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Dumbo, the tale of a long eared elephant that learns to fly in spite of extreme odds, is not among my lasting favourites in the early Disney pantheon. It’s not the bombastic work of pure film that Fantasia is, and didn’t break any boundaries like Snow White or Pinocchio.  It’s impressive in its ability to tell a story almost entirely though music and images, but the story is so minimal the effect is diminished (especially sandwiched between Fantasia and Bambi). Still, one could delete every line of dialogue without damaging the narrative fabric of the film. The most chatty character is Timothy Q. Mouse, a somewhat obvious attempt to recapture the magic of Jiminy Cricket (who apparently wasn’t all that popular at the time), and his lines do offer an important juxtaposition to the warbling hatred that surrounds the title character at most moments, but I think my point still stands. Like Pinocchio, Dumbo features an almost anti-narrative, but it doesn’t ever turn entirely episodic (even the ‘Elephants on Parade’ sequence gets Dumbo from point A to point B). There is an overall arc to the story, just not a particularly enthralling one. I don’t think I ever realized how short this story was until this viewing, and it’s apparent that minus the songs and drunken dream sequences, Dumbo would work quite well as a short. Apparently my shorter childhood attention span stretched the story out into a more dramatic length, making the flying elephant aspects a greater part of the story (it is referred to as a ‘long Silly Symphony’ in the special features on this disc). In reality Dumbo learns to fly, flies in front of people, and the movie rushes to a happy ending in about a minute flat. It’s possible that I’m looking at this from the wrong angle too, and that the fact that my mind’s eye has extended such brief moments into a more substantial meal likely speaks to the power of the imagery.

Dumbo
Dumbo’s animation isn’t as intricate or complex as that of Pinocchio or Fantasia (or many of the films that would follow it), and features plenty of technical shortcomings, but the simple and more cartoony nature of the design leads to some brilliant character moments. The sequence in which Dumbo is caressed and rocked by his caged mother is crushingly heartbreaking because of the believable interactions, and tactile sensation that transcend the fact that there’s no actual ‘life’ in the image. The ‘Elephants on Parade’ sequence is a brilliant example of the elastic possibilities of animation, not to mention its lasting effect on psychedelia over the years. Another clever component is the use of expressionistic silhouettes when the clowns are talking. It’s easy to miss the fact that the clowns never speak outside of their tent, which subtly implies Dumbo doesn’t necessarily understand they can speak, and more importantly keeps the humanistic aspects of the circus’ humans at arms length. It’s entirely possible this was also a cost cutting measure, but necessity, mother of invention, and all that.

Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia, Dumbo fully embraces some definitively horrifying elements, defined most obviously (again) by the pink elephant sequence. As in the case of the donkey transformation in Pinocchio, the forest escape in Snow White, and the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ sequence in Fantasia, the elephant march seems to exist for the sole purpose of frightening the kids in the audience, which was perfectly acceptable at the time of release. There weren’t really any ‘rules’ (written or implied) about these things at the time. As a horror fan above even an animation fan I’ve continuously found myself fascinated with the Technicolor terror in these early Disney films, as it made its way headlong into many important, nightmarish live action, adult horror films over the years. But beyond this particular literal nightmare is a nightmarish tone that sets just about everyone against the innocent little elephant. Dumbo’s mistreatment is relentless, and his separation from his mother early in the film mercilessly fulfills one of childhood’s most painful phobias. Even simple sequences, like the erecting of the circus tent, is set against a torrent of rain, wind and thunder, creating an intense mood, and implying that something tragic could occur at any moment.

Dumbo

Video


It appears that the hold back on this particular title (if memory serves it was announced well over a year ago) wasn’t a waste of our time, as this new restoration is as good as I could possibly expect from a 70 year old piece of animation. Once again the Disney people don’t go wild with DNR or colour timing changes, even though the simplicity of animation lends itself to the processes more than live action film. There are a few flecks of grain, but the relative lack of it, along with a few blocky background blends lead me to believe the disc’s producers indulged a little in digital noise reduction. As per usually, the sharpness of a 1080p Blu-ray transfer reveals some of the shortcomings of antique cell animation, including paint brush strokes, shadows around character edges, and some sketchy edges, but these are all signs of unique artistry inherit in cell animation. The sparkling clarity of this restoration is one thing, but I’m more struck by the infinitely brighter colours. I don’t actually own the original DVD release, so I’m basing my comparison on mostly VHS memories, but generally I’m remembering a darker film. The foreground, cell-based elements are the brightest, and feature solid, crisp and simple hues (very few colours are used per character, unlike other Disney films, even those of the same era). The water colour-based backgrounds (a rarity and cost cutting measure for the studio) are darker, but the hues are quite rich, and the increased in clarity reveals wonderful paper textures, and polished details. The backgrounds also feature deep, dark, and clean blacks, which cut nicely against the foreground whites.

Dumbo

Audio


Disney makes good with another effective 5.1 remix that remains true to the original mix while offering a more immersive experience. Once again the studio opts for a slightly wider DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix, though I’m pretty sure the extra two channels aren’t exactly a necessity (I wouldn’t know for certain though, since I only have a 5.1 set-up in my home). Dumbo skirts the line of excessive at some points, especially early on in the film, when the thunder and rain of a storm overflows into every channel, and threatens to overwhelm the LFE. Then the storks are signified with the sound of a plane engine, a sound I remember being quite subtle, which has been set into overdrive, and placed into the rear channels. But soon enough after the musical score (which is among my favourites in the classic Disney cannon) takes hold, and the stereo and surround support begins to make a lot more sense. The majority of effects and vocals are still left in the center channel, leaving the music to spread more evenly over the front channels. Occasionally a musical effect will bleed awkwardly from center like a bad Pro Logic mix, but for the must part I found the redistribution natural. There is some minor distortion and crackle to some of the vocal effects specifically, but most effects and all the music are quite clean, and elements are elegantly separated.

Dumbo

Extras


The extras begin with a PiP Cine-Explore mode featuring hosts/commentators Pete Docter (writer/director of Up), Disney historian Paula Sigmon, and animator/historian Andreas Deja. The experts discuss Dumbo’s history, and its place in the Disney canon, set against interview footage (some quite old, and some audio only) with various people involved in the original production. It includes pop-up video footage of the commentators, the interview subjects, footage from cartoons that inspired the production, and lots of production art. Under the ‘Backstage Disney’ menu you will find ‘Taking Flight: The Making of Dumbo’ (28:10, HD), an entertaining, though brief featurette on the film’s production. This covers similar ground as the Cine-Explore commentary, but not all the same ground. This doc starts by contextualizing Dumbo in the early Disney pantheon. It was a cheaper film, and the first in Disney’s line that didn’t aspire to something bigger and better. From here focus is drawn onto the film’s emotional punch, the source material (a book), writing the script, a strike that hit early in production, monetary problems that arouse thanks to WWII (which America hadn’t entered yet), cost cutting measures, each major animator and his responsibilities, the controversial crow characters, non-animation artists and their influences, the musical score and songs, and the film’s financial success. The doc is augmented with period photos, art references, animation reference footage, and footage from other Disney films.

Also under the ‘Backstage Disney’ banner is ‘The Magic of Dumbo: A Ride of Passage’ (3:10, HD), an ad/featurette on the Dumbo ride at Disneyland, and original DVD release bonus features ‘Sound Design Excerpt from The Reluctant Dragon’ (6:00, SD), ‘Celebrating Dumbo’ (a fluffier version of the new behind the scenes featurette, 14:50, SD), Walt Disney’s original TV introduction (1:00, SD), two trailers, and art eight art galleries. The disc also features a deleted scene entitled ‘The Mouse’s Tale’ that explains why elephants are afraid of mice (presented as still production illustration, 5:40, HD) , a deleted song entitled ‘Are You a Man or a Mouse’ (recreation mixed with production stills, 4:00, HD), Elmer the Elephant (8:30, HD) and The Flying Mouse (9:20, HD) shorts, and trailers.

Dumbo

Overall


Dumbo still isn’t one of my favourites, but I certainly liked it as a small child and assume other small children will continue to enjoy it for decades to come. The fine folks at Disney have also done an impeccable job cleaning it up for Blu-ray, and included a fine assortment of extras, including a comprehensive picture in picture Cine-Explore commentary option, an entertaining behind the scenes featurette, and all the stuff you already had on your old DVD release.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality, but have been taken from the included DVD copy, which is a SD version of the new remaster, so they should give you some idea of what to expect.


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