Most of the classic Disney animated films have transcended their original form, becoming a part of American (and global) culture, and with the advent of home video, the early Disney cartoons have become a staple for any household with children (and to a lesser extent, any household). From the days of VHS, with the awkward thick clamshells, to the bulky Laserdiscs, fully loaded limited edition DVD sets, and now Blu-rays, films like 'Dumbo' have had a time-defying appeal, drawing the attention and imagination of their viewers for over seventy years now and still going strong.
The fourth full length animated feature from Disney (following 'Snow White,' 'Pinocchio,' and 'Fantasia'), 'Dumbo' isn't one of the bigger guns in the series, as there is no princess for girls or hero for boys to emulate or imagine being in the role of, but the messages and sheer simplicity of the short (a fast 64 minutes) film make it one of the better features put out from the brand name in animation.
Follow the life of Jumbo Jr., the baby elephant delivered to Mrs. Jumbo, a circus elephant, touring with a cadre of other pachyderm and assorted animals and clowns. Ridiculed from the moment he is delivered from the stork due to his oversized ears, the baby elephant earns the nickname Dumbo. Tragedy and mishap seems the norm for Dumbo, as his mother is caged and isolated after trying to defend her child from the taunts of circus goers, and his attempts to fit into the circus act lead only to disaster, resulting in the virtual orphan being stuck as a clown. But the unlikely friendship of Timothy the Mouse grants Dumbo the ability to believe in himself, and soon the outcast will become the star of the show, using his ears, which were once considered shameful, to fly to new heights and fame.
'Dumbo' doesn't fit in with most of the other Disney classics, as it is much more a fairy tale than its brethren, with a differing story construct that can be downright depressing at times. Depressing, and frightening. Back in 1941, apparently having rampaging, pissed off mothers and alcohol-induced hallucinations in children's stories was considered acceptable, as the most memorable scene in the film is one prolonged trip, with pink elephants morphing, dancing, and fueling nightmares. Imagine eyeless beasts in off translucent colors, duplicating, morphing, surrounding you, dancing and taunting, screaming for you to "look out," it's not exactly kid-friendly. Hell, most zombie films are nowhere near as ghoulish. There are also some peculiar situations with clothing (watch through the tents as circus performers wantonly disrobe in front of each other), and cigar smoking to boot. Funny, how all that doesn't warp the fragile minds of the innocent, yet now even having smoking in a film draws a note in its MPAA rating. Sheltered lives and political correctness, hooray!
The beauty of 'Dumbo' is not only its message, but in how it teaches it. This isn't just the story of a "freak," but a lesson to be learned about not only prejudice and discrimination, but overcoming obstacles and fears. The character who should be the weakest and most afraid, a lowly mouse, is the bravest and most chivalrous in this entire world, speaking the voice of reason, and being a friend, helping those who others will not. All of the elephants not related to the lowly Dumbo are gossiping ninnies, who judge anyone around them, elevating themselves to higher platforms by degrading others. We learn early that one's parents cannot always be there to guide them by the hand/trunk, and that everyone has a special talent or gift, something that makes them unique and worthwhile, even if it is something others look down upon. We don't have messages beat into us through repeated words of wisdom, but off, virtual throwaway lines, like Timothy's rhetorical pondering, "what's the matter with his ears?!?," guiding us with the positive outlook.
The structure of 'Dumbo' is different than the norm, with the collapsed run time (which is dramatically shortened by screaming children during the drunken stupor scene) telling a tale that is 90% failure and miserableness, with only the briefest showcasing of the famous twist in the film. In modern cartoons, there would be misadventures and random zany side plots involving the use of Dumbo, that would stray from the message and get lost in itself, tripping over their own ears much like young Dumbo does.
Sadly, the film does have an unfortunate twist on its own veiled racial allusions, as the final scenes feature a group of crows with exaggerated speech patterns, and even the removed name of Jim Crow (which is a very important term concerning race relations in the United States). The characters do not negatively portray any group of people, but the comparison is beyond obvious, and takes a bit away from the message being taught, even if the characters are inspirational to Dumbo and his unique mallody, teaching the elephant how he flew, and instilling in him the confidence to do it again.
'Dumbo' may have been overlooked by Disney by its exclusion from the platinum and diamond edition releases that showcase the best selling Disney classics, but there is no doubt in my mind that this tale of the little elephant that could belongs with the best of them. Best yet, despite a canceled attempt to re-cash in on the name, 'Dumbo' remains one of the few Disney animated features not bastardized and lessened in worth by direct-to-video slop the company is well known for. The film has aged gracefully over the years, and remains an important piece of both animation history and childhood. To not have seen 'Dumbo' is to not have experienced American childhood.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Dumbo' finally arrives on Blu-ray in America in a two disc set celebrating a nice round anniversary, packaged in a slipcover that replicates the artwork beneath. There is some curiosity about this release, as the disc itself is marked for Region A playback, and the packaging indicates an A/B/C coding.
The DVD packaged in this set is different from the one found in the Mexican import. It's still a Disney Fastplay title, but now there are only a few extras, not the full load from the Big Top Edition. There are also new sneak peeks, and a few crap "extras" that tout Disney File and Blu-ray 3D. The disc is generic grey now, as well, not the translucent full color art we had before.
Riddle me this: why is it that the UK and Mexico got this release over 18 months ago (before it was even technically capable of being a "70th Anniversary Edition"), and we're only getting this now? How does this make any sense? The disc is almost exactly the same, with a few very minor changes. The menu, the placement of extras, layered as it is, all the same. The only real difference looking from the outside in is a change in dub options! So what was the hold up? A number of internet savvy Blu-ray owners have already picked this disc up with little import/compatibility fears, so that's just lost sales. The skimping of the DVD disc hardly seems like something to also delay a release over...that's just insult on top of injury!
So...does it look and sound the same? Well, I'm glad you asked...
Almost two years ago, with the review of the Mexican import of 'Dumbo,' I found myself less than impressed with the visual quality of the film. I found countless areas in need of improvement, even if the film was remarkably clean, and it does not appear that the transfer found here differs in any way from the ones used on the numerous import releases of this film. The same strengths and weaknesses apply, leaving me to wonder why this title got delayed in America for so long in the first place.
Again presented in 1080p with the AVC MPEG-4 encode at 1.33:1, 'Dumbo' on Blu-ray proves why it's in need of one of the more thorough, laborious restorations. The back cover advertises an all new digital restoration, using two images of Timothy Mouse for examples, but this same phrasing was used to promote the "Big Top Edition" DVD release back in 2006. Apparently all new means five years old.
Backgrounds remain magnificent, sporting the most clear definition and distinct drawing/coloring, while character animation itself remains more generic, due to the techniques of the time. Colors in the animal characters shift slightly from cel to cel, with the lightest bits of discrepancy at times give off an appearance similar to artifacts in the way the odd blocks shift just slightly. Character outlines remain inconsistent in depth and distinction, sometimes fading, while other times colors exceed their supposed boundaries. The exaggerated character outlines inherent in some animations, this one included, can be outright distracting with their sometimes off colors and thickness.
Cleanliness is not an issue, as this film looks borderline pristine, with only a few little remnants of debris sometimes visible to the keenest of eyes in quick flashes inside a character near a shift in color. That said, unsteady colors aren't smoothed out or remedied, with that random unevenness popping up in numerous frames. There's no aliasing or shimmer, and blacks remain powerful and deep, particularly in the hallucination sequence that has fueled many a nightmare. Whites, though, remain a bit nasty, with the blankets carried by storks or the bubbles in water often having a digital noise-like dance to them, and sometimes an off tinge.
I upset some readers when the Mexican release got reviewed and didn't earn a higher score, but this American disc, which features the same transfer and no discernible differences, still does not impress me enough to warrant any higher score. Much like 'The Fox and the Hound,' non-Platinum releases aren't given the amazing makeovers that their oft-vaulted counterparts get, and the difference is beyond obvious. This disc is appreciable, and has its moments where it shines, but there is no comparison. It's not even close.
The audio for 'Dumbo' is presented in lossless 7.1, but the problems remain. The score can be a little muddy, while rear channels get very little activity. Sure, there's a crack of thunder here and there, and the opening stork segment has some good movement through the rears, but beyond that, there's little to no activity going on behind or to the side of you, save for a rare occasion. Naturally a film this age wasn't quite designed for eight speakers, but many other Disney titles have been given lemons and made awesome sauce with them, so while one has to keep lowered expectations, compared to the similarly aged peers already on Blu-ray, the lack of surrounds are notable.
The mix is also less than stellar. Dialogue is prioritized, for the most part, but again can be washed out under some portions of the music. Feedback can be heard at times, it's particularly noticeable when the ringleader first announces the seventeen elephant tower stunt that is to have Dumbo atop it, while hollowness is randomly heard in spoken word, as well. The opening stork delivery brings the only bass presence in the track, with a rumble as the creature passes from the back right to the back left due to a bit of weather, with any further bass not registering any real thump. The fact that rain doesn't even hit all speakers shows that there is plenty of room for improvement here. Judged on its own, 'Dumbo' sounds pretty good, but compared to the Disney titles that have been in the Diamond and Platinum lines, this disc has no chance.
And I thought I had it good before! This release of 'Dumbo' even labels when extras are "classic DVD bonus features," for ease of use in sorting this review's supplements. The special features tab of the menu looks small at first, but each section expands, providing numerous options. The sing-a-longs and music video from the Big Top Edition have gone missing, as has the DisneyPedia, matching game cards, DVD storybook, and commentary from John Canemaker. The new supplements more than take their places, though.
'Dumbo' hit Blu-ray almost two full years ago in a number of countries, and has now finally landed on American soil. The included DVD is a step down from the Mexican import, as it is no longer the "Big Top Edition" release, while the Blu-ray disc itself functions, looks, and sounds exactly the same, with only the tiniest of differences in the language options. Fans of the film shouldn't hesitate tomake a purchase, especially at the price this release draws, but they should not expect the same quality that we see in the more meticulous restorations. I can still earnestly recommend this title to those who didn't cave in and import it already, as it is a solid job, but this is not one of Disney's most amazing discs.