Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dumbo 70th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Review

Released theatrically in 1941, Dumbo, Walt Disney’s fourth animated film, was an immediate success with audiences and critics alike.  In addition to its Academy Award for Best Music, Dumbo was also Oscar-nominated for Best Song, for the haunting lullaby, “Baby Mine.”  Additional songs from the film, written by renowned composer Frank Churchill and lyricist Ned Washington, have become popular standards.  They include the infectious “When I See an Elephant Fly,” and “Pink Elephants on Parade,” which accompanies Dumbo’s feverish dream-sequence.  The inspirational tale of Dumbo, the courageous baby elephant who uses his sensational ears to soar to fame with the help of his clever best friend Timothy Q. Mouse, will thrill and delight audiences of all ages.  In celebration of this landmark film’s 70th anniversary, experience the daring adventures of the world’s only flying elephant with a dazzling all-new digital restoration with this new Blu-ray high-definition presentation of Walt Disney’s classic Dumbo!

Film (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

Dumbo was originally developed to be a short film but after Pinocchio and Fantasia didn’t perform as well as he had hoped, Walt Disney was in a bind financially.  He retooled Dumbo to become a feature film in hopes of recouping some of the lost revenue that he had been counting on.  He also demanded that the film be made as inexpensively as possible to maximize his profits.  After the innovative advances that had been made in his previous three movies took a long time and cost a lot of money, Disney wanted to simplify the story and animation to speed up the production and save money.  Another change was the direction to return to watercolor backgrounds which hadn’t been used since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. 

That wasn’t the only challenges to deal with on this film, as the historic Disney animator strike took place in the middle of the film’s production which changed the working atmosphere there forever and impacted the schedule.  On top of all of that, the film would be shorter than the other movies with a run-time of only sixty-four minutes.  With all of those hardships, you’d think that the final result would be a complete disaster but fortunately that’s not the case as Dumbo was both an artistic and financial success for Walt Disney when it was released.  The story is a simple one which also contributed to its success in a tension-filled nation about to be forced into a second World War due to an attack on Pearl Harbor. 

The movie opens with a multitude of storks delivering baby animals to their happy parents of all species.  As the babies are delivered to a traveling zoo, one of the elephants anxiously waits and hopes that one of the babies will be delivered to her.  Unfortunately for Mrs. Jumbo, she doesn’t receive one the first go around. That will change soon since a cute little elephant will be delivered to her soon while they are traveling to their next destination.  She names her new son Jumbo Jr.  but when he sneezes and exposes his giant ears, the other elephants nickname him Dumbo which remains his name from then on.  Dumbo is a sweet little guy who laughs along with others that are making fun of him since he doesn’t understand that they are laughing at him. The taunting goes too far one day when some boys go beyond just verbally taunting Dumbo and start grabbing his ears which infuriates Mrs. Jumbo who grabs the boys and spanks one of them with her trunk. The circus ringleader believes that she is dangerous and has her locked up much to her and Dumbo’s dismay.

Since Dumbo has no one to look after him he tries to join the other elephants but they shun him because of his ears and his mother’s predicament.  Lucklily for Dumbo, a mouse sees how Dumbo is treated and he scares the other elephants and befriends Dumbo.  With Timothy the mouse taking care of him, Dumbo situation improves and they both visit his chained up mother.  While trying to cure Dumbo’s hiccups by drinking what they believe to be water, both Dumbo and Timothy get drunk as a bottle of champagne had accidentally fallen into the water.  Their resulting drunken hallucinations involve the famously surreal pink elephants on parade sequence.  When they are woken up later by some crows, they discover that they are high above the ground in a tree with no clue how they got there. Timothy is soon convinced that they must have flown up there and Dumbo’s ears had made it possible.  With some help from the crows and a “magic feather,” Dumbo soon learns that he can indeed fly which will change his life forever.

Even with the film’s short running time, it packs an emotional punch and has several heartwarming scenes that have made this movie a favorite to many people.  Dumbo’s story inspires other people who have similar challenges as he is able to overcome other people’s perceptions of him and succeed by embracing what made him the target of their taunting.  The scene of him visiting his locked up mother is also very powerful and touching as the two try to connect through the bars.  Bill Tytla’s animation of Dumbo is superb and many feel that his drawings of Dumbo were so evocative that it’s considered by many to be one of animation’s greatest accomplishments.  The economy of the story-telling is also fantastic as the movie is lean and there’s no wasted filler scenes to pad out the screen-time. Disney’s film distributor RKO Radio Pictures tried to convince Walt Disney to add more scenes to the movie or to edit it down and release it as a short film, but Disney refused and the rest is history.  The film went on to become one of the most profitable movies for Disney and would have done even better if America’s entrance into World War II hadn’t cut into it’s box office gross.

Video (5 out of 5 stars)

I’d like to say that I’m shocked at how good this 1080p (1.33:1) transfer looks but that would be a lie as I took part in a recent interview with the team at Disney who restored the film (which you can read here).  Needless to say, this is looks so good that you would think it was just made.  I have the Dumbo Big Top Edition DVD and this Blu-ray just blows that away.  This looks so good that it feels like you are watching the movie again for the first time.  The restoration is simply amazing, with the colors restored to their former glory during the seven month effort which involved going back to scan the original negative of the movie.  The circus colors are bright and cheery and when the clouds move in to produce a thunderstorm, it also looks incredible.  Black levels are wonderfully dark and solid and the contrast is spot on.  I didn’t see any blemishes, scratches, or any other issue to detract from this pristine looking movie.  This movie continues Disney’s impeccable track record of amazing restorations.  It’s wonderful to see how much they value their history and the effort the put into restoring these past films so new generations can enjoy them.

Audio (4 out of 5 stars)

Dumbo’s restoration also includes it’s audio tracks as well that have received a nice overhaul too.  There is a new DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix that sounds great and there’s also a restored original mono track for the purists out there.  For a seventy year old film, this sounds fantastic and Disney has done as much as possible to restore it so as long as you don’t have impossible expectations for it you should greatly enjoy these tracks.  Dialogue is clear, clean, and easy to understand as are the wonderful songs throughout the movie.  As expected, this is primarily a front speaker mix but the rear channels do get some action for a couple of scenes including the big thunderstorm and the wonderfully surreal pink elephants on parade sequence.  For a movie this old, this is probably the best it’s ever going to be and I think it sounds great.

Special Features (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

Dumbo offers some very welcome in-depth extras which is always nice to see.  As an added bonus, all of them are in high definition with the exception of “Celebrating Dumbo,” “Original Walt Disney TV Introduction,” and the Sound Design “Excerpt from the Reluctant Dragon.”

  • Cine-Explore – An extremely interesting Picture-in-Picture discussion hosted by Pixar director Pete Docter (Monsters Inc. & UP), Disney historian Paula Sigman and Disney animator Andreas Deja who talk about the film’s production and its importance to Disney.  This track offers a wealth of fascinating details of the movie and its impact both creatively and financially on the company.  All Disney fans should check this out!

  • DisneyView – DisneyView replaces the black bars on either side of the screen with custom paintings by Disney background artist James Coleman which matches what’s happening on screen at the time.  For example if the scene is on a train car the side panels may look like the wooden sides of a boxcar or if it’s at the circus it might look like a circus tent.  I thought it would be distracting but I actually loved it.  There’s also a short interview with Coleman if you’d like to learn more.

  • Taking Flight: The Making of Dumbo – An almost thirty minute look at how the movie came to be and what it did to save Walt Disney’s financial prospects when he needed it the most.

  • Deleted Scenes – Disney archivists recently discovered two scenes that could have been included in the movie but were discarded and both involve Timothy the mouse.  Both are shown through in rough draft storyboards complete with voice-overs and the first one is entitled “The Mouse’s Tale”  where Timothy explains why elephants are scared of mice and the other is a deleted song called “Are You a Man or a Mouse?”  Both are cute but were wisely cut since it would have added unneeded filler to the movie.

  • Celebrating Dumbo – A fifteen minute look at the film with comments from luminaries such as the late Roy E. Disney, producer Don Hahn, film historian Rudy Behlmer, critic Leonard Maltin.

  • The Magic of Dumbo: A Ride of Passage – A look at the actual Dumbo ride at Disneyland that includes footage from how it looked when it opened and what it looks like today.  Imagineer Tony Baxter also gives us tour of sorts and offers his comments about the ride and what it means to him.

  • Original Walt Disney TV Introduction – A vintage clip of Walt Disney introducing the movie on his TV show.  It’s always good to Uncle Walt.

  • Sound Design Excerpt from The Reluctant DragonA cool clip that shows how a lot of the sound effects were created for the movie

  • Bonus Shorts – Two bonus Silly Symphony cartoons have been added in as a nice bonus which includes “Elmer Elephant” and “The Flying Mouse.”

  • Disney Family Play – Two games aimed at children that challenge them to unscramble an image (“What Do You See?”) and a trivia game as well (“What Do You Know?”).

  • Art Galleries – There’s a ton of photos, storyboards, and more that can be found within the following galleries: “Visual Development,” “Character Design,” “Layouts & Backgrounds,” “Storyboard Art,” “Production Pictures,” “Research Pictures,” “Publicity” and “Original Dumbo Storybook (1941)”.

Final Thoughts (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

Dumbo still remains one of Disney’s most heartwarming stories that they’ve told.  With it’s blend of humor, sadness, friendship, and personal triumph over adversity make this a timeless classic.  The movie is so sweet-natured that it will charm both kids and adults alike.  Disney did an amazing job restoring this movie and I bet it looks better on Blu-ray that it ever did.  This is highly recommended!

Order yours today!

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