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Beneath Dumbo’s cheery, candy-colored circus facade is a tale of humiliation and exploitation. That he is able to triumph with the help of his special gift and the encouragement of his friends makes the story resonate today.

Dumbo hasn’t gotten the same lavish DVD treatment as other recent releases of other Disney classics like Bambi and Lady and the Tramp. In fact, this new “Big Top Edition” of Dumbo has many of the same extra features as the 60th anniversary DVD which came out five years ago. The disc does have some interesting content – a little for animation buffs and a little for kids. And then there’s the movie itself, full of pathos and charm.

Greatest Show on Earth

Part of a long tradition of storytelling in which heroes must overcome obstacles
Part of a long tradition of storytelling in which heroes must overcome obstacles

With typical Disney cuteness, Dumbo starts off with the circus animals receiving their bundles of joy. The first hint of melancholy comes with Mrs. Jumbo, the elephant, watches in disappointment when her own bundle fails to show up. It turns out that the stork was just running late. The young elephant’s life doesn’t get any easier –- he will find himself mocked by the other elephants for his oversized ears, exploited by uncaring humans and separated from his loving mother.

The mood of despair lifts about halfway through the movie. First, there is the surreal “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence, surely the most fantastic champagne-induced hallucination ever put to film. Then Dumbo encounters a group of good-natured crows, who help him to realize his full potential.

Many Disney movies, from Bambi to The Lion King have been criticized for their darker content. These movies are part of a long tradition of storytelling in which heroes must overcome obstacles to triumph. It’s uncomfortable to watch the ill treatment heaped upon Dumbo, but it’s something that most of us can relate to, and when he succeeds, we can share in that.

DVD Extras

Perhaps the reason for the dearth of bonus features is that the minutes from story meetings for Dumbo were lost. Instead of a lengthy “making-of” documentary, the disc has “Celebrating Dumbo,” 15 minutes of people talking about how wonderful the movie is without actually saying anything interesting.

For animation buffs, the best extra feature will be the interesting audio commentary by animation historian John Canemaker. He clearly loves this movie, and backs it up by pointing out the how the animators were able to imbue their drawings with emotions and personalities. He mentions that Disney’s artists were shown many kinds of live action films, to expose them to various visual styles. A moment in the movie when a mouse’s shadow becomes monstrously large was taken from Nosferatu, the silent German classic.

The DVD also has two Disney shorts from the 1930s, “Elmer Elephant,” and “The Flying Mouse,” which have themes that are similar to Dumbo. These shorts are definitely in need of restoration. Two sing-along songs are on the DVD, unfortunately the most memorable song, “When I See an Elephant Fly,” is not one of them.

“My First Circus” game will probably be interesting to only the youngest of viewers. “Dumbo’s Big Discovery,” is meant to emulate a children’s book, but the screen is cluttered and the actual illustrations (some taken from the movie) are relatively small.

Picture and Sound

The picture is very good, though there are occasional flecks of dirt and color shifts. The sound, which is good but unremarkable, is Dolby Digital, no doubt remastered from the original mono source.