Tuesday, June 13, 2006


It's been on DVD before, and this so-called Special Edition is mostly nothing special, but Disney's marketeer's have just reissued Dumbo, and that's reason for celebration. Easily the best thing Disney ever did, almost certainly the best animated feature ever made, and just a great movie all-around, Dumbo also offers proof that animation is truly an art form.

You know the story: tiny elephant, big ears, an outcast among his circus peers, finally befriended by Timothy J. Mouse, who helps him discover...he can fly! It's a standard freakish outsider makes good tale, but told well, at a perfectly judged length of only sixty-four minutes. It never feels padded or rushed, as do so many Disney features of its era.

Probably one of the reasons Dumbo is as good as it is comes from the fact that it was knocked out rather quickly, rushed to the marketplace to make some quick cash, since Walt had lost a bundle with Fantasia. There was no time to smooth out the rough edges, to make it a more generic piece of product. As a result, it's obvious even to people who aren't cartoon geeks like me that characters (particularly Timothy) change their appearance and mannerisms slightly depending on who is animating them at any given moment. Thanks to a thorough commentary by John Canemaker (a holdover from a previous DVD issue), it's possible for anyone to appreciate the work of these individual artists as the movie unfolds.

Possibly the greatest animator of all time was Bill Tytla, and it is his rendering of one scene that raises this to the level of greatness. Dumbo's mom has been caged since she tried to protect him, so Timothy takes him to visit her. She's chained, and behind bars; all she can do is unfurl her trunk and wrap it around her child. Tytla's animation here--the emotions flickering across Dumbo's face before he finally collapses into his mother's trunk, and the absolute bliss on his face as he does--is as perfect, as profoundly moving a depiction of pure love as any artist could depict.

As it plays in the context of the movie, set to the aching lullabye Baby Mine, this scene is undeniably sentimental. (It's honest, well-earned sentiment, so it's okay. Plus Baby Mine makes me weep uncontrollably every time I hear it.) So watch it out of context--step through this scene frame by frame, and note Tytla's mastery of movement, how his characters carry their weight, and above all, notice that he never pushes the emotion, that he depicts what he's showing with restraint, and that very restraint makes it all the more powerful.

Dumbo has so much great stuff--hipster crows, the Pink Elephant scene, even a brief hommage to Nosferatu!--and mercifully has none of the qualities we've come to expect from contempoary animated features. There are no would-be hip pop culture references, no big-name star voices, no fart jokes. And above all, no sense of talking down to the audience. This is a movie clearly made by people who loved what they did. I love what they did, too.