This month, The Walt Disney Family Museum celebrates one of Walt Disney's most curious and beloved animated features, Dumbo.
In the aftermath of the blockbuster success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the ambitious but disappointing performances of Pinocchio and Fantasia, and as Bambi struggled to find its way; as divisive labor problems troubled the Studio and the threat of a World War loomed on the horizon, one of Walt Disney's most timeless and unpretentious animated features was created.
Legendary Disney animator and director Ward Kimball recalled how organic and simple the film's origin was. "The first time I heard about the story, Walt stopped me in the parking lot and he said, 'Ward, I want to get you started on our next picture. It's a circus picture. It's called Dumbo, and it's about a little baby elephant that's born with big ears. Everybody ridicules him.' He went through the whole story in about five minutes."
Adapted from an obscure children's book by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, the film was originally planned in 1939 as a 30-minute featurette before Walt assigned story men Joe Grant and Dick Huemer to expand the idea into a feature.
“Dumbo sort of grew," Walt recalled. "It started with a little idea and as we kept working with it, we kept adding and before we knew it we had a feature. It was really a fun picture.”
In its final form, Dumbo never strays from its simple story line, but adds an amazing variety of entertainment and style in its compact and tight structure: the impressionistic construction of the circus during a nighttime rainstorm, the cartoon comedy of the circus animals and clowns, the tender sweetness of a mother and child, the surrealism of the hallucinatory parade of pink elephants, a varied and memorable musical score—and a key character who creates a deep and complete audience sympathy without ever uttering a word.
Writer and scholar Bill Benzon sees even more than a simple and lovely fable in the film. "The emphasis is certainly on Dumbo as an individual. But…Disney embraces a wider social context. This leaves me with the odd feeling that, in some ways Dumbo is a more ambitious film than, say, Pinocchio. The Pinocchio story seems strongly self-contained within the relationships between the three central characters; it’s an entirely personal story. Dumbo, though intensely focused on a very important relationship—that between mother and child—embeds that relationship in the larger world in a fairly open-ended way. Disney was reaching for more than he had in Pinocchio."
Walt was probably not aware of these lofty ramifications in the making of the film. Indeed, the making of the film in many ways represented a respite from the strain of many years of ambitious and cumbersome productions.
"Some of the things that have been the best, we had a real feeling for," Walt said. "Little Dumbo was one that we had a lot of fun with. That film was the most spontaneous thing we’ve ever done. The whole crew responds to that.”
Walt Disney introduces a TV airing of Dumbo, September 14, 1955.
Walt Disney's Dumbo is screening every day in May at 1:00pm and 4:00pm (except Tuesdays, and May 21 & 22) in the state-of-the-art digital theatre at The Walt Disney Family Museum. Tickets are available at the Reception and Member Service Desk at the Museum, or online at www.waltdisney.org.