I think it's pretty safe to say that we all have been in the same shoes as the main character of Walt Disney's 4th animated feature Dumbo (1941) at least once in our lives before. Anyone who had either seen this picture or had been picked on and/or bullied in school knows what it feels like to go through whatever the main character goes through in this film. The biggest reason why Dumbo has always been one of Disney's most timeless animated treasures is because so many of us can identify with the sadness and pain that the title character feels from all the unfortunate circumstances he's put under. Obviously, that isn't the only reason why Dumbo still holds up well after all these years, but more on that later.
Our main character of this film is a baby elephant named Dumbo who is ridiculed by fellow circus animals and humans for his enormous ears. His mother Jumbo is the only elephant who is kind to Dumbo and willing to defend him. But when she gets into trouble for trying to protect Dumbo from harm, she gets locked up in a cage and Dumbo is now alone. That's when a circus mouse named Timothy Mouse comes in and becomes his only friend outside his mother. Timothy promises to do whatever he can to help Dumbo overcome his obstacle by making it into his strength.
Right off the bat, I should say that I thought it was ingenious to make Dumbo's best friend a mouse, given that elephants are supposed to be afraid of mice for whatever reasons. I liked how even though sad things keep happening to Dumbo, he's the only elephant in the circus that has a mouse for a friend. That was a very clever idea on the writer's part. I also found Dumbo's relationship with his mom to be deeply touching and emotional. The filmmakers were wise to keep the dialogue out of the scenes between Dumbo and his mom and let the heartwarming images drawn by the Disney animators do the talking so to speak. Remember a brief scene early on when Jumbo wraps Dumbo's ears into a blanket and gently rocks him back and forth with her trunk? That was a cute little scene. You couldn't make this part of the movie better with dialogue since it manages to work perfectly well as it is.
Speaking of great scenes, how about that infamous pink elephants sequence? Make all the arguments you like about how it contributes little to the plot and how a certain scene before it could send the wrong message to kids with Dumbo and Timothy Mouse accidentally consuming alcohol. That pink elephants scene is still a cool scene to watch. Considering the time in which it came out and all of the bright, colorful and surreal imagery being shown on screen, that scene was really ahead of its time in terms of its content.
In regards to the controversy involving the crows that help Dumbo discover his true destiny and whether or not they are racist, I honestly don't see what all the fuss is about. In my opinion, they were just cool, free-spirited creatures who are just enjoying life. On top of that, the main leader of the group was voiced by a white person (Cliff Edwards to be precise, who's also famous for his voice-over work for Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio (1940)), so it makes the argument a tad less credible. Personally, nothing about these crows would've offended me if I was an African-American. If there was a scene that would have offended me if I were an African-American, it would be the Roustabouts song earlier in the film.
I'm shocked that for all the controversy with the crows, how come no one seems to be offended by the Roustabouts scene? It clearly involves African-American slaves setting up the circus tents along with the circus animals. If that wasn't enough for this scene to repel any African-Americans, then some of the lyrics are. I swear I heard these very words somewhere in the song... "We don't know when we get our pay, and when we do we throw our pay away". They're basically saying that they're enjoying being hard-working slaves and that they only enjoy living for that reason. I guess it just goes to show you how complicated race issues can really become, but I just think America was calling racism on the wrong part of the movie.
In the tradition of the best Disney pictures, another one of the film's strengths is in its music and songs arranged by Frank Churchill, Oliver Wallace, and Ned Washington. Along with its wide range of music whether it's softer music or circus music, the film's songs are still memorable to this day especially "Casey Junior", "Baby Mine" and "When I See An Elephant Fly". The music and songs have noteworthy variety to them and they are all handled very well. The animation was intended to be a little less advanced than the three previous Disney films before it (Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia), but it's still well done in its own right. The animation compliments the simple story that is being told well enough. There's no need to remake it and advance the animation further, it somehow works just fine as it is.
Dumbo was intended to be a simpler film than the previous Disney animated features before it both with its animation and its story. And yet, it manages to equal and even top the three Disney films that came before it because it has the best balance of everything that made Disney films terrific to begin with. Even with a brief running time of just over an hour, Dumbo is more evidence that a great film which lasts just over an hour is preferable to a lousy film that lasts around two hours.