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Caution: almost total spoilers!
This was originally released in 1941 (34 years before I was born). I surely saw it when I was a kid, on TV or VHS or whatever. In 2019, a live-action movie inspired by this film was released. Because of that, I decided to watch the original on DVD to review it, on opening weekend of the new movie. But I also want to mention that in 1996, Alison Krauss did a cover of the song Baby Mine, which was sung in this movie by Betty Noyes. (Krauss's version was for the album The Best of Country Sing the Best of Disney.) Anyway, I always hoped that whenever I got "Dumbo" on DVD, it would include her music video as a bonus feature, but no release of the film ever has, which I think is shame. (I've always loved her version, and in 2006 I used it in an AMV I made.) I also want to mention that on Monday of the week that the new movie would be released, the webseries "What They Got Right" did an episode about the original movie, which I thought was neat.
Well, the movie is just about 64 minutes long, but watching it now, I was surprised how much managed to happen in that short run time. It begins with a bit of opening narration, of a sort, which leads into a scene of storks delivering baby animals to most of the animals in a traveling circus, in Florida. However, one elephant, Mrs. Jumbo, is disappointed that she doesn't get a baby. A little later, though, another stork (voiced by Sterling "Winnie the Pooh" Holloway) delivers a baby to Mrs. Jumbo. She names him Jumbo Jr., and all the other lady elephants think he's adorable... until they see his very large ears unfold, and one of the elephants calls him "Dumbo." So, Mrs. Jumbo gets mad at them. And there are some scenes that show how much she and her son love each other. (Although the only line Jumbo had was to name him Jumbo Jr., and Dumbo himself never speaks throughout the movie.) Then one day some bratty kids start making fun of Dumbo, and his mom tries to punish them (though she doesn't do anything worse than spank one of the boys with her trunk). Because of that, the Ringmaster dubs her a mad elephant and locks her away in a trailer by herself.
Later, a mouse named Timothy overhears the other elephants gossiping about Jumbo and ostracizing Dumbo, so he decides to befriend the outcast elephant. He gives the Ringmaster an idea for using Dumbo in the elephants' act, to make him a star. That... doesn't go so well. So after that, Dumbo is forced to become a clown. Dumbo is miserable, but the human clowns are happy. They start celebrating the success of the act with some champagne. Meanwhile, Timothy takes Dumbo to visit his mother. That's when we hear one of the movie's iconic songs, "Baby Mine." (It wasn't sung by the actress who voiced Jumbo, and I'm not at all sure whether the mother elephant is meant to be singing it herself. We don't see her face at the time, because mother and baby are separated by the wall of the trailer, with only their trunks able to touch through the barred window. It's very bittersweet. Anyway, most of the songs in the movie clearly aren't sung by characters, which is why I don't consider the movie a musical. But I suppose it's possible Jumbo was singing the song. It's not like Disney characters have different people doing their speaking and singing. And it did kind of seem to me like Timothy and Dumbo were listening to the song, which they couldn't do if it was only supposed to be heard by audiences.) Wow, that was a long parenthetical. Um... anyway, Timothy and Dumbo go back to the tent where the clowns had been celebrating, and drink some water that the champagne had fallen into. They both get drunk and share a hallucination about (mostly) pink elephants. It is seriously freaking trippy, with some incredibly inventive animation. (And it put me in mind of Heffalumps and Woozles.)
The next day, we see some crows in a tree marveling at something very strange: an elephant and a mouse sleeping on a branch of the tree. The crows wake Timothy up, and when he realizes where they are, he wakes up Dumbo, and the two of them fall to the ground. Timothy begins wondering how they got up there, and one crow jokingly suggests they flew into the tree. But Timothy takes it seriously, and starts thinking Dumbo could have used his ears as wings. The crows mock him, singing another of the movie's iconic songs, possibly the most memorable one, "When I See an Elephant Fly." This angers Timothy, who chastises them in a very poignant speech about all that Dumbo's suffered in his life. So the crows come up with a plan to help Dumbo fly by giving him a "magic feather." (I must mention that there is some disagreement over whether the depiction of the crows in this movie is racist or not. I could certainly understand seeing it that way, even if I don't really want to see it as such. And it seems reasonable to me not to see it that way, but... since I'm white, I don't feel it's appropriate for me to decide about it. And if there were no disagreement, I mean if pretty much all black people said it was racist, I'd accept that view. But as it stands, it does seem to be more a matter of opinion than an absolute.)
After that, Dumbo and Timothy return to the circus, planning to surprise everyone when Dumbo shows he can fly. Now, all that happened in the scene with the crows and the scene of Dumbo's latest performance, and all that comes after it... all of that happens in about the last ten minutes of the movie, which kind of surprised me. Before rewatching the movie to write this review, there wasn't much I definitely remembered from whenever I last saw it. But I think the main thing I, or really most people, remember about the movie is Dumbo flying, and the magic feather, and in the end needing to realize it was himself, not the feather, that let him fly. So it's just weird to realize that that is such a very small part of the movie, at the very end.
Anyway... it's definitely a fun movie, with a good moral about not treating anyone who's different as if they're freaks, or whatever. (Though the fact that hardly anyone cared about Dumbo until he displayed an extraordinary talent is reminiscent of what's problematic about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.) And there is a very heartwarming ending. (Although I guess it's also a rags-to-riches story that promotes certain capitalistic ideas that themselves might be problematic... But I really need to stop overthinking this.)