The History of Disney Animation – Part 4 Dumbo

Wikipedia, Dumbo, <>%5Baccessed 7/6/2017]
Dumbo has been called the ‘most emotional film that the studio ever made’.[1] I would definitely have to agree with that sentiment. It is hard not to feel sympathy for baby Dumbo as he is shunned by the other circus elephants and his tearful reuniting with his mother. But this film is also given the title of ‘the saviour of Disney’.[2] This is because at the time, the company was suffering deep financial difficulties. Both Pinocchio and Fantasia had not been the successes that had been hoped, both losing a lot of money because it was so expensive to make and produce these films. Dumbo was the complete opposite. It only cost $814,000 to make.[3]

Dumbo was originally written by Helen Abersin and Harold Pearl in 1938 – the only children’s book written by the couple.[4] Disney bought the film rights to Dumbo fairly quickly after this in 1939, believing that a short could made out of the material.[5] But in the end, the project was turned into a film and given to Joe Grant and Dick Humer. Grant, at the time, was trusted by Walt and is commonly seen as the second most powerful man within the studios at the time.[6] As I have discussed in previous blogs, he helped to set up the Disney model department and also worked on several of the silly symphonies.[7] Humer too had worked on the silly symphonies and Fantasia.[8]

When the pair were given the project, they went about changing the story in a variety of ways. One way was changing Dumbo’s sidekick from a robin bird to a mouse – Timothy Mouse as we see in the film.[9] Moreover, they added in the baby delivering storks and the pink elephant sequences.[10] In a unique way to previous films, Walt was given the premise of the film one chapter at a time to apparently keep him in suspense.[11]

As mentioned, this film, because of money difficulties, could not have the luxury of animating whole scenes and then scrapping them like in Snow White, or the perfection that was put into Pinocchio. Instead they had to work the story out before any animation was begun to ensure that all the money and energy would go on something that went onto the screen.[12] Unlike Pinocchio, they have to save money on special effects (which they did by not making them key to the story) and also using watercolour backgrounds.[13] In fact only Dumbo, Snow White and Lilo and Stitch have made use of these watercolour backgrounds (which were commonly used in the shorts).[14] Live action and rotoscoping, just like in the previous feature films, were made use of with the Jackson Brothers performing a reference for the crows.[15]

The music in Dumbo is different from the previous films as they were not really there to advance the plot in that Broadway style, just to talk about it further e.g. When I see an Elephant Fly.[16] Songs were cut from the film such as ‘Sing a Song of Cheese’ which was meant to be a song for Timothy Q. Mouse.[17] The songs were composed by Oliver Wallace and Frank Churchill and the lyrics were written by Ned Washington.[18]

The progress on the film seems to have been swift with the film being completed within a year and a half.[19] This was fortuitous because the animators strike in May 1941 did change the company drastically.[20] But the production of this film could be said to have been the handing over of the old guard. By this I mean that Dumbo has the feel of a silly symphony and this is because the head animators working on the film were those that developed those shorts and the original Disney style.[21] These included people like Art Babbit (who animated the Stork), Bill Tytla (who animated Dumbo) and Freddy Moor (who animated Timothy Mouse).[22] There were some of the 9 old men featured like Ward Kimball, whose style was not suited to Bambi.[23] But ultimately it was many of these older animators who worked on the film, many of whom unfortunately,  left the studios during the strike .[24]

Some special effects were used with regards to voicing Casey Jr. The voice was done by Margaret Wright and she spoke into a sonobox to give the effect that you hear onscreen.[25] To use it, she had to put her mic next to her throat and whisper the lines.[26] The chugging and whistling of Casey Jr. were recorded from a real train.[27] Voices are an interesting part of Dumbo. Several actors would go on to be in other Disney films such as:

  • Sterling Hollingway – Mr Stork – also voices Winnie the Pooh, Kaa, the Cheshire Cat etc.
  • Cliff Edwards – Main Crow – also voices Jiminy Cricket
  • Verna Felton – Dumbo’s mother – Flora, Aunt Sarah, The Queen of Hearts and the Fairy Godmother.[28]

Before the film was released, RKO, the distributor of Disney films, were concerned that the running time was only 64 minutes. They either wanted it expanded, shortened to a short or released as a B movie.[29] But Disney did not agree, held his ground and released the film as it was.[30] The West Coast premiere of Dumbo took place on the 4th December 1941 at Camp Callan.[31] The film was a big success both likability wise and financially.[32] Lines were around the theatre and repeat visitors saw Dumbo make the money that the Disney Studio badly needed.[33] Reviews at the time praised Walt for going ‘back to basics’.[34] Dumbo’s success was going to be culminated by appearing on the cover of Time magazine had it not been for Pearl Harbour and the USA’s entry into World War 2.[35]

Dumbo won an academy award in 1941 for its musical score and was nominated for best song, Baby Mine.[36] The film did win the best animation design at the Cannes Film Festival in 1947.[37] But Dumbo’s legacy has continued beyond that. It was the first Disney movie to be released on a video in 1981 and almost gained a sequel in the early 2000s entitled Dumbo II but this project was cancelled.[38] But Dumbo has become immortalised in the parks with the flying Elephants ride.

Ultimately Dumbo is a lovely film which had a huge impact in saving the studios financially during some difficult times. It is one of my favourite Disney films too!

Seven Facts for Seven Dwarves!

  1. Harry Truman, Present of the USA after World War II, refused to ride the flying elephants when he went to Disneyland in 1957 because the elephant was a symbol of the Republican Party.[39]
  2. Dumbo was Walt’s favourite Movie.[40]
  3. The cells from Dumbo are so rare and valuable because back then, they were not worth a lot and so artists were careless with them. With the slippery cells, they used to skate down the hallways, rubbing off the paint and art work as they went![41]
  4. A title considered for Dumbo was Dumbo at the Circus.[42]
  5. A musical version of Dumbo, like that of Mary Poppins, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and the Little Mermaid, was talked about but nothing has really been heard or discussed since the early 2010s.[43]
  6. The name of the circus in Dumbo – WDP Circus – is actually a reference meaning Walt Disney Productions.[44]
  7. The Pink Elephants segment was animated by one man in just one week! Howard Swift animated 100 feet of the sequence when on average, animators only produced 20 foot a week.[45]


[1] Youtube, The Making of Dumbo,, [accessed 28/5/2017].

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mental Floss, 16 Things You Might not Know About Dumbo, <> [accessed 7/6/2017]

[4] Youtube, The Making of Dumbo.

[5] Oh my Disney, 10 Things you didn’t know about Dumbo, [accessed7/6/2017]

[6] Youtube, The Making of Dumbo.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Youtube, The Making of Dumbo.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Disney Wikipedia, Dumbo, <> [accessed 7/6/2017]

[15] Youtube, The Making of Dumbo.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Mental Floss, 16 Things You Might not Know About Dumbo.

[18] Youtube, The Making of Dumbo.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Oh my Disney, 10 Things you didn’t know about Dumbo.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Blu-ray, Dumbo, <> [accessed 7/6/2017].

[28] Bullet points from: Oh my Disney, 10 Things you didn’t know about Dumbo.

[29] Disney Wikipedia, Dumbo.

[30] Britannica, Dumbo, <> [accessed 7/6/2017].

[31] Blu-ray, Dumbo.

[32] Youtube, The Making of Dumbo.

[33] Blu-ray, Dumbo.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Youtube, The Making of Dumbo.

[36] Disney Wikipedia, Dumbo.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Disney Wikipedia, Dumbo; Mental Floss, 16 Things You Might not Know About Dumbo.

[39] Mental Floss, 16 Things You Might not Know About Dumbo.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Blu-ray, Dumbo.

[43] Blu-ray, Dumbo.

[44] Oh my Disney, 10 Things you didn’t know about Dumbo.

[45] Ibid.


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