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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: Dumbo

October 5th, 2011

Dumbo - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

Back in 1941, Disney's animation studio was in a bit of trouble. While both Pinocchio and Fantasia are now considered classics, they both failed to show a profit during their initial releases. Additionally, there were labor problems at the studio (the head animators earned quite a bit for 1941, but the vast majority of the people who worked on the films earned only a tiny fraction of that). And the company was in debt from building a massive animation studio. If Dumbo was a flop, there was a chance the studio would have to close. Seventy years later, the studio is still going strong, so you know it was a success at the time. But can it still effect audiences today? And is the Blu-ray worth picking up?

The Movie

The film begins on a dark and stormy night with a squadron of storks flying in the night delivering baby animals to a circus. One of the animals that gets a new baby, albeit late, is Jumbo (Verna Felton), one of the elephants at the circus. The Stork (Sterling Holloway) delivering her baby arrives late, as the carrying a baby elephant takes its toil. The joy of getting a new baby is short-lived when they see the baby's ears, which are huge. The other elephants, including the powerful matriarch (also Verna Felton) call the baby Dumbo. That name sticks.

At the next stop, the circus sets up for more performances. Dumbo helps out, as best as he can, and is even in the parade. But when the kids come to see him, they make fun of his ears, much to the horror of his mother. When they physically grab Dumbo, she fights back, but this does more harm than good, because she is declared a mad elephant and Dumbo is left alone. While the other elephants mocks Dumbo, a mouse, Timothy Q. Mouse (Edward Brophy) comes to his defense and befriends him. Timothy knows that if Dumbo can become important to the act, the other elephants will respect him. So when he hears the ringmaster talk about needing a new climax for the circus, Timothy sneaks into his tent and whispers into his ear while he is asleep and gives him an idea that will make Dumbo a star.

It doesn't work out as planned. In fact, it is a total disaster and in the next town, Dumbo is reduced to just being a clown. While the crowds love him, Dumbo is depressed. Timothy decides to cheer him up, by helping him visit his mom, who is still locked away. It's an emotional reunion but it has to end. While walking back to their tent, Dumbo gets the hiccups and Timothy walks him over to a water barrel to drink. However, the clowns had accidentally split a bottle of wine in the barrel and as Dumbo drinks, he gets really drunk. Timothy accidentally falls into the wine and they get drunk together and have a shared hallucination about pink elephants on parade. When they wake up the next morning, they find themselves in a tree.

But how could they get into a tree in the first place?

That's a good place to end the plot synopsis, although there's only about ten minutes left in the movie at this point. When judging this film there are a couple things that have to be taken into account. Firstly, it's barely feature-length at just 64 minutes long. Secondly, it was made on a budget that was less than $1 million, while both Pinocchio and Fantasia cost more than $2 million each. Because of this, the story and the animation is a lot less complicated. It has a look that is closer to one of Disney's short films rather than the more cinematic look that Snow White has, for instance.

That said, while it tells a simple story of a child dealing with being an outsider, it tells it very well. The plot is stripped down and only three or four characters have any real emotional impact (the Elephant Matriarch is a borderline case) but you get all the emotions you need. In fact, the one scene where Dumbo visits his mother while she is locked up has more emotional heft than a lot of feature-length movies have during their entire running time. Additionally, while there's not a lot of plot, the film has a lot of scenes that are devoted to gags. "Pink elephants on parade" doesn't exactly advance the plot, but it is one of the coolest segments in any of the Disney movies made during the studio's Golden Age. Also,while the animation is simple, especially the backgrounds, it is also more stylized and less realistic. The bright and colorful cartoon feel is part of the appeal.

The Extras

The extras on the DVD start with an audio commentary track, a deleted scene, a deleted song, a making of featurette, a featurette on the Dumbo ride at Disneyland, an archival featurette on sound design, and intros to the old Walt Disney Disneyland TV show that featured Dumbo.

The Blu-ray has several exclusive extras, starting with an upgrade to a Picture-in-Picture Cine-Explore track. I don't think I've ever been let down by a Cine-Explore track and that winning streak continues here. There are also two bonus shorts, Elmer Elephant and The Flying Mouse, and two games, What do you see? and What Do You Know?. Finally there are hundreds of images spread over many galleries.

As for the film's technical presentation, the film looks fantastic. Granted, it doesn't have the same level of detail as some of the other Golden Age Disney films, but what details it has are shown in all their glory. The colors are amazing, blacks are deep, etc. You won't find any compression issues or print damage. The 7.1 audio is clear, but mostly uncomplicated. There are a few scenes, including the stormy scenes, where the surround sound speakers are put to good use, but for the most part, it's front and center. There is the original mono, for those who want to listen to the movie as it was originally presented.

Finally we get to the price, which is $18 for the DVD and $22 for the Blu-ray. With the excellent improvement in picture quality, new bonus features, and features that push the Blu-ray technology, it is worth that price.

The Verdict

The 70th Anniversary of Dumbo is the perfect time to grab the film on Blu-ray and the disc is Pick of the Week material. If you haven't made the leap to high definition yet, the DVD is a big enough upgrade from previous releases that it is also worth picking up.

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