Dumbo, the much loved Disney animated feature of a big eared circus elephant, was first released in 1941. It was the fourth film in Walt Disney's Animated Classics and at a mere sixty-four minutes long it is still one of their shortest animated films.
The children's story book of the same name by Helen Aberson was a very rare and obscure short book and nobody is quite sure how Walt Disney managed to come across a copy of it. But come across it he did, handing it to his team of animators and asking them to see what they could do with it. What they did was turn it into one of Disney's best loved and most cost effective successes. The story follows Dumbo, a circus elephant taken away from his mother after being ridiculed by the other circus animals for his oversized ears, and his subsequent friendship with Timothy the mouse. His heartbreak at being separated from his mother and his shame at being different are changed once he discovers his physical difference actually allows him the gift of flight. Once this is discovered he becomes the circus' star and is re-united with his mother, Mrs. Jumbo.
Unusual for a title character, Dumbo has no spoken dialogue during the entire feature. Surrounding characters, of course, do. But this means that all of his emotions must be conveyed by the simple animation.
After the economic failures of Pinocchio and Fantasia, Disney was hoping that Dumbo would generate a considerable amount of income. As such, once the film began production, orders were released that production must be kept simple and costs kept to a minimum. As can be seen upon viewing, these orders were clearly adhered to as the entire appearance of the film lacks the same lavish character and background designs as other animated films of the same era. The upshot of this was that more attention could be paid to character building and acting. John Lasseter once commented that Dumbo has one of the 'most emotional scenes' of all Disney movies. And it is certainly a widely held opinion that the story of the big eared flying elephant has some of the most emotive themes and moments in Disney film making history.
Dumbo was released in the year just before America became involved in the Second World War and suffered due to this. However, it still made a profit (Snow White and Dumbo were the only two pre-1943 animated features to do so), grossing $1.6 million, after costing a mere $813,000 to produce. It won the Academy Award for Best Musical Score in 1941 and six years later, in 1947, won Best Animation Design at the Cannes Film Festival.
In later years, Dumbo has received further acclaim, being one of the first Disney animated features released on VHS in 1985. Re-mastered versions have been released consistently since and in 2001 a 60th Anniversary Special Edition was released and again, in 2006, a 'Big Top Edition' was launched on DVD.