While Walt Disney did not invent animation, he perfected it, introducing new ideas and techniques that would come to define the medium and change it forever. His Dumbo, released in 1941, benefits from all of the artist’s hallmarks; an enchanting, endearing story filled with pathos and humor, it commands emotional involvement, and often masks its supreme, superb style through the spirit, sentiment, and simplicity of its subject. Dumbo is a study in original, inventive use of shadows, darkness, and light, as well as excellent, expressive use of nuances and shades of color to create realistic textures, subtleties of highlights and perspective (including angles of near-avant-garde obliqueness), and complex, moving backgrounds. Outstanding in both content and execution, Disney’s fourth feature might not boast the ambition of the preceding Snow White, Pinocchio or Fantasia, but it is no less accomplished.
By the early forties, Disney and his gaggle of extremely talented artists had mastered the dynamics of movement and the art of developing character personality. Returning to anthropomorphism and personification, deceptively “simple” animal characterization, Disney endows his characters as well as inanimate objects and machinery—like the circus train engine, who flexes and puffs sighs of relief after every exertion—with human features and characteristics that seem completely natural. The titular pachyderm, with rounded, pin-cushiony shapes, soft, sincere blue eyes and ears the size of bed sheets, is instantly recognizable and lovable, and the film becomes an unpretentious expression of universal human truths. One of the sequences that set the movie apart from anything that came before it, however, is the unique, unforgettable “Pink Elephants on Parade,” one of the best known, and strangest, animated sequences that Disney, or any studio, has ever done.