion of the last disc, which included both the original theatrical trailer and the 1949 re-release trailer. Disney stubbornly leaves trailers off most of their DVDs these days, but the animated classics are usually spared this tragedy. The trailers are short, very valuable to the audience, of no cost to the studio, and already available to the public on the last release, so it seems that there is truly no reason for their absence, which is the Big Top Edition's greatest flaw.
Music & More
Two "Sing Along Songs" are included, and they happen to be the very same two that were included last time: "Look Out For Mr. Stork" (2:28) and "Casey Jr." (2:27). Neither come from the transfer used for the movie itself and are quite abysmal in picture quality. Still, sing-alongs are always fun, even when text doesn't show up on screen for any phrase that's already appeared once (as if it would be so much work to flash it back up again). Of course one can always just go to the scene of these or any other songs in the feature itself and make use of the English subtitles to create their own "Sing Along" experience with full titles and superior picture quality.
New to this disc is a music video for Jim Brickman and Kassie DePaiva's rendition of "Baby Mine" (4:00). It's a nice but basic take on the song and the video interweaves clips from the movie with footage of the two performing the song in the studio. The song can also be found on Brickman's The Disney Songbook album (Review, Interview), which was originally released in promotion of the Cinderella: Platinum Edition and is now servicing Dumbo.
The Brickman video replaces that of Michael Crawford's take on the very same song. Brickman's version is the superior of the two and it's doubtful that anyone will miss the other too much. Still, it would have been nice to include both videos. For that matter, Bette Midler's popular performance of the song in the Disney-owned Beaches or a video for Alison Krauss' cover, which puts all of the above to shame, could have been included too. It should be noted that Brickman also included a cover of "When I See An Elephant Fly" on his CD that could have been turned into a video (or even concert excerpt) as well.
Games & Activities
"DVD Storybook: 'Dumbo's Big Discovery'" is repeated on the new release. Aimed at kids, this interactive storybook tells a very simple and fairly ridiculous version of Dumbo in which the title character meets a kangaroo who discovers his flying abilities, completely leaving out the black crows and potentially confusing children who just watched the movie. The story can be read by scrolling from page to page or "experienced" by having it read to the viewer with opportunities for interaction with circus animals and Timothy built in throughout. Curiously, the latter option leaves out the final page of the story in which an "everyone is special in their own way" message is driven home.
The new disc doesn't lose any games or activities, but it does add one new one: "DisneyPedia: 'My First Circus'." Now I've always been a big fan of the "DisneyPedia" featurettes, which are basically mini-nature documentaries designed to present children with an overview that is relevant to the DVD it is included on and filled with fun footage from various Disney works. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I saw that to get to the eight different "DisneyPedia" subjects, one must first endure an annoying wheel-spinning, question-answering game for each. The game is easy and may well amuse a younger audience, but even for them, the inability to directly access a particular circus animal (to which this game is dedicated) or to repeat one of the segments will be frustrating. The featurettes themselves are at least quite enjoyable and make the pain of the game worth it.
The two cartoon shorts that were part of the 60th Anniversary Edition are given their own section here. The first, 1936's "Elmer Elephant" (8:30), is about an elephant picked on by his peers and was an early precursor for Dumbo. "The Flying Mouse" (9:20) is a little less relevant but shares the idea of unlikely flight. The 1934 short concerns a mouse who sees his wish to fly granted. Both shorts came from Walt's Silly Symphonies series and are also available of its long-discontinued volume of the Walt Disney Treasures line.
MENUS and PACKAGING
The menu design for the Big Top Edition is exactly the same as that of the 60th Anniversary Edition. Therefore, it can't be called original, but it is elaborate. Too elaborate, in fact. Recently, studios have mostly gotten over their lengthy transitions phase and caught on to the idea that menus should be cool but not long-winded. Unfortunately, this menu was designed in the olden days. The main menu begins with Dumbo flying on screen, pulling the menu options behind him.
That's all well and good, but it's when one of those options is selected that it becomes a pain. Balloons float to the sky, Dumbo flies around for a bit, and then the camera zooms around the circus ground before pulling into the tent. The curtains pull back and after a short all-black trigger, the individual options appear. It's the same thing for every single transition and quickly grows old (one exception: the "Chapter Selection" option has shortened its transition, though the chapter stops themselves remain the same). Disney should have thought this through and taken the time to at least tweak the menus if not design new ones from scratch.
I had hoped that Disney's annoying FastPlay feature, which plays sneak peeks, the movie, and select extras all at once without ever requiring viewing interaction, would be relegated to preschool exclusive DVDs. Sadly, it's made its way even to animated classics now and it does indeed appear on the Big Top Edition DVD. (The 60th Anniversary Edition was released three years prior to FastPlay's inception.)
The white keepcase bears those all too common protective side snaps and is housed inside a cardboard slipcover that will only be around for the DVD's early printings. The slipcover is glossy, giving it a holographic-like appearance, and the front is embossed in areas to give it a three-dimensional texture and appearance. The back features a hole through which the keepcase's barcode can be scanned in retailers. The new cover is certainly fancier than the old one, though also a bit more cartoonish in design, with brighter colors and rounder shapes. It's hard to say which is preferable, the plain but classy cover of the Anniversary Edition or the more fun-filled Big Top Edition cover that is more closely matched to Disney's other animated classic covers. Interestingly (and perhaps disturbingly), the film description and advertised bonus features make this look very much a like a preschool-targeted release, despite the movie's obviously wider appeal to all age groups.
Three inserts can be found inside the case. The first is a chapter index card with a guide to the disc's bonus features on the back. An 8-page pamphlet advertises upcoming Disney projects and makes a few coupons available (none particularly worthwhile). Finally, there's a collection of circus animal cards that can be used for a round of "Memory," in conjunction with the "DisneyPedia" featurette, or as animal-learning flash cards.
The disc opens with previews for The Little Mermaid: Platinum Edition, Meet the Robinsons, The Fox and the Hound: 25th Anniversary Edition, the two upcoming installments in the Disney Learning Adventures: Winnie the Pooh series, and Air Buddies. The main menu reveals further "Sneak Peeks": Brother Bear 2, The Wild, "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse", and "Disney Princess Fairy Tales." As usual, a "Play All" feature is available.
Quite literally short and sweet, Dumbo is one of Disney's most moving films, meeting all the qualifications of "great." Everyone should see this film; those who saw it when they were young should revisit it as adults and new generations of children should keep this proud film tradition alive. The new Big Top Edition DVD is, for now, the best way to do that. Despite a few notable discrepancies, picture quality on the new DVD is overall a marked improvement over the 60th Anniversary Edition DVD. Those who own the previous release will want to strongly consider upgrading, though the disc isn't quite such an improvement that it becomes absolutely necessary. As far as bonus features go, the disc features a few gains and losses, none of them very significant other than the two theatrical trailers that are inexplicably absent. How much worth trailers and a sound design excerpt have is ultimately up to the individual consumer, though given that selling the 60th Anniversary Edition won't bring in a lot of money anyways, the best bet might be to keep it in addition to picking up the new release to form your very own 2-disc set.
Dumbo (70th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray + DVD) • Dumbo (60th Anniversary Edition) • Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Diamond Edition Blu-ray) • Pinocchio (Platinum Edition) • Bambi (Diamond Edition Blu-ray)
Cinderella (Platinum Edition) • Peter Pan (Platinum Edition) • Lady and the Tramp (Platinum Edition)
101 Dalmatians (Platinum Edition) • The Jungle Book (Platinum Edition) • The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (Friendship Edition)
Fantasia & Fantasia 2000: The Fantasia Anthology • Saludos Amigos & The Three Caballeros: Classic Caballeros Collection
The Little Mermaid (Platinum Edition) • The Lion King (Platinum Edition) • Aladdin (Platinum Edition) • Beauty and the Beast (Platinum Edition)
The Fox and the Hound (25th Anniversary Edition) • Tarzan (Special Edition) • The Emperor's New Groove (New Groove Edition)
Walt Disney Treasures: Behind the Scenes at the Disney Studio • Walt Disney Treasures: Silly Symphonies
Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus • Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken • Magic Kingdom
Back on the Big Screen: Report from Opening Night of Dumbo's Spring 2006 Run at El Capitan Theatre
Dumbo in UltimateDisney.com's Top Disney Animated Classics Countdown
UltimateDisney.com's Top 100 Disney Songs Countdown (featuring "Pink Elephants on Parade" and "Baby Mine")
UltimateDisney.com/DVDizzy.com Top Stories:
Reviewed June 4, 2006.