A young circus elephant's oversized ears makes him a target of ridicule. Children taunt him, other elephants shun him, and when his mother tries to protect him they are cruelly separated. Nicknamed "Dumbo", the miserable little elephant's only friend is Timothy Q. Mouse. One morning, the two of them awake high up in a tree, and Timothy figures out that Dumbo flew them up there. If Dumbo can master flying and bring it to the circus ring, he'll become a star and be reunited with his mother.
Everything about Dumbo feels reduced in scope. The world is concentrated in a traveling circus, and Dumbo only leaves its confines briefly. The majority of the movie takes place in tents and train cars. Our hero, though an elephant, is always portrayed as diminutive. Background art and character design are streamlined and simplified; there's no scene with the magnificent detail of Geppetto's workshop in Pinocchio or the Queen's transformation in Snow White. The film isn't even that long; it's barely over an hour in length. The simplicity and brevity of Dumbo is actually the film's greatest strength, and I suspect it all came about because of the colossal expense (and subsequent box office failure) of Pinocchio and Fantasia. The tightly controlled budget forced Disney's storytellers to minimize extraneous details and expense, and this created a tightly plotted film that has become one of Disney's most enduring classics.*
There's some controversy about the "Jim Crow**" and his cronies. Some people consider the crows a racist portrayal of African-American stereotypes popular at the time. As a kid, I always thought the crows were just playful and fun...and as an adult, I still hold this view. They're some of very few characters who are sympathetic to Dumbo and seek to help him. In a world populated with buffoons, they're also some of the cleverest characters, animal or human. The song they sing is full of puns and wordplay, and it is the crows that come up with the idea of the 'magic feather' to boost Dumbo's confidence. Considering this is America in the late 1930s, when lynching was still happening in the South, I have trouble condemning the movie for racism when the crows - although portrayed in a "stereotypical" way - are some of the most positive characters in the film.
On the other hand, what is up with the faceless African-American circus workers and their 'happy-hearted roustabouts' song? I think that if someone wanted, they could make a much stronger case for racism with that song than with the crows.
When I was a kid, the thing I always remembered from Dumbo was the "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence. You know the one. Dumbo accidentally gets a little drunk and hallucinates hundreds of crazy pink elephants. The animators were clearly having fun, and it is probably the zaniest five minutes to come out of a Disney studio. I was kinda frightened by it, to be honest. Now I think it would make a kickass dark ride at the Disney parks, preferably in roller coaster form.
Dumbo doesn't talk at all. It's so unusual to have a silent main character. Works for me, but it's weird.
Honestly, I think this movie's pretty good. It tugs at the heartstrings and showcases all the little cruelties people indulge in, often without realizing it. There are so many memorable scenes, like Dumbo being rocked in his mother's trunk or cowering at the top of a burning tower. Seanie might not agree with me, though; he fell asleep halfway through.
Marked down because even though the movie's only 64 minutes long, there were a couple of times I thought it felt a little slow.
* Fun fact: Dumbo was the first Disney animated film released on VHS, and has never been discontinued or gone out of print up through the present. There are five different versions of it on VHS and three different DVDs.
** Although the leader of the crows is referred to as 'Jim Crow' in the script, the name is never spoken in the film.