Reminisce About Dumbo

We mentioned Dumbo recently in our post about how Tim Burton is going to ruin it. The 1941 animated film Dumbo was based on a toy. The toy idea was pretty much just a storytelling device anyway, and Disney bought the toy in order to make the movie.

During the making of the movie, there was a strike. What led to the strike — including economic turmoil, the war, more unions, and Disney’s reduction in bonuses to employees — is a whole other story. Although the strike lasted five weeks, Dumbo¬†was finished and released. It was made using approximately $950,000.

After a glorious introduction of circus music during the credits, the movie starts by showing us a bunch of adorable baby animals tumbling out of their blankets after being dropped off by storks, the UPS of the Animal Kingdom. All baby animals appear to only have a mother, except for the lucky tiger litter, who seem to have a whopping two parents. Mrs. Jumbo waits sadly for a delivery of her own.

Then, as if circuses aren’t awful places, and probably especially awful in 1941, a crew of smiling animals calmly walk to their homes, each into the appropriate car on the train. For some reason, the train is also a living thing, named Casey Junior. At least he has a great theme song!

And don’t worry about Mrs. Jumbo. You see she has the same UPS guy as me, and he was just exceptionally late. Also: clumsy and unable to read a map. He chases down the train and hops from car to car in a way that only a cartoon bird would.

He finds her with her nosy elephant cohorts and recites some poetry at her, then asks for a signature. Then he sings happy birthday into the bundle, at little Jumbo Jr., while hiccuping oddly, like some sort of drunk, before falling out the window.

Mrs. Jumbo’s bitchy elephant diva cohorts are bitchy elephant divas. We’ll get back to them.

Baby Dumbo is literally the cutest thing that has ever happened on the earth.

Then, he sneezes, and bitchy diva elephants laugh, point, touch, and gossip when his adorable giant ears flap out. Mrs. Jumbo strikes out for the first time, angrily swatting them away from her baby. The mean ladies nickname him Dumbo, to be mean, but it’s pretty cute.

This is a drawing of one of the Dumbo meanies, one of the old bitchy elephants. Surrounding her are words of mockery as she snidely looks aside. "Haw haw haw haw! Pachyderm? More like packy-dumb!"

Whatever, bitches. Mrs. Jumbo is in love with her baby boy and his ears, as any mother would be.

For some reason, when Casey Jr. runs into some trouble (or is he intentionally sputtering to a stop here?), the elephants and a dozen Black men get out and work in the rain to set up the circus tent. The elephants don’t appear to be under any leadership, perhaps they’re just lending a hand?

The next morning it’s circus time! It starts with a parade and the best part is a happy hippo pulling a golden organ. I would like one for myself. Everyone loves Dumbo, too, but it’s because he’s clumsy. Poor little dude. Mom gives him the cutest bath ever afterward, where we hear the noises he makes, which are odd and confusing. He doesn’t sound anything like an elephant, but I guess him never talking is the closest to realistic this movie gets anyway.

A big-eared ginger teenager harasses Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo freaks out big time. Well, not really, but she tries to spank the guy and then everything spirals out of control. She ends up locked in a tiny train car marked “Mad Elephant” among other things, handcuffed on all four legs even. Dumbo is left behind with the gossipy diva elephants, now openly disparaging his loving mother.

Thank god for Timothy Q. Mouse. Good ol’ Tim is looking for peanuts when he sees these adult women elephants shut out this orphaned baby because his ears are big, because human isn’t the only species that includes awful brats. Like a champ, Timothy marches his little outfitted mouse butt over in front of them and scares those fatties silly. Classic cartoon trope.

Dumbo’s new friend Timothy then convinces the ringmaster to use Dumbo as a climax for the final act in the ring, while he sleeps, by whisper-yelling right into his ear. It works and he tries it immediately. The diva elephants insult each other while configuring themselves awkwardly into a pyramid on top of a ball. The cutest little elephant ever is then supposed to leap from a ramp onto a platform that the top elephant is holding. It’s crazy, even if he weren’t so clumsy!

He ends up knocking down not just the elephants, but the whole circus tent and everything in it. All of the mean elephant ladies are in hilarious casts, while they trash talk the orphan Dumbo.

He is then made a clown, which the elephants think is the absolute circus shame. They declare him, “no longer an elephant,” and they twist trunks as if to solidify their decision with a somber, important shake of their snouts.

The clowns are hilarious, and clowns are almost never funny. There’s an endless supply of them and they make a whole big show of being too inept to put out a fire, which Dumbo is waiting to be rescued from. Weird act! Dumbo ends up in a pile of indistinguishable liquid and looks pretty sad about it.

Timothy tries to reassure him, as Dumbo breaks all our hearts, including Timothy’s, and he cries little giant elephant tears of loneliness. Now that your heart is broken, the saddest scene of all time in any movie ever happens. Don’t look, as Mrs. Jumbo and Dumbo cuddle through her circus prison bars and “Baby Mine” plays.

Oh god, wait. I am so glad this movie was set in the enlightened 1940’s instead of the horrible 1890’s, or else “Baby Mine” might have been the soundtrack of a scene where a deranged inventor shocks Dumbo’s rogue mother to death while delighted spectators cheer.

Dumbo is visibly upset and has tiny puppy hiccups. Adorable. He drinks some water which is actually booze that the clowns tossed there after deciding they deserve a raise. Instead of getting drunk, or after I guess, he hallucinates, which is amazing. First, he and Timothy are all bubbly, then they basically have an acid trip. It’s beautiful and frightening, weird and catchy, and probably not that appropriate for children, honestly.

When morning hits Dumbo and Timothy, hungover as can be, we meet the crows, who are as sad a 1941 racist depiction if I’ve ever seen it. Luckily nothing about their behavior is bad. Mouse and elephant realize they must have flown into the tree they woke up in, and the crows treat us to a beautiful rendition of melodic skepticism.

This illustration shows a little baby elephant with giant ears and a mouse inside of a tiny hat looking sad while a crow bird points at him and shouts "Flight!"

Dumbo is given a “magic” feather and everyone unites to help him get up in the air. It works! Magic.

Back at the circus, he’s up in another burning building while the clowns scramble around. He loses his feather on the way down during his escape-jump and loses his confidence, plummeting until almost the end and then SWOOP! Back up! Because the magic was in him all along, of course!

A terrifying flying elephant in clown makeup with a talking mouse in his hat is loose in the circus! It’s okay, the crowd loves it, and Dumbo unleashes hilarious revenge on the clowns.

Dumbo is instantly famous! He gets a private train car in Casey Jr. where his mom watches him fly with his crow posse. And the viewers are left feeling shaken as the shortest, most emotionally volatile full length animated feature jauntily comes to an end!


  1. Nicely done. Dumbo has the authenticity of the hodgepodge.
    I have a small collection of children’s book versions of Dumbo, adaptations from the movie. I like to see how their authors (generally unnamed) handle the pink elephants on parade and the crows. It is a problem the film doesn’t have to approach. It doesn’t have to put anything into words and children can make their own sense out of the weird goings-on. So far all of the books I’ve come across have glossed over these two absolutely pivotal sequences in the narrative. They have used the same carefully vague language adults use when trying to speak to children about such strangeness in their own biographies.

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