The Disney Canon: Dumbo
What's the ruckus?
When I kickstarted this series back in July by talking about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (naturally), I framed it by connecting Disney’s animated films to the emotional concepts at the heart of the Pixar film Inside Out. Just as that film presents the human mind as being governed by a handful of key emotions, sometimes on their own or sometimes as a blend, I argued that many of Disney’s animated films are anchored by emotions in the same way. Fear is at the heart of many of the most iconic moments of Disney’s Golden Age, from the journey into darkness that Snow White takes through the forests outside of the Evil Queen’s castle to Pinocchio’s trip to Pleasure Island and its descent into body horror. There is plenty of Joy and Disgust and Anger, too. But then there is Sadness.
Sadness has become a perhaps too-easy emotion for modern animation to lean upon, especially within the House of Mouse. The idea that a Pixar movie is going to make you cry, or will try to make you cry, is now pretty much old hat. That these films have become tearjerkers is de rigeur, to the point of feeling like a lazy cliché of family storytelling. We don’t need to name-check the examples from Pixar, especially because the most core, most unforgettably sad moments in animation come primarily — though not entirely — from the Golden Age of Disney Animation.
Next month, I’ll tackle arguably the saddest of all moments, the be-all and end-all of tearjerking animation with Bambi. But that main dish was set up by the film that arrived a year earlier. It’s a film that has weathered plenty of controversy due to its racial stereotyping, and a film that has created one of the most recognizable icons in Disney history, if not film history overall. It arrived in theaters mere weeks before the second World War and served as the last big hit for Disney for nearly a decade.
Is there a sadder film in Disney history, and for unexpected reasons, than Dumbo?