Dumbo was Walt Disney’s favorite animated film, and rightly so. While Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio and Fantasia were big, high-energy stories, Bambi and Dumbo were more intimate films. Bambi is more of a low-keyed movie until the final sequence and Dumbo relies more on charm and humor than spectacular effects shots.
Pinocchio and Fantasia weren’t great financial successes in their initial theatrical releases, so Dumbo was conceived as a way for the studio to recoup some of those previous losses. Multiplane camera shots and other expensive effects were kept to a minimum while the story was told as simply as possible. Because it was made in only one-and-a-half years at a fraction of the cost of the previous films, Dumbo had great earning potential. In many ways, Dumbo was a shift back to the spirit of the early Disney cartoon shorts.
By 1941, unions were well established throughout the Hollywood film studios except when it came to animation. During the production of Dumbo, an animators strike began and Walt took the advice of Nelson Rockefeller, then head of the Latin American Affairs office in the State Department, that he make a tour of Latin America as a goodwill ambassador, allowing the striking animators’ passions to cool and the strike to be settled by a federal mediator. Walt’s trip to Latin America would later result in the production of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, but his absence also meant that his involvement with Dumbo was less intense than it had been with the previous animated features.
The screen story was crafted by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer from the source material, “Dumbo the Flying Elephant,” an entertaining children’s book written by Helen Aberson and her husband, Harold Pearl. Before Disney had even acquired the rights, the book had not even appeared in print. Walt said, “From the very start, Dumbo was a happy picture. It really started from a very simple idea, and […] just grew. We were not restricted by any set story line, so we could give our imagination full play. In other words: if a good idea came to us, we’d put it in the story.”
With character animation by Bill Tytla, the man who created the evil puppeteer Stromboli in Pinocchio and the mighty demon Chernabog in Fantasia, Dumbo goes from newborn elephant to the star of the circus in the span of 64 minutes.
When a bottle of champagne falls into the water barrel, Dumbo and his friend Timothy Q. Mouse, created by animator Fred Moore, share an intoxicated vision that has become one of the most memorable parts of the film–”Pink Elephants on Parade.” When Dumbo and Timothy wake up from the avant-garde segment, they quickly realize that they are high atop a tree and they got there because Dumbo can fly.
With the help of a magic feather donated by a group of black crows, inspired by vaudeville star Cliff Edwards and playfully animated by Ward Kimball, Dumbo quickly soared through the clouds and into the hearts of viewers everywhere.
The film was released on October 31, 1941, to high-flying reviews and would go on to win an Academy Award for Best Original Score for composers Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace.
Although Dumbo is often regarded as one of Disney’s saddest animated films, it also soars to the highest of heights.