|Dumbo (60th Anniversay Edition)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 23 October 2001|
For it's 60th anniversary, Disney Home Video has (re)issued "Dumbo" in a extras-packed package, and has somehow managed to conjure up a 5.1 soundtrack for the feature itself. If you like the film -- and it's hard to imagine anyone who doesn't -- this is the way to own it for home viewing. Until the advent of HDTV home video, this DVD is not likely to be bettered.
For those who came in late: storks deliver babies to the animals at a circus in its winter quarters in Florida. However, the eager Mrs. Jumbo is overlooked -- by a stork that lost his way. He catches up with Casey Jr., the circus train, later on as the circus heads north for the season. The bundle from heaven turns out to be the exquisitely, almost painfully, cute baby Mrs. Jumbo was expecting (has any other movie baby had such blue eyes?). When he sneezes and his big ears unfurl, the other elephants (all catty females) dub him "Dumbo." This angers Mrs. Jumbo (who rarely speaks; Dumbo NEVER speaks), but she and her baby adore each other. There are several authentically touching scenes of her bathing little Dumbo, and his frolicking around her tree trunk-like legs.
The circus sets up in a new town -- the "roustabout" sequence is beautifully done, a great example of the ability of animation to depict power, strength and timing -- and things are going okay until some local kids taunt Dumbo, even painfully. Mrs. Jumbo becomes angry; she has to be subdued by circus workers, and is locked away in a heavily-armored trailer as a "mad elephant."
The haughty other elephants declare him to no longer be an elephant, and literally turn their backs on him. But Timothy (whose name we learn only at the end), a feisty circus mouse, gives them whatfor, and befriends the lonely Dumbo. "Pachydoims don't cry," he assures the unhappy child. But things go from bad to worse, and Dumbo ends up in an act as the pathetic butt of the circus' unsympathetic clowns.
One night, he and Timothy accidentally get drunk, and both see the same pink elephants on parade. This is one of the greatest sequences of sheer animation in any Disney feature, and unlike almost anything else the studio ever tried (the title number from "Three Caballeros" is the only serious rival). It's fast, amazing to watch, and occasionally downright creepy -- there's a stalking figure made up of multi-colored, grinning elephant heads that could give a kid nightmares. It did ME.
The next day, Dumbo's life changes forever, partly thanks to meeting a flock of sassy crows. Occasionally, people have complained that the crows are Negro stereotypes, and, truth be told, they probably are, but by now we're so far removed from those stereotypes that the crows come across as they were always intended to: they're brash and sarcastic, but they're also good-hearted and really want to help Dumbo and Timothy. It's another great sequence.
"Dumbo" is a deeply satisfying movie; the outsider becomes the hero, the son is reunited with his mother, and everyone lives happily ever after. Coupled with the fast pace and brief length (it's the shortest Disney animated feature), the unusual story -- those who know the film will notice I'm avoiding its most famous feature -- and the very appealing characters make "Dumbo" a genuine classic.
It's been given Genuine Classic treatment here, too. The documentary isn't on the making of the picture, but on reactions to it, with a lot of animators, historians (Rudy Behlmer, Leonard Maltin), and other interested parties commenting on the film, on their favorite parts and how they reacted to it. This is more rewarding than a mere making-of would have been, since all animated films are pretty much made the same way.
There's a collection of conceptual art, with a somewhat different-looking Dumbo, and details of characters we only glimpse in the movie. Animation historian John Canemaker provides a very good commentary track for the feature, faltering only in that he occasionally resorts to simply describing what's on screen. But that's rare; the rest of the time, he provides relevant background information about the film, identifying which segments were animated by which talented animator -- and gives short biographies of them as well.
There are two complete shorts included, both "Silly Symphonies." The better of the two is "Elmer the Elephant," about a slightly sissy elephant who's taunted by other animal children for his big trunk. On the other hand, the too-cutesy "The Flying Mouse" has almost exactly the opposite message from "Dumbo," making it a very peculiar choice for this disc. A little mouse who longs to fly is given a pair of wings, but the birds and his own family shun him; even evil bats tell him he's "a nothing."
There are games and quizzes for children, a music video of Michael Crawford singing "Baby Mine," some sing-a-longs derived from the film, and an interesting if highly misleading sequence from "The Reluctant Dragon" about the odd gadgets used to provide sound for cartoons. (In reality, the sounds are done first, the animation second.) Since the Disney Studio has decided that second-rate sequels to first-rate movies are a sure-fire way of adding to the company's profits, naturally there's going to be a "Dumbo II;" the glimpses we get here are not promising.
There's loads of stuff on this DVD, but what's surprising is what's not. "Dumbo" began as a children's book written by Helen Aberson and illustrated by Harold Pearl, which caught Walt Disney's eye in the late 1930s, and which led to the production of the film. But though the book is referred to occasionally, there's not a trace of the text nor of Pearl's drawings. There may be legal reasons why this material couldn't be reproduced, but it's an irksome omission anyway.
Otherwise, the extras are almost all worthwhile, though of course some are aimed straight at kids, and will be of little interest to adults. But the real triumph of this DVD is, of course, the movie "Dumbo" itself, one of the best animated films ever made. It's timeless, charming, wise, funny and sheer magic.