“Through the snow, and sleet, and hail / Through the blizzard, through the gale / Through the wind and through the rain / Over mountain, over plain / Through the blinding lightning flash / And the mighty thunder crash / Ever faithful, ever true / Nothing stops him, he’ll get through.”
When Walt Disney’s big gamble with Snow White paid off an entire studio was created and financed. The man and his merry little band were on top of the world. But then Walt decided to try and sophisticate his audience somewhat, and the result was box office disaster. Both Pinocchio and Fantasia did miserable business, and the grand new studio was on the ropes. It’s hard to believe that either of these movies failed on their original release. Walt’s confidence in them has since been amply rewarded. Both are considered beloved classics today, but they appeared to be heralding the death of the studio when they were released. The studio needed a hit, and they needed one badly. It’s a bit ironic that with all of the groundbreaking technological advances and innovations the studio had already made that it would be one of their simplest and least expensive efforts of the era that would lift the studio back on to solid ground. That movie was Dumbo.
Released in 1941, there was nothing groundbreaking about Dumbo at all. It’s still Disney’s shortest feature film to date with a running time of only 63 minutes. The animation was back to basics and quite simple work for the studio. It resembles more the look and feel of Walt’s Silly Symphonies rather than the grandiose nature of Fantasia. Based on an innovative rolling book by Harold Pearl and Helen Aberson, the story is quite simple and direct. You’ve heard the whole idea if you have any familiarity with either The Ugly Duckling or the Christmas classic Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Jumbo Jr. is born to a hopeful circus elephant on their way to a new seasonal tour. He has the largest ears you have ever seen for an elephant and is instantly the subject of ridicule for the other elephants in the circus. They give him the nickname that sticks: Dumbo. His mother ends up caged when she attempts to defend her young son from the taunts of circus patrons. He’s the laughingstock of the troupe and relegated to clown duty where his mockery is complete. He’s befriended by Timothy Q. Mouse, who takes pity on the lonely elephant and tries to instill him with confidence. It’s an uphill climb until, aided by a group of hip crows, Dumbo discovers that his ears are good for something after all. He can fly. Suddenly, he’s the hit of the show and the star of the circus.
The simple story was one that everyone could relate to both old and young. It was the age-old lesson to believe in yourself and discover your hidden beauty or talent. Dumbo never speaks in the piece. You’ll never notice because, while the animation was indeed simplistic, Dumbo is infused with wonderful emotion in his expression and body language. The friendship between Dumbo and Timothy Q Mouse is one of those classic relationships often found in Disney films. The movies often feature a guiding friend, and this is certainly one of the best. It’s short and doesn’t try even the shortest of attention spans. The songs certainly aren’t among the studio’s most memorable, but they work just enough to carry Dumbo into box office magic, saving the Disney studio along the way.
There are also several elements of the film that you’ll see again. There are musical numbers that will absolutely hark back to Fantasia. Walt wasn’t convinced that Fantasia’s failure was a true indication of audience desires, and this movie has much of those musical dances as well. There is also a nightmare scene of dancing pink elephants that will vividly remind you of the later Winnie The Pooh dream in The Blustery Day. You’ll find a few images were directly imitated in that later classic.
Now Disney has offered us this great new Blu-ray release so that generations to come will get a chance to share the magic of the little elephant that saved a mouse house.
Dumbo is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30 mbps. The disc includes the Disney View option that puts paintings in the pillar boxes that are created to blend in with the animation of the feature. I rather like this option. The sides appear to vanish altogether for me. If you’re a purist, you can watch in the standard fashion. The high-definition image presentation is quite impressive. Colors are bright and the animation lines are tight and concise. Black levels are also just as good. It’s not a perfect print, but it doesn’t look anything like the 70 years that it really is. This is the best it’s looked and likely will look, at least in our lives.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 is not near as intrusive as you might expect. Of course, the original was in mono and that option remains here, again for the purist. But, this expanded sound field doesn’t really play with the mix. It merely fills out the dynamics of what is already there. I think you’ll find it quite faithful to the original experience.
Deleted Scenes: There are two scenes here that are recreated through artwork and notes recently found in the Disney Archives.
Taking Flight – The Making Of Dumbo: (28:08) You’ll get plenty of Disney history as well as wonderful background on the film. There’s some delightful vintage footage to go along with the talking heads.
The Magic Of Dumbo: (3:09) A look at the ride.
The Reluctant Dragon Excerpt: (5:57) This vintage excerpt takes you on the ADR stage for a train segment much like the one in Dumbo. It’s a pretty cool look at how many of the sounds are created.
Bonus Shorts and Original DVD Features
DVD and Digital Copy
Even when they weren’t even trying, Disney was breaking new ground in the evolution of the animated feature. By not pushing the envelope, the studio displayed innovation anyway. This was the first real test on the viability of a longer form animated short. Would audiences watch what was basically an extended short cartoon? The answer was a resounding yes, and 70 years later we’re still doing it. What an idea. “Not just any idea. Somethin’ colossal.”