It’s time to take a crude look at the whole film, from beginning to end. The DVD breaks the film into 17 chapters, named and numbers. I use those and superimpose my own three-part structure. That structure is derived from a standard-issue account of ritual life that’s been kicking around in anthropology for a century or so, which I explain in Ritual in Apocalypse Now. The timings are approximate.
1. Opening Credits
Just what it says, opening credits. No story action at all.
ONE. Establishing a World (Secular)
We start out in the air with the storks. We end with an incident in which the line between humans and elephants gets crossed, not constructively as in chapter 5, Setting up the Big Top (where the roustabouts and elephants work together) but destructively: a boy taunts and grabs Dumbo, his mom spanks the boy, and she then dunks the ringmaster.
2. Look Out for Mr. Stork
Opens on a storm, voiceover: “Through the snow and sleet and hail . . . through the blinding lightening flash, and the mighty thunder crash . . . nothing stops him, he’ll get through.” Fade to a lone stork in the sky, flying across the moon holding a bundle in its beak. Song starts: “Look out for Mr. Stork . . . You may be poor or rich, it doesn’t matter which. Millionaires, they get theirs, like the butcher and the baker . . .”
The lone stork becomes a flock, flying in formation. The storks peel off and head down, to Florida, winter quarters of the circus. Bundles drop with parachutes. They land in animal cages, unrap themselves, and the infants pop out to eager happy mothers, and perhaps a father (tiger). Mrs. Jumbo expectantly scans the sky. No parachute for her.
3. The Circus Moves On
Daytime, aerial view of train being loaded. Uniformed animal handlers. Animals board. Bustling music. When the elephants board, Mrs. Jumbo is second to last, head hanging low. Sad. One last scan of the sky. Last elephant pushes her into car. Ringmaster calls “all aboard” and train whistle answers “all aboard” – yeah, it ‘talks’. Train pulls out. Song: “Casey Junior.” We see one last stork, high in the sky with a bundle. Lost in the clouds. This stork has a red cap and a blue uniform. It’s different from all the other storks.
Note: Now I’ve got half an idea why Disney lingered so long on this stork business. It gives him an emphatic way to differentiate Dumbo from all the other infants even before we see him. His arrival is DIFFERENT. It’s late, and the courier is different from the others.
4. Delivery for Mrs. Jumbo
A single stork, weary, on a cloud, talking to himself. looking to find where to deliver his little bundle of joy. Consults a map. Lands on train, finds proper car, delivers infant. Stork recites two greeting card jingles and asks Mrs. Jumbo to sign a receipt. She does: “X”. He seems a little upset at that. Stork sings a ‘naming’ song (“Happy Birthday”) before Mrs. Jumbo can unwrap her infant, whom she names “Jumbo Jr”. Well received, one matron observing “this is a proud proud day.”
And THEN his ears pop out. Other matrons are distressed and disdainful. He’s dubbed “Dumbo.” Matrons giggle and cackle. Mrs. Jumbo shuts them out, literally (she closes a window between their area and hers). Snuggles with Dumbo. Night falls and we see the train traveling to the next stop.
Note: Jumbo Jr. is separated from his name. That name identified him with his father. His new name is his own, sorta.
5. Setting Up the Big Top
First the tent raising. Elephants and roustabouts working together. Dumbo works too. The night is stormy. (Echoing the storm in the opening frames?) The final act is to hoist the tent up the central pole. We observe this from below, looking up the pole.
Opening day parade. Ringmaster in the lead on a white horse. Initial POV seems mostly low, as from a child. Animals bored and disdainful and pay little attention to the crowd. Clown contingent comes right before elephants, who are high and proud. Dumbo happily tags behind his mother (last in line), holding on to her tail, with a doll seated on his back. He plays to the audience, stumbles in the mud. Fade.
6. A Bath for Dumbo
Dumbo and mom play at the bath. He runs outside as the crowd streams in. A goofy looking kid makes fun of him. His mom spanks the kid. Panic! The crowd streams away, Mrs. Jumbo goes rogue, dunks the ringmaster in water.
Note: The line between humans and elephants is thrice crossed. The kid crosses it when he grabs Dumbo. Mrs. Jumbo crosses it when she spanks the kid and when she dunks the boss. She’s separated from circus society.
TWO. Exile (Sacred, Liminal)
Begins with Mrs. Jumbo’s exile from the circus into a locked trailer. Dumbo himself is banned from elephantdom after the elephant pyramid collapses. He sees his mother again, and gets drunk, followed by Pink Elephants on Parade, which makes the transition to the final movement, in which Dumbo and mom are restored to circus society, but in better circumstances.
7. Mrs. Jumbo in Solitary Confinement
Night time, we see an animal car with locked door and two signs: “Danger”, and “Mad Elephant”. Camera to Dumbo (cross-dissolve?) who’s crying. Camera pans to elephant matrons in a circle, gossiping. “After all, one mustn’t forget, one is a lady.” Timothy Mouse, in red uniform, with had, hears them, which eating a peanut. Is disgusted. Dumbo approaches the matrons, they shut him out. Dumbo slinks away. Timothy Mouse decides to get them. Scares them and tells them off. Goes to find Dumbo and befriend him.
8. Dumbo Meets a New Friend
Dumbo hiding in a mound of hay. Timothy Mouse approaches and entices him out with a peanut. Dumbo grabs onto Timothy’s tale with his trunk. (An important gesture that will be repeated at various times in the film.) Timothy hatches a plan to bring Dumbo success.
He overhears the ringmaster talking to his attendant. “I’ve got an idea! What an idea!” It’s for a pyramid of pachyderms. “And now comes the climax!” That’s the end of the idea, no climax. “Maybe it comes to me in a vision, while I dream.” We see this conversation in silhouette.
Timothy gets an idea, saying” “Dumbo, you’re a climax.” He goes to the ringmaster’s tent and climbs up near his head. He talks into the ringmaster’s ear and suggests a pyramid with Dumbo at the top. The ringmaster awakens: “I got it! I got it!”
For more detail, see: Mother and Son, Gender and Violence in Dumbo: Some Quick Notes
9. A Pyramid of Pachyderms
Fad in from black on the ring as the announcer introduces the Pyramid of Pachyderms. The pyramid is to be built on a ball that appears to be roughly 3 or 4 feet in diameter. One elephant to another: “To hear him talk, you’d think he was going to do it.” Elephants build pyramid, awkwardly (remember, they’re all balancing on one ball). Dumbo’s eager to come out. Timothy (we assume) ties his ears above his head. Dumbo runs out, ears become undone, he trips, and runs into the ball. The pyramid falls, bringing the tent down as well. Fade to black.
Night-time. Rain. Train moving. Matrons, heavily bandaged, are talking. “I never thought I’d live to see the big top fall.” “Because of that Dumbo I never can show my face there again.” About Dumbo: “They’ve gone and made him, dear I just can’t say it, made him a clown.” The others are crestfallen. “A clown!?” “No.” “Yes.” “Oh, the shame of it.” They ban Dumbo from elephantdom.
10. Dumbo’s Disgrace
Opens on Dumbo in make-up, holding a rattle in his trunk, high up in a burning building. Cream-colored make-up on face (white face?) and wears a baby cap. Clown in elephant drag runs around “save my baby!” Clowns to the rescue. Gags and business. Hose, water, gas on the fire. Dumbo hesitates on the platform. Is smacked from behind and he goes into the net the clown-firemen are holding. He breaks through into a bucket of white liquid. (In contrast to the water Dumbo bathed in and in which his mother dunked the ringmaster.) The crowd cheers. An unhappy Dumbo gamely shakes his rattle to the crowd.
After the show, clowns in their tent, chatting up their triumph. Break out the booze. Toast to Dumbo. Cut to Timothy washing Dumbo’s face with a toothbrush and encouraging him. Dumbo’s sad.
11. Dumbo Visits His Mother
Continuing directly from the previous scene, Timothy, who’s standing on Dumbo’s trunk, informs him: “We’re going over to see your mother. I made and appointment for you.” Dumbo perks up. They go. She can’t get close enough to the window to look out—she’s shackled to the wall. So she reaches her trunk out through the bars and Dumbo grabs it. Tears. “Baby Mine” on the soundtrack. She hooks her trunk, Dumbo sits in it, and she rocks him. Timothy is happy. We see other animal infants and mothers during song. As song ends Timothy leads Dumbo away.
Cut to the clowns in silhouette in their tent, talking and drinking. They decide to raise the platform Dumbo jumps from. 40 ft. 80, 180, a thousand. “Be careful, don’t hoit the little guy.” “Ah go on, elephants ain’t got no feelins’.” Pleased with the idea, they decide to hit the boss up for a raise, and sing about it. Liquor bottle falls off the table and into a water bucket.
12. Dumbo Gets the Hiccups
Walk back from visit to mom. Timothy Mouse in front, Dumbo behind, trunk holding onto Timothy’s tail. “What would your mother think of you, if she saw you crying like this. Remember, you come of a proud race. Why you’re a pachydoim, and pachydoims don’t cry.” (Renaming) Dumbo hiccups. They look for water and find the bucket that’s been doused with booze. TM grabs Dumbo’s trunk and leads him to it. Dumbo drinks. TM give more encouraging talk. Tells Dumbo to hold his breath until D turns red: ”Swallow.” D does, and breathes too. Hiccups, with bubbles. TM wonders about the water, falls in, gets drunk. Climbs out, music starts.
Dumbo keeps blowing bubbles. They get bigger. And stranger. TM rides on a pair, goes inside some. A zig-zag one, on which TM lounges. It pulls itself into a sphere. At TM’s request, square one. Out comes a cube. And then, again by request, a great big one. That changes into . . .
13. ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’
Opens on the first elephant bubble, just as it’s becoming an elephant. Lots of stuff happens. The whole pink elephant world blows up more or less at dawn. Pink elephants float down from the sky and become clouds.
I discuss this scene in some detail in:
Dumbo learns that he can fly and takes possession of that power, as it had possessed him while he was pink-elephanting. That restores him to the circus in a way that feels good and right to him, and to his mother.
14. Up A Tree
Four variously dressed crows up in a tree wondering how that elephant got up there. “They ain’t dead, is they.” “No, dead people don’t sno, or do dey?” The ‘head’ crow joins in. The others show him. Looks down and we see, for the first time, Dumbo sleeping on a branch, with TM in the crook of Dumbo’s trunk.
Head crow goes down to investigate. Banter about up here and down there. “Brother Rat.” TM looks down, panics, wakes Dumbo up. Dumbo looks down, starts tipping, grabs branch with trunk, falls. Lands in a pond.
Note: Again, water. Dumbo was bathed in water, by his mother and then gets make-up washed off his face by TM. Mrs. J dunks ringmaster in water. Dumbo and TM get drunk on booze-laced water.
Crows fly down, laughing. Timothy and Dumbo start walking away, feeling low, Dumbo holding on to Timothy’s tail. Jim Crow suggests (perhaps in jest?) that they flew up. TM concludes that they did. Grasps the implication immediately.
15. ‘When I See an Elephant Fly’
Crows sing the pun-filled song, “When I See and Elephant Fly.” For lyrics and some comments, see the post, Animals in Cartoons: Tripping the Elephants Electric.
Song ends. Crows rolling on the ground in laughter. TM gets mad, jumps up on a tin can, throws his hat off. “All right gennelmen, the Reverend Rodent is gonna’ address you.” “You oughta’ be ashamed of yourselves...” and TM tells Dumbo’s story: “They made him a clown. Socially he’s washed up.” The crows are taking it in, hats off, tears roll down beaks. Timothy and Dumbo start walking away, feeling low, Dumbo holding on to Timothy’s tail.
Jim Crow asks them to stop: “We done seen the light, you boys is OK.” He calls a huddle among the crows, with Timothy. Comes up with the idea of the magic feather, which is using “’cology, you know, psychology”.
Note: Is this like the psychology TM used to implant his idea into the ringmaster’s mind?
16. Dumbo Flies
“Use a magic feather. Catch on?” And, with a bit of prodding, Dumbo launches from a cliff, holding the magic feather in his trunk w/ TM riding in his hat. Flaps ears, lots of dust, and when the dust clears they’re airborne. See Dumbo’s shadow on the ground. The crows join him. Singing: “But I be done seen, about everything, when I seen an elephant fly.” (Society found) Dumbo lands on telephone wires, which sag under Dumbo’s weight. Crows land on Dumbo. Jim Crow: “Boy those city folks sure is in for a surprise.” Laughter.
Note: The film opens with storks flying. Dumbo’s restoration to the circus happens through flight, a restoration that upsets what the clowns had planned. This restoration, in turn, reunites him with his mother and them both with the other elephants.
17. Dumbo’s Surprise
Opens on aerial view of tent. Search lights playing the sky. Zoom inside, burning building, hysterical clown-mother, and Dumbo up there at the top. Lots of business. Dumbo launches, drops feather, keeps going down, but under TM’s frantic pleading, extends ears just in time to miss the ground. Lots more business ending in clown getting dunked in white liquid. Dumbo gets a trunk full of peanuts and sprays the elephant matrons.
TM: “We’re going down in history.” Cut to presses rolling and we get a montage of newspaper headlines and stories, including “Dumbombers for Defense.”
Cut to exterior of happy train rolling along. Once again, on sound track, “Elephant Fly.” The four matrons happily sing the final line, in synch. Dumbo and mom have last car, a very snazzy one. Mom sets at the rear, waving her trunk at Dumbo, who’s flying with his crow posse. Dumbo flies into mom’s arms. Sunset. Crows on telephone pole, talking about Dumbo’s autograph.