Dumbo Flies onto Blu-ray

By Jim Bray
September 30, 2011

Walt Disney's Dumbo is 70 years old! And for its birthday, this senior citizen of pachyderms has been given the type of loving treatment Disney Studios is known for, via a terrific new Blu-ray presentation.

It couldn't be more welcome!

Dumbo was released just when America needed a lift and this wonderful story of triumph over huge obstacles (in this case represented not only by Dumbo's ears, but by other characters who treat the little critter as a pariah because he has "special needs"). It was 1941, when much of the world was already at war and America was about to be thrust into the deadly conflict. Times were challenging anyway, even without the war, so the fact that people could use a good, cathartic experience, even a cinematic one, to help make life a little nicer undoubtedly worked in Dumbo's favor.

Then, in flew that little misfit critter and the rest is history.

Dumbo is very different from Disney's other "full length" animated features of the age. First, at only about 64 minutes running time, it's very short. Its look is also less realistic and less detailed than Snow White, Bambi and Pinocchio and far less of a leap in traditional animation than Fantasia. It's a simple, short story, but not simplistic or truncated. In fact, its simplicity works in its favor, resulting in an emotional powerhouse that leaves the audience feeling, well, wonderful.

In fact, it almost seems as if Dumbo is so lean and mean in its storytelling that if they'd added even another second it would seem like padding. It's that tight.

No need to get into much of the story, since I daresay most people have seen the movie at least once. Suffice it to say that this is the story of an elephant cub with gigantic ears whose life is a living hell until he discovers his special talent and learns how to exploit it to become a huge success.

It's also a musical with very catchy tunes, delightful characters and situations, and one scene in particular that will bring a lump to the throat of the most hardened heart. In case you can't guess, it's the scene where Timothy Mouse takes Dumbo to visit his imprisoned mother, and it makes my eyes misty every time I see it (How I hate admitting that!), one of only two scenes I can think of from any production that can do that consistently. It's quite annoying.

Dumbo also features a scene that's so outrageously surreal it makes one wonder what they were smoking at Disney back in the day. This, of course, is "Pink Elephants on Parade."

It's amazing that a little film like this, with what's basically a silly story, can end up being such a timeless classic, a "coming of age" film that has spoken to generations. Yet there it is.

Is it perfect? Probably not, but it's about as close as any film I can think of. And though Disney brought its classic animation arm back from a near death experience with films such as "The Little Mermaid," "The Lion King," "Beauty and the Beast" (not to mention the many outstanding Pixar entries), Dumbo still ranks among the best of all time. It's my favorite Disney film.

Even better, Dumbo's welcome introduction to Blu-ray is yet another first class release from Disney, a company that once fought the home video revolution tooth and nail but has since then offered some of the finest quality releases on the market. As usual, movie has been given a new "enhanced digital restoration" of the picture and the sound, and Disney also piles on the extras, though in this case not as many as with some of their other releases.

The Blu-ray (which also comes with a DVD in the package) looks and sounds about as good as a 70 year old film can. The 1080/24p picture features beautiful color, and an overall rich and involving image with about as much detail as you could expect from hand drawn animation. Sure, it's just a cartoon, but it has never looked better in the home video environment and is undoubtedly be a true representation of the animators' intent from so long ago.  Kudos to Disney for once again putting in the attention to detail its classics deserve.

The audio is probably as good as it can get, too, considering the age of the source material. I wish the technology existed to make an old soundtrack such as this one sound as if it were recorded in the present – like they seem able to do with the video quality if they put their minds to it – but this doesn't seem to be the case.

Still, the dts-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track Disney provides here (there's also a restored "original mono" track) is about as good as one could hope for. Dialogue comes through clearly  and the overall audio is very clean. Don't expect much in the way of low frequency effects out of the subwoofer, nor will you get a lot of surround (though there's a bit), but that's what you can expect from a soundtrack this old – so while it's more than a tad thin compared with many contemporary soundtracks, it's about as good as Dumbo's going to get short of some new audio technology innovations.

Extras kick off with the predictable panoply of previews of other Disney product, theatrical and home theatrical, plus you get an annoying and rather insulting anti-smoking promo that uses classic Disney animation clips with characters smoking in them to beat you over the head with the horrors of evil tobacco.

What's next, anti-drinking, anti-obesity – or whatever the next liberal cause célèbre might be – promos? Give me a break!

Despite Dumbo's extras not being enough to warrant an entire extra disc, you get enough stuff to sink your tusks into, including some recycled stuff from the earlier DVD release.

Stuff that isn't recycled includes a picture-in-picture "Cine-Explore" feature, hosted by Pixar's Pete Docter, Disney historian Paula Sigman and animator Andreas Deja. It's a pretty encompassing look at the production as well as at Dumbo's place in the history of the Disney studio. It's very interesting stuff.

"Taking Flight: The Making of Dumbo" is about half an hour's worth of the same kind of thing, but as a standalone feature. There are also a couple of unfinished scenes including a song "Are You a Man or a Mouse?"

As with the other Disney Blu-ray releases of its animated films shot at the 1.33:1 aspect ratio of "old fashioned" Hollywood, the studio also includes what it calls "DisneyView," which fills in the black bars to the sides of the picture as it's presented on today's 16x9 TV screens. So you get custom paintings (you can also access an interview with artist James Coleman who created them) that replace the black bars.

Strangely, while I have enjoyed this feature on other Disney Blu-rays, I didn't think it worked as well with Dumbo and went back to the black bars after a while.

You also get a couple of "Silly Symphony" cartoons: "Elmer Elephant" and "The Flying Mouse" and a couple of kiddie games meant to keep the ankle biters occupied while Mom and Dad are out protesting against tobacco users. 

Dumbo has earned its place in movie history, and with this fine Blu-ray release you can now get all of Disney's earliest animated features in high definition. They're definitely all worth your time, but Dumbo is perhaps the one that'll tug at your heartstrings the most – even more than Bambi.

Copyright 2011 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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