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Dumbo: 70th Anniversary Edition

Walt Disney Productions (October 23 1941), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (September 20 2011), 1 Blu-ray Disc plus 1 DVD, 64 mins plus supplements, 1080p high-definition 1.33:1 original full frame ratio, DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio and Original Restored Soundtrack, Rated G, Retail: $39.99

Storyboard:

Brought to a thriving circus by a mailman-style delivery stork, a little elephant finds his home with Mrs Jumbo, one of a posse of pachyderms. Ridiculed by the other elephants due to his oversized ears, this Jumbo Junior is soon re-christened Dumbo and, when the local boys also make fun of her baby, Mrs Jumbo finally breaks and attacks one of the kids, leading to her eventual incarceration. Lost and alone, the little elephant is befriended by Timothy Mouse, a wisecracking rodent with a brainwave idea – maybe Dumbo could become the world’s first and only flying elephant!

The Sweatbox Review:

Although originally announced a couple of years ago and actually on release around the world for almost just as long now, Walt Disney’s most simple (and that’s a compliment!) cartoon feature Dumbo – one of my absolute favorites – finally arrives in a sparkling high-definition Blu-ray edition right in time for its 70th birthday, almost to the very day!

After the mega success of Snow White in 1937, and the then less than stellar box office runs of Pinocchio and Fantasia (partly based on the cutting off of revenue from foreign markets involved in the Second World War), Walt was looking for simpler entertainment that would take folks’ thoughts away from the carnage and destruction that was going on in Europe, and that would soon affect the American way of life as well. In script and storyboard production for only six months, the entire story was honed and toned by a number of studio story men, including Dick Huemer and the legendary Joe Grant.

Based on a short story by children’s authors Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, Walt considered producing Dumbo as a featurette, before Huemer and Grant’s treatment persuaded him otherwise. During this time, the film was quickly brought into shape, eliminating at an early stage any un-needed elements and providing a tight structure that meant Dumbo could be put into animation rapidly. With such a simplistic plot, the animators had time to pepper Dumbo with much more of the cartoon sensibility that had been lacking from Walt’s then-recent feature animation output.

The Reluctant Dragon, the 1942 live action tour around the Disney Studio lot, which included several featurettes woven throughout the film as well as a peek into Dumbo’s production process with a scene that was ultimately cut from the movie, was an attempt to turn around a quality film quickly, but it was none too successful on its first release. Dumbo proved that a full animated feature (albeit slightly less in length than usual) could also be done as fast, with the pre-production time helping the animation process come in on time and under budget, in just one year of actual production.

Most of the film’s success is down to its deceptively simple story, but there is also so much more to enjoy in Dumbo – the bright circus colors and atmosphere, the authentic hijinks of the clowns, and the music, by Disney staffers Ned Washington, Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace. Then there is the animation itself which, while not as delicately detailed as Pinocchio or Fantasia, still feels fully “alive”, with great special effects (such as the train Casey Jr’s night-time journey with all those Multiplaned backgrounds and perfectly placed shadows), and brilliant invention – the famous Pink Elephants sequence wherein Dumbo and Timothy get drunk is worth the price of admission alone!

The voice cast work wonders as well. Dumbo himself almost never utters a word, and likewise Mrs Jumbo, apart from naming her baby in the opening and singing in the central Baby Mine sequence (although this is sung over this moment to convey emotion and is not lip-synced to her character directly). Making up for their lack of talk is Ed Brophy as Timothy, a motormouth with big ideas and a big heart, who takes Dumbo under his wing, as it were, and sticks up for him. As Jim Crow, Cliff Edwards makes a good sparring partner for Timothy, with the two practically speaking two different parts of the same conversation. The crows also get to sing the film’s standout musical hit When I See An Elephant Fly (Edwards’ second Disney smash after performing When You Wish Upon A Star as Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio) that has some of the best pun-filled lyrics ever to feature in a Disney film.

Dumbo is also important for introducing another famous voice to what would become a regular stable of vocalists for Walt’s films: making his debut for the Studio here is Sterling Holloway. As Mr Stork, he provides the messenger bird with the brand of vocal quality that will be familiar to Disney fans, and the kind which would lead to several other assignments, including the narrator of quite a few shorts, and the voices of Winnie The Pooh and Kaa, the snake from The Jungle Book. Another long time Disney contributor was Verna Felton as the head elephant, who would later return as the voices of the Queen Of Hearts in Alice In Wonderland and, in a quite different type of role entirely, as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother!

Apparently the whole production went through with not a problem in sight, a first for the newly established Hyperion Studio, where Disney’s was now set up following the success of Snow White. The artists took trips to the Cole Brothers Circus to get a feel for the travelling life, a live stork was brought in for reference for those scenes (a photo of it was later used as a Studio card announcing the birth of one of the artist’s babies), and an elephant visited the Studio as well – also contributing a fun sequence to The Reluctant Dragon feature.

Key animator Bill Tytla was responsible for Dumbo himself. Tytla, who asked for the assignment, had only brought to life a number of monsters for Walt, including Stromboli in Pinocchio and Chernabog in Fantasia, and Walt wasn’t entirely sure he could pull off the vulnerability that Dumbo needed. All was soon well as the fellow artists at the Studio were enchanted by what emerged when Tytla finally revealed his drawings, Tytla later saying that he’d based the caricature on his own child, commenting that “There’s nothing theatrical about a two year old kid. They’re real and sincere. I tried to put all these things in Dumbo”.

And Dumbo is full of these little moments, especially the Baby Mine sequence that still brings tears to many adults. The bond between a child and its parents is one of the strongest things in the world, perhaps as strong or stronger as true love, and like Bambi losing his mother in Walt’s next film on from Dumbo, when the little elephant fears he will never see her again, we as an audience feel that very emotionally, and along with the death of Bambi’s mother, and the inevitable fate that has to befall a young lad’s dog in Old Yeller, Baby Mine has rightly gone down as one of the most affecting moments in classic Disney, also providing the emotional anchor for the movie.

In complete contrast, the Pink Elephants sequence is played straight for laughs and abstract effect. Way before the days of complicated CG, this sequence still stands out as a perfect surreal nightmare – the supposed results of a bucket of alcohol going up Dumbo’s trunk! Pyramids of pachyderms switch into belly dancing elephants, speedboats, race cars, and so on, bringing to life not just the experience of drunkenness, but a complete series of hallucinations! Max Fleischer tried a similar approach in Paramount’s animated release Mr Bug Goes To Town, during which the hero Hoppity is flushed with electricity and literally buzzes around an insect nightclub.

The Disney Studio later replicated the feel of Pink Elephants for the Heffalump sequence in Winnie The Pooh And The Blustery Day, but the lush animation, deep blacks and bright highlight markings in Dumbo’s biggest visual moment is still the best – and to think that this most celebrated of sequences was originally filler material asked for by Walt to push the eventual running time to just over an hour! Snow White and Pinocchio had almost been an hour and a half each, Fantasia over two in its initial release – Dumbo should be made longer, Walt’s then distributor RKO Radio Pictures demanded.

With Pink Elephants just about providing a feature length presentation, Walt was adamant that “Dumbo is perfect as it is” and should not be trimmed or lengthened. Very reminiscent of the later “Specials” that the Studio would produce (many of these, such as Mickey And The Beanstalk, Bongo, The Wind In The Willows and The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow were derived from subsequent “Package Features” compilations), Dumbo’s eventual length came in at a relatively paltry 64 minutes. Nervously, and only after seeing the film for themselves, RKO agreed, and put the film out with great fanfare.

Right from the day it premiered, Dumbo was a smash. Critics called it a return to the classic Disney they had known from the short cartoons, the film won Academy Awards for its songs and score, and audiences flocked to it to escape the turmoil of the War. In fact, Dumbo was due to appear on the cover of Time Magazine to publicize its opening, but was bumped from the front cover by the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor, an event that catastrophically also affected the Fleischers’ actually very good rival animated movie Mr Bug so badly that it sadly and unfairly led to the eventual closing of that production facility.

Years later, in Steven Spielberg’s 1979 epic comedy 1941, one character is seen sitting inside a movie theater that is showing Dumbo while the whole city is in hysterics just outside. This version of events is obviously overplayed in that overblown but overlooked extravaganza (1941 is a film that gets a lot of stick, but I find it more over the top each time I see it), but one does still get the feeling of what the general mood must have been like, and a simple story of triumph over the odds would have been a great incentive to the movie-going public in picking Dumbo as a movie to see.

As ever, Walt was right: Dumbo need not have been extended past its rightful playing time of just over an hour, and when it was a solid hit this also gave Disney considerable power with his distributor, RKO. More than satisfied with the box office results, they were later much happier to let Walt dictate what he was making and allow him to deliver his films as he saw fit, with Saludos Amigos famously coming in two years later at just 42 minutes. But as Walt saw it, why pad out a picture and let it outstay its welcome, and the same is true of Dumbo. The film works just as well and still captivates children and adults today, proving that nothing beats a simple good story, well told – and Dumbo is certainly that!

Is This Thing Loaded?

Previously released on DVD ten years ago and then again as a “Big Top Edition” that dropped and added some alternate extras, I’m pleased to say that Dumbo makes his long-deserved debut on the Blu-ray format in high fashion, even if this isn’t strictly a Diamond-style package of supplements and much has been seen before. Nevertheless, it’s a fairly good assemblage of material that, in keeping with Disney’s other HD upgrades, just about does its job of presenting the feature perfectly along with a roundup of all the important extras, some old, some new.

Chugging up to speed with a newly (CG, though wonderfully rendered) animated Casey Jr steaming down the tracks and bringing the circus into town, the Main Menu actually isn’t the most intuitive. I get the idea that the usual menu options – presented in a carousel fashion – are perhaps intended to give the feeling of a rotating series of attractions in a circus ring, but they are clumsily handled, without any indication of if there are sub-sections within a choice or not. Pretty soon one gets the idea: rotate the options left and right and hit up and down keys to see if anything else pops up, but there’s no real kind of proper or helpful category index that would make navigation simpler.

The included DVD’s more accessible menu

Offering a way to widen the original 4:3 film’s presentation to 16:9 are James Coleman’s DisneyView side panels (’nuff said; I’m not a fan of these, nicely rendered as they can be, especially on moving shots). The big new extra for this release is the full-length Cine-Explore visual commentary with three knowledgeable Dumbo fans: director of Up Pete Docter, legendary animator Andreas Deja and Disney historian Paula Sigman. Unfortunately, and despite the cover’s promise of an audio commentary that should in theory be different to this one, the 60th anniversary and Big Top DVDs’ previous track with John Canemaker has been completely dropped, leaving this the only source of info and insight, and as such it’s sadly pretty light.

Docter is the ringmaster leading the discussion, but apart from remarks on how great any given shot is, or who animated what, there’s precious little for aficionados to really pick up on, with Deja speaking from a personality animation viewpoint and Sigman providing many facts, but nothing that really brings anything to light that many wouldn’t know. Best of all are the snippets of archival interviews with such names as Ward Kimball and Woolie Reitherman, but even here their inclusion only frustrates in wanting to hear more from them (or at least see the full interviews their quotes are taken from). A nice track, and admittedly full of excellent visual information pasted over the screen, but just not that engrossing.

Also fresh to this release, and not overlapping too much with the Cine-Explore, is the new documentary Taking Flight: The Making Of Dumbo: which, at a half-hour, manages to offer some of the real background information missing from the visual commentary, mostly from Canemaker and Eric Goldberg, though there’s still much lost in what Canemaker brought to his original audio remarks in terms of a true account on the making of Dumbo and pointing out how certain effects were achieved. This new piece is perfectly fine, even given the intrusive music, but it’s light on archive of the time and plays up Dumbo’s importance as a hit picture at the right time too much: why, nowadays, does every Disney film have to be seen as being a savior of the Studio, even if in Dumbo’s case it is well and truly warranted.

A pair of Deleted Scenes, introduced by Don Hahn, don’t reveal anything groundshaking, although Timothy’s rationale for why elephants are supposedly scared of mice is quite fun (long and diverting from the story, it would have made a great separate featurette of the kind Disney made in the 1940s and 50s). A proposed song, Are You A Man Or A Mouse?, is choppy and not as fluid as the others in the film, again breaking away from the story. Both are presented from original storyboards coupled to recreated audio tracks that sound “new” but authentic enough. The last of the new stuff, Dumbo: A Ride Of Passage looks at the Disneyland’s famous flying elephant ride, in a short but sweet three minute featurette that just about skips coming over as a fluffy promotional piece by having Tony Baxter provide some historical background.

Heading up a list of “Classic DVD Bonus Features” is Celebrating Dumbo, a 15-minute featurette produced by the long-time Disney documentary team of Kurtti/Pellerin, based more around the appreciation of the film rather than its production. Canemaker appears again here, and we also hear from critics Leonard Maltin and Rudy Behlmer, as well as a host of current Disney names, such as Don Hahn, Deja, John Musker, Ron Clements and the now late Roy Disney. What’s really nice about the stills on show throughout this piece is the fact that they have been placed within the background art from Dumbo’s main titles, giving the images a real circus poster quality.

An Artwork Gallery highlights several of the production stills shown in the documentaries, plus many more. Sections covered include Visual Development, Character Design, Layouts & Backgrounds, Storyboard Art, Production Pictures, Research Pictures, and Publicity. Although some of the other sub-sections from the previous DVD have been dropped, most welcome is the Original Dumbo Storybook from 1941, presented page by page and revealing a very different tale that the film was fashioned from. However, while there’s lots to see and take in, the use of the 16:9 frame has not always been used to the images’ advantage and many of them are still too small, especially the Storybook, which could have easily been half as big again.

The famous and, by now, well-seen sequence of humorist Robert Benchley’s trip to the Disney Studios’ sound department is revisited again to show the Sound Design Excerpt From The Reluctant Dragon, the live-action tour film that opened the doors to how the magic was created at the Studio. For those who have not seen that wonderful film in its complete form, the sequence is here in its six-minute entirety, also providing a glimpse at some preliminary animation of Casey Jr (the film was shot on the lot while Dumbo was in full swing) that did not end up in the completed film, so this also plays as a kind of “deleted scene” (clearly marked as “Dumbo: Sequence 7” on a cue sheet) and is still very entertaining, even if it is a set up sequence in the best Disney tradition!

The Original Walt Disney TV Introduction does not last long, but presents the vintage Disneyland footage of Walt that led into the film’s first television showing. In a slight surprise, Walt says here that Dumbo was his favorite picture, a claim that is usually credited to Bambi in animation, and So Dear To My Heart in live-action. He briefly explains a little on the making of the film, before a dissolve takes us to the Mr Stork sequence. It seems that the opening song would have been cut, as the film picks up as the stork comes to rest on a cloud, cutting a few minutes from the overall running time; something probably necessitated by squeezing Dumbo into a one hour television time slot.

Two vintage previews are great, showing Dumbo’s original 1941 theatrical trailer as well as the 1949 re-issue. No wonder Dumbo was a smash based on these trails, as they seem much more fast paced than those for Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia, highlighting the comedy and the drama. Strangely the 1949 trailer is slightly slower, though it uses material from the previous one and names the song When I See An Elephant Fly in the credits as “I’ve Seen Everything”! As before, two Silly Symphonies are again included, beginning with the 1934 The Flying Mouse, featured because of the flying animal connection I would imagine. Although the short has still not benefited from any digital cleaning it does look less beaten up thanks to an HD remastering. An entertaining short running over nine minutes and proving the adage “be careful what you wish for”, the film features an early example of a female human character (in preparation for Snow White) and has quite an intricate plot.

What is nice is an extra trivia point if you look closely: the little mouse’s bat-like wing design was originally proposed for Dumbo’s ears as well! The Studio might have been hoping for a new character to add to their rostrum of stars with the introduction of Elmer Elephant in a 1936 cartoon short, but Elmer does simply not have the charm of Dumbo in his looks (he actually resembles the “pig head” that is drawn onto the detective in a cut scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit) or a smart enough personality to make it as a major character. Though he did turn up later as a popular comic book addition, Elmer would be relegated to second fiddle rank to even the likes of Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow. In this cartoon, Elmer visits his friend’s birthday party, although the other invitees use the occasion to embarrass him. Leaving the party, he meets a friendly giraffe who helps him save his sweetheart back at the party when a fire breaks out.

It’s another fairly lengthy short, running another eight and a half minutes, and is very well animated, with high production values and some very nice touches such as some highly detailed shading such as when Elmer walks through the woods. The print again benefits from an HD upgrade, and color fluctuations aside is in better overall shape than the Mouse cartoon. Two set-top Games, What Do You See? and What Do You Know?, don’t really expand upon Dumbo or add much value to the disc, and might as well have been one bigger game since there’s more than a little overlap as the player must make guesses based on image and elephant-related question information.

On the included DVD, the menus are arguably even more fun than the BD, recreating Dumbo’s circus world with comically manipulated animation from the movie, and surprisingly there’s also a good deal of carried over supplements: both Deleted Scenes are here, as well as the Taking Flight: Making Of Dumbo and A Ride Of Passage documentaries, the Sound Design sequence from The Reluctant Dragon, Walt’s TV Introduction, the two Theatrical Trailers and, though rather redundantly without its plentiful visual information intact, Docter, Deja and Sigman’s remarks, here presented as a regular Audio Commentary.

Previews across both discs include The Lion King, Disneynature’s Chimpanzee, SpookyBuddies, Disney Channel’s Tinker Bell And The Pixie Hollow Games, Jake And The Neverland Pirates, Beauty And The Beast’s Enchanted Christmas, Lady And The Tramp, the next Indiana Jones-light styled TreasureBuddies (when will it ever end!?), Tinker Bell And The Mysterious Winter Woods, plus spots for Disney Movie Rewards, the theme parks, and anti-smoking presumably included to counter the stogie-wielding Jim Crow.


WHAT’S MISSING?
All in all, this 70th Anniversary BD edition of the 1941 classic collects much of the good stuff to be found from previous editions. Back in the 1990s, all LaserDisc owners got back then was a nice gatefold sleeve with a text essay inside, while the decade-old 60th Anniversary DVD added a peek at Burny Mattinson’s now discarded (unfortunately, as I thought it looked like one of the better ideas) Dumbo II video sequel, a Michael Crawford rendition of Baby Mine from his Disney Album, an original Dumbo’s Big Discovery DVD storybook and a couple of sing-alongs.

The Big Top Edition swapped out Crawford’s song for a performance by Jim Brickman and Kassie DePaiva and dropped the Reluctant Dragon sequence, but did keep Canemaker’s excellently insightful and anecdotal commentary – the biggest disappointment for not being included here. There’s no reason that all these features couldn’t have been carried over for completeness’ sake, but there isn’t really anything vital – that archival commentary aside – that feels missing, though those with the previous discs will want to hold on to them for that.

Case Study:

A now standard slimline BD case holds both the Blu-ray Disc and the DVD, with a slipcover providing some nice quality to the package, designed with the usual blu-rimmed Disney colorings but here giving the film some gravitas in going for a very artistic artwork approach that no doubt manages to make the title look attractive to kids but seems more geared toward the true collector – nice! Inside, we don’t get the put-it-together cardboard Casey Jr. train that came with the 60th anniversary disc, but there are the usual Blu-ray and Movie Rewards inserts. The sleeve’s back cover announces the Cine-Explore and an Audio Commentary feature for the Blu-ray Disc, but as far as I can tell these are one and the same thing, being accompanied with the pop-up visuals on the BD and simply running the audio in more traditional style on the DVD. It’s such a shame that this description didn’t turn out to be true so as to also repeat the Canemaker track of before.

Ink And Paint:

Now, being honest, Dumbo has never really looked that great on home video. Early VHS and LaserDisc releases used much worn prints before the mid-90s LD remaster presented the film with accurate coloring but still with the heavy grain of the lower grade film stock intact, something that despite better transfer methods also plagued both DVD reissues. For budgetary reasons, Dumbo was produced on cheaper high contrast stock, which gave the film’s darker moments a lot of image fluctuation and a higher than usual amount of grain. When the transfer to HD was announced, I was hopeful that a full digital clean-up might grapple with some of these issues, though worried that the high resolution might only show up some of these inconsistencies even more.

Happily, Dumbo finally gets the treatment it deserves, with a transfer as sharp and pristine as the likes of Snow White, Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty – surely the result of it being cherished by Lasseter and Docter – and looking genuinely better that it can ever have looked even on release. In keeping with previous digital restorations of films from the same era, all print marks and scratches have been removed, while the texture of the painted backgrounds is fully intact and invites new appreciation of the work that went into them. Detail is also sharp without being overly bright or digital, the clarity allowing us to pick out such fun in-jokes as the poster that suggests the story revolves around the “WDP Circus”!

I had maybe thought Dumbo might have received an “almost” wipe wash along the lines of Fantasia (also of high contrast stock), but this knocked my socks off, presenting the film as never before while pulling every detail from the frame – especially the gorgeous backgrounds – but not wiping out everything so clean as to not be able to see the paint on the cel-colored characters. A strong vintage film transfer just as these things should look on Blu-ray, I am very pleased to see Dumbo looking so smart, but not too overdressed, and there’s even a return to the original RKO Radio Pictures’ distributor card on the front and end title!

Scratch Tracks:

Listed as a full 7.1 DTS-HD track, Dumbo bucks the trend of these kinds of mixes by actually sounding wider than we’ve heard it before. Usually with these kinds of older film remixes, things remain rather locked to the center channels, with only a little bleed here and there to the left and right speakers, but here Dumbo does sound grander, and certainly cleaner, than previous releases. This is not to say that it’s a groundshaking modern equivalent – the film for the most part does not contain a huge amount of action and even the sound effects, also spaciously used in keeping with the lower budget, are fairly primitive by today’s standards.

But there is separation from them, particularly in the Pink Elephants sequence and Dumbo’s high-flying moments, and the rousing circus music has a nice sweep to it. The DVD also packs a punch, featuring a Dolby Digital 5.1 Disney Enhanced Home Theater mix in English, French and Spanish (with those languages also optional via subtitles), which sound a little narrower and mono-sourced, and for purists there’s the original mono soundtrack, restored and presented in two-channel Dolby.

Final Cut:

Looking better than ever, Dumbo is Disney at his best. Warm, thoughtful, exciting, funny, it’s all in here and remains a wonderful lesson for us all. Like many of the real Disney classics, the film still stands up today as being great entertainment for all ages, with the bright colors, fun characters, circus atmosphere and simple plot especially enchanting to children. One of the first Disney features to be released on home video back in the early 1980s, Dumbo has been included and repackaged in many promotions and new video lines since then. Finally with this long-delayed but extremely welcome 70th Anniversary Blu-ray, he gets the kind of recognition he (and we!) deserve. The lack of the original DVD commentary is a real shame given how light the new Cine-Explore track is, but with exemplary image and sound and the rest of the fine collection of supplements, Dumbo is flying high again!

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?


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