A Disney Tale: A baby elephant is delivered to a circus elephant. The baby, nicknamed Dumbo, has huge ears and is mocked by the other circus elephants and visitors to the circus. When his mother tries to defend him, she is separated from Dumbo and imprisoned. Dumbo ends up working with the clowns but, after a drunken night with his new friend Timothy Mouse, Dumbo discovers he can fly with the aid of his massive ears. At the circus, he becomes a sensation and is reunited with his mother.
Disney Heroine: Dumbo lacks significant human characters so the role of Disney Heroine for this film really falls to Dumbo's mother, Mrs Jumbo. Her actions protecting Dumbo from the mean children at the circus are the catalyst for many of the film's later events. The sorrow she feels when imprisoned in solitary confinement and separated from her only child is palpable as is her joy when reunited and travelling in the Jumbo family's private carriage at the back of Casey Jnr. Interestingly, for a principal character, Mrs Jumbo only utters one line - her son's name.
Disney Hero: Jumbo Jnr aka Dumbo is the hero of the film and unusually, never says a word of dialogue. He is a cute elephant with an expressive face. Also unusually for a Disney Hero, Dumbo gets drunk. I'm pretty sure that any modern Disney film wouldn't present a character getting drunk to the extent that Dumbo does.
Disney Villain: As well as an unusual central character, Dumbo also doesn't really feature what we would consider a traditional Disney villain. After Snow White's iconic Queen and Pinocchio's cavalcade of baddies, it's odd that Dumbo doesn't really feature one. The closest we get is the Ringmaster. He is the one who imprisons Mrs Jumbo after her rampage, although this is an understandable consequence to her actions. He is also a little ruthless in exploiting Dumbo's physical abnormality for the benefit of the circus - but then that is his job. All in all, he's not in the classic pantheon of villains.
Disney Sidekick: Although we may lack a classic hero or villain in this film what it does have is a classic Disney sidekick, very much in the mould of Jiminy Cricket. Timothy Mouse is Dumbo's friend and protector. He is the forerunner of Mulan's Mushu; Hiro's Baymax; Ariel's Sebastian and Simba's Timon and Pumbaa. Timothy shares Dumbo's drunken night and helps him to have the confidence to fly by pretending he has a magic feather and then proceeds to help him believe in himself.
Disney Creatures: Dumbo is packed full of animals: elephants, a mouse, lions, giraffes, hippos - all manner of circus animals. With all these animals and Dumbo and Timothy being the main characters, this is the first animal-centric Disney film which provides a template for the many that follow such as The Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians and Bambi and further on The Lion King and Dinosaur where even the human characters are dispensed with.
There are also the storks who bring the baby animals to the circus with the stork who brings Jumbo Jnr being one of the first characters to speak in the film and with a sizeable chunk of dialogue. I'm not entirely sure why Mrs Jumbo deserves the singing telegram version of baby delivery that she receives when all the other storks simply drop off their babies and leave, but it makes a fun little scene and Mr Stork is voiced by Disney stalwart Sterling Holloway; who also voiced Winnie the Pooh, the Cheshire Cat, Kaa and Roquefort from The Aristocats. Mr Stork went on to reappear in Lambert the Sheepish Lion in which Holloway also voiced him.
And there are also the crows who witness Dumbo's realisation he can fly. Much has been made of how the crows play on racial stereotypes. Whilst this is difficult to deny without understanding black racial stereotypes in 1940s America, the crows' scenes are fun and they get a classic Disney song.
Disney Magic: There is very little in the way of 'magic' in Dumbo with no magical characters such as the Blue Fairy pushing proceedings along. There are two aspects which tenously fit into this section: the Pink Elephant sequence has a surreal, nightmarish quality which suggests a terrible, evil, dark magic. Casey Jnr, the circus train, is portrayed in a slightly anthropomorphic way. His engine clearly has a face and when he is chugging along there is definitely personality in the animation. I don't think the animators are suggesting the train is alive but it does have character beyond just being a train.
Disney Land: This is the first Disney film set on home turf, in this case Florida. The setting of a circus provid es a vibrant colourful background and allows for the scenes of Casey Jnr travelling through impressive landscapes of tall mountains and deep canyons. There is also an effective scene of the big top being raised in a rainstorm.
Disney Songs: Dumbo has some classic songs; songs which are still remembered nowadays. The two most famous are Pink Elephants on Parade and When I See an Elephant Fly. The first, accompanying the nightmarish vision Dumbo has after drinking spiked water, has a chilling edge and is even included on an album of 'villain' songs released by Disney called Simply Sinister Songs. It is definitely the most sinister song Disney have included in a film so far and paves the way for later proper villain songs such as Poor Unfortunate Souls and Be Prepared (which has echoes of the marching elephants seen in this sequence).
When I See an Elephant Fly is a glorious song sung by the crows, mocking the suggestion that Dumbo has managed to fly into the tree he has ended up in. It includes some fun puns and word play.
Casey Jnr and Look out for Mr Stork both accompany scenes of action and are not sung by the characters. They are memorable tunes but maybe haven't chimed as well with popular culture as the first two.
We also have Baby Mine, a sad lullaby not actually sung by Mrs Jumbo but on the soundtrack after she and Dumbo have been separated.; and the Roustabout song sung whilst the big top is erected durin a rainstorm.
There was also a deleted song for Timothy Mouse called Are You a Man or a Mouse which has definite echoes of Give a Little Whistle from Pinocchio.
Disney Finale: After the previous films, Dumbo is a bit of an oddity. It is barely 60 minutes long making it one of the shortest official 'films' Disney has released. With a non-speaking central character, a sequence where said character gets drunk and has a nightmare, no real clear villain and a 'home-turf' setting it stands out in these early years and feels almost more like an extended short film in the vein of those to be seen later in releases such as The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music and Melody Time. It is a lovely film though, bright, vibrant and charming with some great songs and memorable sequences. Along with the previous films, Snow White and Pinocchio, it is clear that the Disney 'template' is coming slowly together over the first few releases.