It's hard not to like this classic Disney animation from 1941 about the adorable little elephant with the gigantic ears. Some folks consider it the best thing Disney ever did, a sweet story filled with rollicking gags, tuneful music, yet sadness and heartache, too. That I've never personally found it as satisfying as its three predecessors in the Disney stable--"Snow White," "Pinocchio," and "Fantasia"--should not deter potential buyers of the DVD, especially buyers with young children.
Both the movie and this spanking-new Sixtieth Anniversary Edition disc have a lot going for them, not the least being the bundle of bonus goodies found therein.
"Did you ever see an elephant fly? Well, I seen a horsefly. I seen a dragonfly. I seen a housefly. But I be done seen about everything when I see an elephant fly."
The story, as you probably know, is a heartbreaker at first. Dumbo is born to a circus elephant whose friends all consider the newborn infant a freak. Even the stork (voiced by Sterling Holloway) who brings him has suspicions. Dumbo's ears, you see, are as big as the rest of his body. The poor dear has to endure the taunts of the other performers and finds little chance of fitting in. The only creature that befriends him is Timothy Mouse (performed by the voice talents of character actor Edward Brophy). Together they form a bond of friendship that carries Dumbo through the darkest days.
The gloomiest of these times is when Dumbo's mother lashes out at a group of spectators who ridicule her baby. The mother is labeled mad and destructive, and she's chained in a cage. Probably the most touching scene is one where Dumbo cuddles up to his mother in her cell, both of them outrageously and unfairly condemned as outcasts in an uncaring world.
But then something happens. Returning to their own tent, Dumbo and Timothy stumble upon a bucket of water that has accidentally been spiked with champagne, and both of them get tipsy. After a brief dream sequence, they wind up in a tree being laughed at by a flock of crows. Cliff Edwards, also known as Ukulele Ike and the voice of Jiminy Cricket, here performs the voice of the leader of the singing birds. But back to that tree: How did they get up there? Easy, for a flying elephant. Once Dumbo recognizes his talents, they brush the dark clouds away, he earns his rightful place in the world, and he's back in his mother's arms.
"Dumbo" is a brief, simple tale of social prejudice and eventual redemption, a fable with a moral victory and a happy ending. It was based on a children's illustrated book that Disney had bought in 1939, originally to have been a short subject. It still is a kind of extended short, which in a way makes it even better because there isn't a whole lot of story line to get stretched much further.
At little more than an hour, "Dumbo" is probably Disney's briefest full-length animated feature. The kids will like that, too, since the film's conciseness won't tax their patience or their endurance for long.
There are, nonetheless, a few lingering doubts I have about the film. The first is the animation itself. Some of it is gorgeous, like the opening sequence in the rain, but much of it looks ordinary. Gone are the beautiful, photorealistic backgrounds of Disney's three earlier full-length animations, replaced by little or no backgrounds at all. Well, I understand that this was one of Disney's lowest-budget films, so I suppose something had to go.
The second thing I found wanting was the music. This is ironic and undoubtedly peculiar to me alone since the movie won an Academy Award for its musical score, and its big number, "Baby Mine," earned an Oscar nomination. Still and all, there's nothing in it to compare to "When You Wish Upon a Star," "Heigh-Ho," or "Some Day My Prince Will Come." Among the songs in "Dumbo," in addition to "Baby Mine," are "Casey Junior," "Song of the Roustabouts," "Pink Elephants on Parade," and my own preferred, "When I See An Elephant Fly." The latter is sung by the five black crows, a group that has an uneasy racial stereotype about them that in today's world the Disney Company might have given second thoughts to.
For the sixtieth anniversary of "Dumbo," Disney give us a bonus-laden DVD. But don't expect the kind of re-cleaned, restored, remastered picture we find on the "Snow White" disc. While the image quality for "Dumbo" is crisp, the outlines of the figures sharp, the detail vivid, and the colors bright, there's a good deal of grain throughout the film and the occasional age speck, too. What's more, the screen sometimes shows evidence of slightly flickering light and dark areas. Most viewers and especially kids will hardly notice these things, but videophiles may not find the perfection they're looking for.
The audio track is a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix that spreads the original sonics across the speakers, appearing a lot like a narrow stereo or an expanded mono. The result is pleasing and sounds a lot like the audio work Disney did on "Snow White."
For extras, there are bundles. The first, and for me the most interesting, is a commentary track with animation historian John Canemaker. He's a rather straight-faced fellow but provides a wealth of background information on the film. Next, there's a music video of the Oscar-nominated "Baby Mine" with Michael Crawford. Then, there are two animated short subjects, "Elmer Elephant" and "The Flying Mouse" to further entertain the youngsters in the house. For those so inclined, there's Uncle Walt's original TV introduction to the film. In addition, there are Sing-Alongs of "Look Out for Mr. Stork" and "Casey Junior," plus an exclusive look at "Dumbo II," which is in production. Finally, there is a gallery of "Dumbo" art; a featurette on sound design, "Creating the Voice of Casey, Jr."; various publicity and DVD-ROM materials; and seventeen chapter selections. English, French, and Spanish are provided for spoken languages, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
After the experimentation Disney did in "Fantasia," some viewers will be glad that in "Dumbo" Disney got back to his roots with a genuinely charming, innocent short feature. Nevertheless, I still find the daring "Fantasia" a more rewarding overall experience. But I'm an adult, not a kid, and for a kid, "Dumbo" is hard to beat.