When I was a child, Dumbo was possibly my least favourite Disney film, so I wasn’t much looking forward to this one except for one particular scene. I’m not sure why I didn’t care for it. I possibly just didn’t like the elephants, Dumbo included; the gossipers are intended to be annoying, and the animators succeeded there. As a child I also didn’t connect much to the mother/son relationship, which, being the whole point of the film, is rather critical.
Watching it now, I’ll again applaud the quality of the animation, though if there’s any change in quality between this film and Pinocchio it’s marginal. It has lots of bright, primary colours, even compared to Snow White and Pinocchio, especially in the character designs, which fits the circus setting, and the backgrounds are again detailed and generally softer-coloured.
The plot’s a sentimental one. A stork delivers a baby to a circus elephant (because that’s where babies come from, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), but baby turns out to have hilariously gigantic ears, so everybody makes fun of the little guy and calls him “Dumbo,” from other elephants to some punk kid who’d probably turn into a jackass in Pinocchio. Mama defends Dumbo by literally throwing these twerps around and gets locked up and separated from Dumbo. A mouse (named Timothy?) feels bad for him and helps him out, only somewhat successfully, but he does a better job than the useless Jiminy Cricket did for Pinocchio. Dumbo is brought into a popular act with the clowns, who celebrate by getting drunk (yeah, this is a kids’ movie); one clown knocks some booze into a water bucket, which Dumbo and Tim drink, and suddenly Pink Elephants on Parade.
Yeah… pink elephants… Man, what the flying – I mean, what?
I’ll, uh, have to come back to that. Anyway, Dumbo ends up in a tree, and since he had to get up there somehow, Tim and some crows figure he must’ve flown up. So, after a requisite song-and-dance number, Dumbo learns to fly, which in any other movie would be pretty strange but I was still too busy thinking “Man what was up with those pink elephants?”, but anyway Dumbo takes the world by storm, becomes a celebrity, and all’s well.
So, not a bad narrative. It’s more tightly constructed than Snow White, a little less so than Pinocchio, but everything that happens has its place in the narrative. Except those pink elephants, man…
So, okay, let’s talk about that scene. It’s really weird, but what’s it doing here? The narrative does need some method to get Dumbo from the circus into a tree so he can figure out he can fly, but how? A dream sequence can work, but that’s still a bit implausible, so… make him drunk, too. It’s a kids’ film, but hey, just make it a lesson; don’t drink, kids, or you’ll start seeing pink elephants.
What’s so strange about it is that there’s nothing else like that in the film. For that matter, there’s not much like it in Disney’s films. When Studio Shaft does an opening credit sequence like this, it’s odd-looking but not totally unusual for them. For Disney, though, the only other scene like it that I can think of is Pooh’s nightmare about heffalumps and woozles in Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.
However the pink elephants wound up in the film, though, I love them. It was my favourite part of the film as a child, and it’s my favourite part now, by far. The background’s totally blank, but that just makes the viewer focus on the neon pachyderms, which move, merge, and march around the edges of the screen in a way that’s only possible with animation, and it’s scenes like this that keep me coming back to this medium.