Dumbo, from a comic book cover. Artist: Carl Buettner.


Original medium: Illustrated fiction
Popularized by: Disney
First Appeared: 1939
Creators: Helen Aberson (writer) and Harold Pearl (artist)
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At only 64 minutes, Dumbo is the shortest of all the Disney animated features. It wasn't based on a famous story, like Snow White or Pinocchio. It …

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… cost remarkably little to make and was produced in a remarkably short time. And yet, many animation fans and professionals — the latter including superstar Disney animator Ward Kimball, who called it the "zenith" of Disney features — consider it the best. The straightforward, simple story of the innocent child cruelly ridiculed for a physical deformity, who achieved extraordinary success not in spite of but because of that attribute (so reminiscent of his contemporary, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, also an all-time classic) has struck a responsive chord in generations of movie audiences.

The feature was based on a story written by Helen Aberson, with illustrations by Harold Pearl (or Perl — accounts differ), neither of whom is known for any other cartoon work. It was published in 1939, in an edition so small and obscure, nobody knows how Disney happened to run across it. But run across it he did, and he liked it so much — and liked the movie as it progressed so much — that it sailed through the production process with a minimum of the second-guessing and re-doing that made the studio's overall quality so high, but also made most of its releases take so long and cost so much. After only a year and a half in production, Dumbo was released on October 23, 1941. Distributors complained about its skimpy run-time, but Disney refused to add a single frame to the flawless gem.

His instincts were correct. Dumbo was immediately hailed as a classic, embraced by critics and audiences alike — in contrast to earlier features such as Fantasia, which got favorable reviews but took almost 30 years to make back its costs, or The Reluctant Dragon, which neither the critics nor the public seem to have cared for very much. In the following decades, it was repeatedly re-released to theatres, shown on television, and sold as videotape or DVD, always greeted with enthusiasm. The charming fantasy of the elephant baby scorned by the other circus elephants for his huge, flapping ears, who became the show's biggest star by learning to fly, using his ears as wings, has never failed to please young and old alike.

None of the voice actors in Dumbo received screen credit; but Timothy Mouse (who befriended Dumbo even in his darkest days and was instrumental in helping him find greatness within himself) was voiced by Edward Brophy, who has no other known voice credits or other toon connection. Mrs. Jumbo (Dumbo's mother, whose love for him never wavered even when she was judged a mad elephant and imprisoned for it) was Verna Felton, who also played the Fairy Godmother in Disney's Cinderella and one of the good fairies in Sleeping Beauty. Other voices include Sterling Holloway (Winnie the Pooh), Billy Bletcher (Pegleg Pete), Cliff Edwards (Jiminy Cricket) and Malcolm Hutton (not usually a voice actor, but he played one of the kids in the live-action Reg'lar Fellers movie). Dumbo, an infant, didn't speak.

Naturally, there were merchandising and media tie-ins galore. Dumbo was marketed as toys, coloring books, figurines, and much more. The movie was adapted into comic book form by Dell Comics, and the adaptation was reprinted several times by Dell and its successor as a Disney licensee, Gold Key. Whitman starred Dumbo in a Big Little Book when the movie came out, and years later starred him in a Little Golden Book as well.

In addition, Dumbo joined the growing cast of minor Disney characters available for new stories or guest appearances with others. Dell published several stories about the flying elephant, both in Walt Disney's Comics & Stories and in a couple of issues of its catch-all series, Four Color Comics. He also turned up in stories about Mickey Mouse, Grandma Duck, Li'l Bad Wolf and others.

Except for an occasional fly-through on Disney's long-running TV show during the 1950s and '60s, a few seconds in the opening sequence of The Mickey Mouse Club, one or two spots (mostly crowd scenes) in the early 21st century Saturday morning show House of Mouse, and of course a brief appearance in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, he didn't appear in much new animation. But it was in that medium that he made what is perhaps his most unlikely crossover. In the Feb. 2, 2002 episode of House of Mouse, he was suspected of being the secret identity of Super Goof.


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