As it turns out, Pinocchio and Fantasia had basically put Walt Disney into the hole. Pinocchio made little to nothing overseas, and Fantasia was expensive and only played in thirteen theaters. Disney needed money, badly. Meanwhile, a very short storybook was being made. It was a different sort of children's book called a Roll-A-Book, sort of like a panoramic book. The main character was named Dumbo, and the small book was only eight pages long. It didn't have a lot of detail. Disney's head of merchandising happened upon the prototype and showed it to Walt. Walt loved the character and decided this was the way that he would bring Disney back. What Disney sought to do was make a simple animated film that reach audiences. Disney basically made the movie on the cheap, having the character designs simple, less detailed backgrounds, and reused cells. Dumbo used water-color backgrounds like Snow White, the two classic animated films being the only ones that used that method. The movie was also one of Disney's shorter movies, clocking in at a total of sixty-four minutes. With all these cost-cutting techniques, Disney was able to make Dumbo for $813,000. That was nearly half of Snow White's cost and a third of Pinocchio's.
Dumbo is about a small elephant with huge ears. So big in fact, that he is constantly ridiculed for them. At the beginning of the film, we see Dumbo delivered to his mother by a stork to the circus where she lives. I blame this movie for my bad grades in biology class. How was I supposed to know we aren't delivered by storks? It seems plausible! Well, it better than being bought at a K-mart blue light special as I've also been told by my loving parents. All the other elephants see Dumbo for the first time and laugh it up. Dumbo's name is actually Jumbo Jr., but the mean elephants brand him with the name Dumbo because of his ears. Not literally. I doubt they happened to have that specific brand ready for when they found someone worthy of it. We then get a scene of everyone setting up the circus in a storm. When I say everybody, I mean it. They had the elephants putting up a tent! I can't even get my pet elephant to crush peanuts for me! Lazy elephant. Side note: Anyone know what elephants eat?
A group of boys start to make fun of Dumbo for his ears, which sets off Mrs. Jumbo. Unfortunately, she is subdued before she can crush anyone in her path and is locked away, deemed mad. Since Dumbo is so funny looking, he is shunned by the other elephants and is left to take care of himself. Circus elephants= Massive jerks. Timothy Q. Mouse comes and swears that he will stick by Dumbo's side. Disney seems to have a thing for putting small creatures as the conscience or best friend of the main character. Timothy is basically Dumbo's voice in the movie, as Disney decided to give him the "Dopey effect." Also, Jiminy and Timothy are very similar names and are just about the same character. So in all honesty, Timothy is not that creative of a character. It's Jiminy without the singing voice. Dumbo is made a part of the circus acts, first being the top of an elephant pyramid, then a clown when his ears cause him to fall off the pyramid and topple the other elephants. As a clown, Dumbo has to fall into a vat of pie filling. Though he is popular with the crowd, he's miserable. At this moment, just picture a circus actually trying to get a baby elephant, dressed as a clown, to fall into a vat of anything. I'm pretty sure PETA would be all over this circus if it was real.
To cheer Dumbo up, Timothy decides to take him to visit his mother. Mrs. Jumbo cradles Dumbo with her trunk from the cell window and sings "Baby, Mine." Cue the waterworks. Besides the death of Bambi's mother, this is one of the most emotional scenes in a Disney movie. On the way back from visiting his mother, Dumbo starts to hiccup. Timothy finds a bucket of water for Dumbo to drink, but alas, a bottle of champagne has spilled into it! Dumbo and Timothy drink up and get totally wasted. How wasted? Well, enough to start seeing this:
Holy crap. What kind of champagne were they drinking!?!? Like most people after a long night of drinking, they both wake up in place they didn't expect; in this case, a tree. Timothy cannot fathom how they got up the tree until he figures that Dumbo must of flown them up there by using his ears as wings. Timothy still must of been drunk. Enter the crows. This is one of those things that you don't notice until you are older. The scene with the crows has been labeled incredibly racist, perhaps just because of the main crow being named Jim Crow. If you know anything about our history, you know what that name means. Over the years, many have cried out over the racial content in the movie, but the movie has had it's defenders. Many point out that besides Jim Crow who was voiced by the same man who voiced Jiminy Cricket, all the other crows are voiced by African-Americans. The crows are sympathetic towards Dumbo, making them and Timothy the only characters in the story that are. Many argue that the crows do not exhibit the same stereotypes that were prevalent in movies at the time. You can make your own decision on whether its racist or not, but I still don't like that they named one Jim Crow.
Timothy is able to get Dumbo to fly again by telling him that by holding the magic feather that he just gave to him, he could fly. Back at the circus, Dumbo is made to jump off of a high building. As he does, he loses his feather and thinks that he can't fly anymore. Fortunately, Timothy tells him that he can fly without the feather, since it had no magic at all. Dumbo pulls up from the free-fall and flies around the circus to everyone's amazement/horror at seeing a flying elephant. While flying around the tent, Dumbo takes vengeance on his tormentors. Sweet, sweet vengeance. After this, Dumbo is now very famous and has a special train car for him and his mother. Timothy becomes his manager. Timothy becomes corrupt and shiftless.
RKO production studio wanted Disney to either make the movie longer or make it the length of a short subject. Disney wouldn't let them change the movie and forced them to release it in it's original format. Released in 1941, the movie ended up being a big success, mainly due to the low budget costs. It grossed $1.6 million on its first theatrical release and turned an actual profit like Snow White. Disney had his money-maker. Many were glad that Disney had reverted back to his old formula and were afraid that his movies were going to become too "arty" like Fantasia. The movie went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Music Score. The movie was such a hit that it was going to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The entrance of America into WWII hurt Dumbo's box office earnings, but not enough. Luckily it had two months before we entered the war.
Not all good came from Dumbo though. Almost all of the Disney animators went on strike during production. They eventually came back to work, but the family atmosphere and camaraderie inside the Disney Animated Studio was now gone. Besides this little speed bump for Disney, the film was a huge hit for them. Dumbo is still considered a classic of animation and a favorite of many.