The economy of storytelling is the most impressive element of this slight animated feature. Following the poor performances of PINOCCHIO, BAMBI and FANTASIA, the lavish production values were toned down. Less spectacle but not less character. This story of an elephant with jumbo ears fills the big top with emotion in only 64 minutes.
When the stork delivers Mrs. Jumbo's baby son, her fellow elephants label him with the name Dumbo, because of his giant ears. The ridicule he receives only makes the shy little pachyderm even more bashful. Like any good mother, Mrs. Jumbo defends her child from tormentors, but her actions are not taken favorably by the circus management. Dumbo, whose real name in Jumbo Jr., is now left to fend for himself as the circus decides to put the silly looking animal in the clown act, so people can laugh at him more.
The story is instantly recognizable to the inner awkward child in all of us. The naive elephant is presented as eager and inquisitive, but also clumsy. Those ears do get in the way. He gains a guardian in the tough Timothy Q. Mouse (Edward Brophy, FREAKS), who serves as the film's Jiminy Cricket. As is the case with many awkward children, Dumbo needs to find his talent. For those who know isn't his talent a nice dose of ironic justice?
The character animation is such an essential part because two of its primary characters do not talk. But much is communicated in the body language between Mrs. Jumbo and her son. The trunk touching scene is full of emotion and we only see Mrs. Jumbo's trunk. We've seen countless numbers of similar scenes in live-action films set at prisons where a parent is separated from their child, but do any of them carry the same emotional charge as this scene from DUMBO?
There is overblown controversy associated with the film as well. The crows Dumbo and Timothy encounter have been looked upon as offensive depictions of black people. They're stereotypes at worst, but not blackface buffoons like some would make them out to be. In the end, they serve a key role in giving Dumbo the courage to embrace his unique gift (that they know something about) and get the best song in the film, "When I See an Elephant Fly."
While one might have to bare through the dated music of the now cliche stork delivery scenes that start the film, once Jumbo Jr. arrives the film hits its stride. The pink elephant parade (a sequence that wouldn't fly in children's entertainment today) seems a bit like padding, but it does allow for some nice experimental animation to creep in. It's this kind of free-form fantasy that animation does best.
Who hasn't been self conscious about something in their appearance at some point in their lives? This universal emotion is what is at the core of this simple story. Those big ears are a big metaphor for a big part of the human condition.