Historically, circuses were a way of exposing a largely hometown-bound public to exotic animals they would never see in the wild, and shows have always tried to outdo each other in spectacle and novelty. In 1941, Disney asked, “What could be more novel than a flying elephant?” and released its classic film, Dumbo. In 2019, Tim Burton will attempt to recapture some of the magic of the original when his remake officially hits theaters tomorrow. Whether or not success is in Burton’s future remains to be seen.
Here’s the trailer for the film, and I think it looks somewhat promising. Burton is a good choice to direct a story like this because whimsy is definitely his thing.
It’s ironic that Dumbo was remade in this day and age, considering animal rights activists raise huge stinks about circuses using elephants. However, others who have researched circus culture find claims of animal cruelty to be exaggerated. Not only that, but one accuser, the ASPCA, is on record for fabrication. Another accuser, PETA has been shown up as hypocritical. In spite of these revelations, many circus shows have been reduced to aerial acrobatics exhibitions with maybe a few clowns and domestic animals thrown in. In a sense, Dumbo is a relic.
Predictably, PETA put pressure on Tim Burton to change the ending of the film, because Dumbo becoming a star isn’t suitable for woke 21st century audiences. Burton isn’t a fan of political correctness, so it’ll be interesting to see if he went in PETA’s direction.
Walt Disney didn’t have to wrestle with such concerns in 1941. He was more anxious to get back in the black after the failure of Pinnochio and the ahead-of-its-time masterpiece, Fantasia. It wasn’t that the public hated these movies (well, Fantasia did have people agog), but the war in Europe cut heavily into the Disney Company’s profits.
Dumbo was based on a 1938 story by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the book was in production as a Roll-A-Book when Disney saw it and bought the rights. Publishing, films, distribution, the whole enchilada. Dumbo never became a Roll-A-Book, but he had bigger things in store. Disney initially wanted to film Dumbo as a short, which writers Joe Grant and Dick Huemer disagreed with. They wrote a screenplay chapter by chapter, leaving each installment on Disney’s desk until they sold Uncle Walt on the idea of making a feature.
The film and the original story aren’t too far apart. The biggest change was that in the book, Dumbo’s faithful friend, Timothy Q. Mouse was a robin named Red, who wears a red vest and a gray derby. Dumbo doesn’t run away from the circus, either, or meet the band of crows, or see pink elephants. Dumbo’s mom was called “Mama Ella” in the Aberson-Pearl story and “Mrs. Jumbo” in the film, after the famous Barnum and Bailey elephant.
The bottom line with Dumbo was…the bottom line. According to IMDb, the film had simple watercolor cels and backgrounds without much detail because Disney wanted to keep costs down as much as possible. Not only that, but elements were recycled over and over again. The end result was a film that looked innocent and childlike, costing Disney about $813,000 in the negative. Just as in previous movies, though, Disney brought in animals to help the animators give proper movement to the characters. Dumbo also never says a word, but communicates in little noises and squeaks. He’s one of the few Disney protagonists not to speak.
Dumbo‘s shoestring budget was a good thing, because production was delayed by an animators’ strike. The film was at the rough cut stage when the strike began on May 29, 1941 and lasted for five weeks. Historians seem to differ on the root cause. Some point to disagreement between Disney and his employees about which union to join, the Federation of Screen Cartoonists or the Screen Cartoonist’s Guild, and others cite a disorganized pay structure where animators made anything from $12 a week to $300. The company had relocated to its new Burbank studios by this time, with access to company perks strictly controlled or eliminated. Either way, folks weren’t happy.
Incidentally, a bit of wry fun was poked at the strike in Dumbo, with the clowns pretending to picket in one scene, but plenty of bad blood remained even after the matter had been settled. Disney’s staff was cut down to just under six-hundred fifty because a lot of people quit. Disney took the strike personally, as he considered his employees to be family.
Dumbo premiered on October 23, 1941 and hit theaters on Halloween. The public loved it, bringing Disney 2.5M in profits, and the critics enjoyed it as well, calling it various synonyms of “pleasant.” It’s not without its detractors, though, as some film historians have deemed the crows racist. Helen Aberman also wasn’t happy with the changes made to her story, but she realized there was nothing she could do. She went back to her hometown of Syracuse and died in 1999 at the age of ninety-one.
Our little elephant is a cultural phenom, with Dumbo and his feather a metaphor for tenacity. Every American Disney park has a Dumbo ride of some kind, and he’s a natural fixture in merchandising. How could he not? He’s adorable and he’s a trooper. I’m looking forward to seeing what new dimensions Tim Burton has brought to the story.
All righty, thanks for reading, all, and see you tomorrow with another review. We’re keeping things kid-friendly this week, and tomorrow may bring back memories for some. 🙂