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
The Mexican import of 'Dumbo' is Region A locked, and housed on a BD50 dual layer disc. The pre-menu screen prompts users if they want to navigate the menu in English, Spanish, or Portuguese. There's a screen that plays before any previews that invites a viewer to press the top menu button instead of watching promos. The pre-menu trailers include 'Beauty and the Beast' (advertised now for Fall of 2010), 'Toy Story 3' (the stupid trailer that only advertises a generic date, with no real movie content), and 'The Princess and the Frog.'
This release marks the third disc release of 'Dumbo,' with the Gold Collection version and Big Top Edition preceding it. The DVD editions are currently out of print (due to hyping an anniversary edition), so the only way to get 'Dumbo' on DVD in North America, outside of finding remaining stock, is to buy this release, which features both a DVD and a Blu-ray copy. The DVD itself (which is rated Region 1 and 4) is FastPlay enabled, leading me to believe it is a copy of the Big Top Edition, just with a more generic grey artwork.
The packaging for this release is in Spanish (the spine reads 'Dumbo' 70 Aniversario), which may concern some, but with the menu options on the BD, and the fact that the DVD is in English as well should put any anxiousness to rest.
Disney has given one of its oldest animated classics a bit of a restoration, and the results are quite nice. That said, there are so many technical flaws in the animation for 'Dumbo' that even the most pristine of transfers (which this 1080p AVC MPEG-4 @ 1.33:1 transfer is) won't get high marks from this critic.
'Dumbo' has always (ironically) been the odd duck out in Disney's animated family, shunned from the Platinum series on DVD, and now dumped from the Blu-ray release slate domestically, but the animation, which is horribly dated, was pretty damn stellar for its era. The backgrounds are magnificent, sporting the most clear definition and distinct drawing and coloring, while the character animation is somewhat more generic. Colors in animals can shift lightly (though not dramatically) from cel to cel, with the lightest bits of discrepancies that are somewhat similar to artifacts (of which this release thankfully has none of). The outlines of characters are often exceeded, and other times blurred, like an odd bit of double exposure, while the lines themselves can vary in thickness, and randomly disappear in entire shots (a few shots of Timothy Mouse looked like he's a ghost!).
The source is amazingly clean, to the point I'd call it pristine. Anyone who doubts this need only look at their family members who are of this age and compare: which has aged more gracefully? 'Dumbo,' or Aunt Jillian? There are no aliasing effects to be found, and best of all, no real manipulation. The unsteady colors aren't smoothed out, which is a testament to the digital restoration not tampering with the actual film and its dated appeal. The outline blurring can at times look like ringing, but there is none of that, no DNR, and no color banding present. Pans don't create any issues or pulsing effects, colors are bold, and blacks solid. Whites, particularly those in the blankets carried by the storks, look a bit off-white, and are troubled by the lack of continuity in color as they unfold, giving off an appearance similar to serious digital noise. All in all, this transfer is quite solid, but in my opinion, this film will never be a five star animated gem. It looks better than I've ever seen it, and I'm quite happy with it, but I'm not going to fool myself or anyone else by giving this video a high score.
The audio for 'Dumbo' defaults to an English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix, while Spanish and Portuguese dubs are available, with the same language options on subtitles. Since we're talking about a film having its 70th anniversary, it is hard to be too harsh on the limitations on the track, and expectations have been appropriately lowered. Spreading a sound mix that was originally mono to eight speakers isn't going to create an experience comparable to films made with surround sound in mind.
That said, the mix for 'Dumbo' is a bit less than stellar. Dialogue is always prioritized over any other element, but it can get a bit washed out in music (remember: these weren't the days when every song in a Disney film had to be a huge hit sing-a-long), while there is more than a hint of feedback to be heard in some of the recordings, and the occasional line reading that has a hollow feel. The orchestral score is perfectly clear, with superb range, absolutely no tinniness, and appropriate depth (to be honest, it doesn't go all that low, like a geriatric limbo). Rears don't get dialogue, but there are a few moments of motion, as well as ambient effects that find their way through the room. When the stork first appears, the movement and bass levels are beguiling of a film of this age, but the track quickly settles down. If I squeeze hard enough, I've been known to get blood from a turnip (honestly, it's just from my hand, but don't tell anyone), and in a sense, that is the same as what Disney has done with 'Dumbo.'
And I though 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.
It's somewhat fitting that one of Disney's most human stories doesn't involve a human, but a pint-sized pachyderm. 'Dumbo' is a special film with a great message, enjoyable for all, young and old. Reminisce about the story of overcoming adversity, or not so fond memories hiding from Disney's drunken, murderous, evil idea of family friendly pink elephants. This Blu-ray release has solid but unspectacular audio and video (but they're quite fine for their age!), and a hefty pile of extras. Import this, or wait for the USA release? A hard question, but due to the fact this is called the 70th anniversary edition, it should still arrive this calendar year. With the high price the Big Top Edition is going for, buying this import, keeping the bonus DVD, and selling the previous edition almost pays entirely for a fine upgrade. Recommended.