"Dumbo" Diamond Edition: This Blu-ray Really Soars
Dumbo is a short, straightforward, unpretentious film made during a time of crisis at the Walt Disney Studios, and it is one of the best movies they ever produced. Based on a novelty children’s book by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, Dumbo is another Disney adaptation that has entirely eclipsed its source material. Despite its origins as a film that Uncle Walt expanded from a short to a feature, Dumbo is the first film in the history of the studio that doesn’t feel like several short films stitched together, as Snow White and Pinocchio did. It also has the most emotionally satisfying story arc of those early films, perhaps due to its increased narrative coherence. Unlike all of its contemporaries (which also include Fantasia and Bambi, the latter of which was being made concurrently with Dumbo), Dumbo had low aspirations and wasn’t trying to make “art,” and yet its artistic merit is still tremendous, especially with one famed sequence that may demonstrate “animation as art” better than any other done before or since. I was rather excited to hear that it would be emerging from the Disney Vault in a Blu-ray Diamond Edition, and the final product exceeds all my expectations. The loving care and restoration on this new release gives this gem of a movie the presentation it deserves.
The title character of Dumbo is a baby elephant delivered to the circus elephant Mrs. Jumbo. Unfortunately for Dumbo, his oversized ears make him the target of teasing, derision, and rejection by everyone other than his mother and the plucky circus mouse Timothy. After a string of humiliations, Dumbo discovers that he can fly using his ears as wings, turning the source of his troubles into the source of his success. At heart, it’s a familiar story, but one rarely told with as much charm and warmth. It’s quite easy to believe the anecdotes that Dumbo lead animator Bill Tytla modeled Dumbo after his then two-year old son. His antics and body language are immediately recognizable as those of a very young child, despite the giant differences in body shape. It’s an even more remarkable acting job since Dumbo never says a word for the entire film; other than a few happy squeaks in one scene, his extremely well-defined character traits are all communicated through Tytla’s sensitive animation. The same is true of Mrs. Jumbo, who is the definitive image of a protective, nurturing mother despite having exactly one line in the whole movie. This same winning characterization extends to the more verbose characters as well, of course. The charming huckster Timothy is as vocal as Dumbo is silent, becoming Dumbo’s stalwart friend just because he doesn’t like seeing him getting bullied. He’s an even more street-savvy Jiminy Cricket for Dumbo, even if his well-intended guidance tends to get Dumbo into trouble rather than trying to steer him out of it. Jiminy himself appears late in the film (or, at least, his voice actor Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards does) as the leader of a gang of crows who convince Dumbo to take flight for the first time. The crows are occasionally targeted for being a broad stereotype of black people, and while that’s true on one level, they’re also critical to Dumbo realizing his full potential and they can only serve in this role if they’re outsiders in the way black people were in American society at the time. In any event, their “When I See an Elephant Fly” musical number is a real show-stopper, with a catchy tune and extremely clever wordplay mated to exhilarating animation done by Ward Kimball from reference footage of a black song-and-dance duo.
Dumbo was definitely not as aspirational a film as all of Disney’s other films up to that point (including Bambi). It is not trying to push boundaries, it doesn’t expend much effort on realistic or representational animation or background art, and there are a number of sequences where the choices were driven by the limited budget as much as art or storytelling. Even so, Dumbo is a beautifully animated film and contains two of the most vividly powerful animated sequences in the history of the medium. In the rightly acclaimed “Baby Mine” scene, as Mrs. Jumbo stretches her trunk through prison bars to lovingly cradle her son. It delivers an enormous emotional wallop communicating the powerful bond between mother and son, often bringing people to tears despite the fact that it’s about two cartoon elephants. This sequences is followed by the even more acclaimed “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence: a vivid fever dream triggered by Dumbo and Timothy’s accidental intoxication and starring an array of multi-colored elephants morphing in truly surreal sequences. It’s an animation tour de force, effortlessly melding high art and entertainment even better than almost every sequence in Fantasia. In all the other Disney films to date (and in the entirety of Fantasia), there are sequences where the animators seem to be showing off and engaging in the kind of animated “business” that could sustain a short film but really didn’t fit as well in features. While “Pink Elephants on Parade” should feel just like one of those sequences, the amount of visual creativity on display is so awe-inspiring and dazzling that it justifies its own presence even though it is the only scene in the entire movie that doesn’t really push the narrative forward. Besides, its garish tones and bizarre sensibilities seem to fit pretty well in a movie set in a circus.
As mentioned, Dumbo is easily the most modern of the early Disney films in its storytelling sensibilities. There is a clear, well-defined story arc for Dumbo as he is brought low and then rises back up, and this arc is much more emotionally satisfying than the arcs found in Pinocchio or Bambi, let alone the somewhat perfunctory story of Snow White. Dumbo is one of Disney’s most sympathetic leads because everyone can empathize with feeling excluded or singled out unfairly as a child, and because Dumbo’s silence aids the audience in projecting their own thoughts and feelings on him. The film’s musical numbers also all feel like they grow organically out of the moment, fitting in beautifully to push the movie forwards rather than feeling like they’re interrupting the narrative for a song. The story is a perfect embodiment of the Disney maxim that “for every laugh, there should be a tear,” balancing the happier moments with sadder ones beautifully. The highs get higher and the lows go deeper as the film goes on until Dumbo’s final triumph over adversity in the climactic scene in the film. The movie ensures that we experience these highs and lows as viscerally as Dumbo does, and we take flight with him by the time it’s all finished. The movie runs only a little over an hour, but it uses every minute of it and has a perfect sense of closure once it’s done, ensuring that it never outstays its welcome.
On Blu-ray, Dumbo truly shines. The previous DVD releases were excellent, but this modern high-definition transfer makes the movie look like it was made yesterday rather than 70 years ago. The colors are far more consistent across scenes than the older DVD, and while the earlier transfer was already pretty clean, the Blu-ray makes everything brighter and more vivid (click the “Pink Elephants” still and the one on the right for comparisons between the old DVD and the new print on the current DVD). If you look very closely, you’ll even catch a few stray ink brush strokes in the animation. About the only thing I’d note in passing is that every single trace of film grain has been removed from the high-definition transfer, which is one reason why the film looks so contemporary. I’m not positive I’m completely behind this decision, no matter how terrific it makes the film look, since it feels a little like the cinematic equivalent of Botox. The right amount of film grain can give a sense of age while still maintaining the inherent beauty of the work, while wiping it all out feels a bit oddly artificial. However, if it helps the film gain traction among less historically-minded audiences who’d turn their noses up at “old crap” otherwise, that’s good enough for me. As with earlier Disney Blu-ray releases, you also have the option to watch the film in “Disney View” mode, with watercolor paintings filling in the black bars on the sides of the 4:3 film. The soundtrack is available in a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack and in a restored original stereo, with the former unobtrusively adding a bit of extra heft in the surround and low-frequency channels at key moments.
Like the Diamond Edition release of Bambi, this two-disc release of Dumbo is a single Blu-ray packed with a standard definition DVD. New bonus features include a Cine-Explore picture-in-picture commentary track with Pixar director Pete Docter, Disney historian Paula Sigman, and Disney animator Andreas Deja, with scattered historical recordings of the original Disney staffers who worked on the film. Their enthusiasm and adoration of the film is palpable, and the track provides a good amount of information as well. Some of this information is repeated in the new half-hour documentary featurette, but the documentary is still quite enjoyable and worthwhile. It is most notable for animator and historian John Canemaker’s observation that the crows are the only characters in the movie who can understand what it is to be ostracized for one’s physical appearance, which makes their caricaturing a bit easier to swallow. During the restoration process, a deleted scene and deleted song were discovered, and have been included here along with what remaining story art was found. Both are mostly of historic interest and were rightly left on the cutting room floor before animation was started. Feel free to skip the rather ridiculous featurette on the Dumbo ride at Disneyland, which completely overdoes it by the time a CGI Dumbo appears at the end. Two Disney games are included if you enjoy that sort of thing. The still art gallery from the DVD seems to have been expanded for the Blu-ray, but I still find it tedious to flip through art galleries via a DVD remote (sadly, it seems the iPad application packaged with Bambi was not repeated for this release). Almost all the DVD special features have been carried over, including the original 15-minute documentary, the two animated shorts “Elmer the Elephant” and “The Flying Mouse” (both converted to HD), the original Walt Disney introduction for the TV broadcast of Dumbo, and an excerpt from “The Reluctant Dragon” that delved into the sound effects work that brought Casey Junior the train to life. Left out are the music video of “Baby Mine” by Michael Crawford and the original audio commentary track by John Canemaker. The former is no tremendous loss, but I do miss the latter’s encyclopedic knowledge of animation history. Canemaker’s commentary may not be as lively as the new one, but hardcore animation fans and historians would probably appreciate it more and I’m a bit disappointed that it wasn’t included as well. Finally, it’s worth noting that the DVD is a brand new pressing rather than just a re-packaging of the last “Big Top Edition” release. It contains the cleaned up and restored print and almost all of the new bonus features.
Dumbo is a movie in which I can find no flaw and for which the highest praise still doesn’t seem sufficient to encapsulate its brilliance. I have to go to something like My Neighbor Totoro to find a worthy basis of comparison. “Classic” is bandied around as a term so often that it sometimes loses its meaning, but Dumbo rightfully earns that title by being a classic in every sense of the word. The anachronistic depiction of the crows is the only way the movie shows its age, but even those offenses are minor and easily forgiven. One reason why this review ended up being so late was that I’d flip it on to verify something and end up watching the bulk of the movie again, repeatedly. I must have seen the whole thing at least four times in the past week and broken double digits for several scenes. Despite such repeated viewings, the movie’s charm is as strong as ever, and I can think of no higher compliment to pay it.