Dumbo Was the Surprise Hit America Needed in 1941 and Still Wants Today
It’s been only a few months since Tim Burton announced that Disney greenlit his live-action production of Dumbo. In case you’ve been in a coma for 77 years, that’s the sweet Disney tale about a flying elephant, which they released on October 23, 1941.
When the Burton version hits theaters, nearly eight decades of advancements in cinema will have transpired since the original, but to the dismay of unattractive men everywhere, we still don’t have flying elephants.
Maybe that was pigs. ANYHEW…
If America today is full of romanticized notions about a better past, where people “just got along better,” Dumbo stands as proof that were exceptions to that naive believe.
The animation shares a space in cinematic history with other, similar family entertainment (like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?) where the people of the past imagined a future with more acceptance of differences.
It seems the grass is always greener on the other side of the time portal.
Few audience members today know that Walt Disney’s confidence in the Dumbo project was low. Expectations were equally low.
Still, with a good story as the backdrop, the team at Disney pulled out some innovations despite their budgets to create one of Disney’s most cherished stories.
The Story of the Story
Based on a book by a similar name, “Dumbo the Flying Elephant,” written by Helen Aberson and illustrated by Harold Pearl, it tells the story of an Elephant with exceptionally large ears.
Jumbo Jr., whom, other characters call, “Dumbo” for his unique look, struggles for acceptance in the circus. Then, he learns he can fly with those big dumb ears.
It complicated, but the story involves a handful of crows (an unfortunate racist portrayal of black culture by Disney), a tiny mouse, some errant booze, a feather, and good old-fashioned American confidence.
Dumbo came at a tense time, on the heels of the U.S. entry into World War II, and a labor dispute by Disney.
It was to be Disney’s fourth big cinematic animation. They would try to capitalize on the animal heartstrings, pulled previously by Bambi, but with smaller ambitions.
As such, Pinocchio had not performed as well as Disney hoped, so they crafted a basic story, and as Walt put it, ‘We’ve got a basic story here that we are going to on the screen without any frills or gilding the lily.”
The Work of the Story
One of the hardest scenes to create, according to Ken O’Connor in the book “Walt’s People,” was the tent scene where Dumbo caused the circus tent to collapse mid-show.
Unlike a simple shot where characters come in and out of a scene, this one required tents, people, ropes, poles, and ultimately chaos as the tent collapses on everyone.
“It was complex, particularly when the whole tent fell down from the outside,” said O’Conner. “The crowd streams out of the tent as it’s collapsing.”
Creating these scenes, despite the general style of the animation being more cartoony, less artistic [Compared to say, Bambi], were key to the success. Animators took what they had and innovated techniques to make exceed expectations.
To push the simple animations, they leverage a technique developed by Disney called multi-camera, where a single animation could appear as if taken from different camera angles. Like a live action movie, multiple angles keep the story interesting, a win for Dumbo in the end.
The Outcome of That Story
On an estimated budget of around $950,000, Dumbo grossed $1.6 million in the U.S.A., not bad for a movie with low expectations. Critical reviews of the movie were favorable too.
The New York Times, critic, Bosley Crowther said that Dumbo was “the most genial, the most endearing, the most completely precious cartoon feature film ever to emerge from the magical brushes of Walt Disney’s wonder-working artists.”
The musical directors of Dumbo, Frank Churchill, and Oliver Wallace won Academy Awards for Original Music Score.
It also killed it a Cannes, winning the award for Best Animation Design.
As it stands, Burton has big shoes to fill or at least a big hat. Fans will wait with baited breath to see how he navigates scenes like the one with the crows.
Will he make a nod to the original Disney characterizations? Considering it’s Burton, probably not.
It will be entertaining, that’s for sure, but neither the budgets nor the expectations will be low.