The baby elephant who helped a cartoon studio to fly
Walt Disney knew he had much to learn from children’s books and children’s book art (just as children’s book illustrators know they have much to learn from 80 years worth of Disney animators.)
Dumbo didn’t come from a children’s book exactly.
It came from a little paper toy that carried a little story with pictures inside it. Written by Helen Aberson and illustrated by Harold Pearl, Dumbo was actually the prototype for Roll-A-Book — a scroll that unfurled into a little panorama with only eight drawings and just a few lines of text. It sold for a few pennies as an impulse item at grocery and drugstore checkout lines.
OK, so it was sort of a book. (And we thought alternative books were spawned by the iTunes store and Amazon Kindle.)
Disney’s head of merchandise licensing Kay Kamen showed the product to Disney, who “immediately grasped its possibilities and heartwarming story and purchased the rights to it,” according to Wikipedia.
Two of the studio’s best writers were brought in to re-craft the yarn, Hollywood style. Today the film is regarded as the last of the “Golden Age” animated features and considered by some to be the best of the Disney cartoons.
“They’re the ones who give Dumbo hope,” the video tells us.
Timothy Mouse replaced the Red Robin ally from Abeson’s tiny tale.
It was not a lavish production. Most of the animation staff was still laboring away on Bambi, an expensive project that was taking years. So the studio’s older top animators, the teachers of the staff, were assigned to it.
Shortcuts were found. Backgrounds were painted in watercolor, as opposed to the usual gouache and oil paint. Compositions were simplified, streamlined. The film was even 40 minutes shorter than the usual feature and it wound up costing less than $1 million.
Despite all the economizing, Dumbo was vastly informed by the culture — music, architecture, design and even the literature of the day, the video documentary tells us.
“The richness of all the arts in the world were brought into the Disney studios,” a narrator says.
Visual influences came from circus posters, muscular American regional art (Grant Woods and Thomas Hart Benton) and the symbolic imagery of the German Expressionist cinema and surrealist painters like Salvador Dali.
The Pink Elephants on Parade musical sequence of the film was even said to be a parody of Surrealism.
Dumbo turned out to be the most financially successful Disney film of the 1940s. It rescued the company from its steep losses on Pinocchio and Fantasia.
Here’s a post from animator Michael Sporn’s great blog about animator (and children’s book author-illustrator) Bill Peet who worked with the brilliant animator Bill Tytla to shape many of the best sequences in Dumbo. You’ll find a wealth of illustrations from Peet’s storyboards and the finished painted cels.
We have winners!
Congratulations to Toria, Pam, Doug, and Cornelia, who answered correctly that Mickey’s original first name was Mortimer. They’ve received the Dauntless Design session from the Make Your Splashes – Make Your Marks! course.
Disney changed his mouse’s name from Mortimer to Mickey at the suggestion of his wife, who told him that the character looked nothing like a Mortimer.