Dumbo would be the second to last film in the Disney golden age, which already saw two other films worthy of such classification. However, not every movie in the acclaimed golden era deserved its praise, as one can see through my quick review of Pinocchio. And with Dumbo, I’m going to have to say that this isn’t as much enjoyable as it is above average. Of course, other people are entitled to their own opinions, as Stephen Garrett from Time Out said it is “one of the best of Disney’s animated features.”
I can certainly understand why one might be inclined to direct such statements towards Dumbo. Like the other golden era films, it embraces this idea of emotional simplicity, or the idea that a complicated plot doesn’t have be the main driving force to evoke emotion. I mean, there is a scene when Dumbo and his mouse friend are drunk and the five minutes of animated pink elephants that ensue are nearly plot-less. And yet, these five minutes capture how Dumbo is feeling better than any internal stream of consciousness or actions of its character could ever hope to describe. That is ultimately the strongpoint of this movie: it really captures the emotion of a particular occurrence without the need of conventional cinematic elements. Like when the children make fun of Dumbo’s big ears and how his mother starts destroying the circus, or like when Dumbo makes a trip to his mother’s cage and she swings Dumbo on her trunk; these are, in isolation from any plot, heart-wrenching and beautiful moments in the film.
This brings me to what I consider the two biggest faults of the movie. The first fault is that this movie seems to have these scenes Disney really wanted to animate, such as the ones I’ve mentioned above, without thinking about how to masterfully weave them into the story. Everything builds up to these moments in a very sporadic way. There are more than a few transitions that are abrupt, opting to just black out the screen for a few seconds before introducing a completely different scene, which is more disorienting than anything else. Nonetheless, if this was the only problem I had with the film, then this film would surely be entitled to a grade worthy of a golden era.
My biggest problem of Dumbo is that I don’t know Dumbo. He is just a circumstance of the plot, which clashes with the emotional simplicity the rest of the film is based around. Dumbo, in isolation from the plot, does not deserve a happy ending simply because we don’t know if he deserves one. The only reason why we care about Dumbo is because he was born with big ears, which makes everybody but his mouse friend and his mother make fun of him. Had Dumbo been born with normal-sized ears, then all of a sudden I don’t care about Dumbo anymore because he has no personality. Dumbo needed heart, he needed character, he needed to be developed; instead, we get a character who weighs down the movie from ever soaring to greater heights.