In 1941 the Disney Studios were in trouble from two financial failures in a row, Pinocchio and Fantasia, films that would go on to be regarded as classics but that didn’t bring in that much at the box office. They needed some hits, and they needed them now, and they needed them cheap. The first attempt was another failure: The Reluctant Dragon. The second was a box office smash: Dumbo.
To make the little elephant with the big ears they cut costs, but they didn’t cut quality. The film runs only 62 minutes (distributors were appalled, and wanted it to either be made longer or cut down and paired with another short). They made sure they had a powerful story with good characters, and then they simplified the art work. This is noticeable only if you compare it with the amazing detail in its three predecessors. There is an abstractness to the backgrounds, and the character drawings don’t have the depth of, say, Snow White. They managed to turn these deficits into strengths. The movie looks just wonderful. And when they really pulled out all the stops, it is stunning. There’s a scene with a lot of clowns seen only as shadows cast on a tent wall that is just brilliant. The night scenes of erecting the Big Top are striking, as well. And the freak-out of “Pink Elephants on Parade” floors me anew every time I see it. Walt once briefly worked with Salvador Dali. Nothing much came of it, but when I see this sequence I always think, “Who needs Dali?” People loved this movie. Critics did, too, and saw it as a return to the Disney roots after the rather highfalutin’ artiness of Fantasia. It was the first Disney movie to be released on that new invention, home videotape, in 1981.
And once again charges of racism rear their ugly heads. I guess an argument can be made, but I’m not sympathetic to it. The five black crows who discover Dumbo up in a tree do speak in broad Negro accents, but you can’t deny the accents are authentic, and they do laugh a lot, but they are no Stepin Fetchits. They are smart, and funny, and they sing a very clever jazz song with a lot verbal humor. And in the end they are the only ones, other than Timothy Mouse, who don’t ostracize Dumbo, but help him. And I think it’s funny that—though this doesn’t appear in the credits—the boss is named Jim Crow. Compare these crows with other portrayals of black people in 1941 and I think most people would agree that it is much better than average.