Film Review: Dumbo (1941)

Dir. Ben Sharpsteen (Supervising)

Run Time: 64 mins G


As a Disney classic made on the cheap to recoup the losses after Fantasia (1940) you can’t fault this film for its charm. It tells the story of the mute baby elephant Dumbo as he goes through a series of trials and humiliations before learning to fly and having his ears insured for a million dollars. Quaint. Charming and quaint to be sure.

What you can fault this film for, however, is its racism. Musical number Song Of The Roustabouts which depicts a gang of African-American work-hands is awful by today’s standards and was pretty horrendous even for the time (“We work all day/ We work all night/ We never learnt to read or write”), I mean do you really want to be showing your kids this stuff? Not to mention the gang of shady stereotypes who croon out the regrettably catchy When I See An Elephant Fly (sung by Cliff Edwards and The Hall Johnson Choir as “when I see a elephant fly”).

It just strikes me as rather odd that in this day and age we still throw this stuff in front of our most impressionable minds and don’t have the forethought to think about what’s actually on screen. A group of faceless black men who’s only purpose appears to be working for the man is really not the sort of thing that I want my kids to be told is normal. Yes, some might explain it away as a product of the times, or simply ignore it under some half-formed ‘the magic of Disney’ excuse, but the fact still remains that at least two of the major sequences in this film are prime examples of insidious racism.

Still though, as an adult this film does have its merits. I mean, the Pink Elephants On Parade sequence is certainly inspired if a little terrifying, and the animation, while generally basically constructed, has its moments of stylistic grandeur. When Timothy Mouse’s shadow throws out its Nosferatu shadow a la F.W Murnau, for instance, was a real delight to see. It also has the interesting historical distinction of being the second of only two classic Disney films to have had their backgrounds done solely in watercolours (the other being Snow White and The Seven Dwarves (1937)).

But, overall I’ve got to say that Dumbo really isn’t one of the finest achievements to ever come out of the Disney studious. The storyline is, to be frank, utter nonsense and is poorly executed with the thing jumping from sequence to sequence with no real rhyme or reason. Nevertheless, there’ll always be a small fondness for the floppy eared pachyderm in my heart (and I’m willing to bet the hearts of others), and for early animated cinema it is a considerable landmark. All I’m saying is that you should probably have a good, hard think before you sit your children down in front of it and consider it wholly innocent.

SIDENOTE: Dumbo is listed as number 146 on the list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

RATING: 7.5/10


3 thoughts on “Film Review: Dumbo (1941)

  1. Pingback: 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die | Lachlan J. Faces The World

  2. Pingback: FILM REVIEW: All That Jazz (1979) | Lachlan J. Faces The World

  3. Pingback: 1001 Movies: The Misson | Lachlan J. Faces The World

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