Pixar’s John Lasseter was inspired by ‘Dumbo’

Dumbo turns his ears into a n advantage with pal Timothy.
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

JOHN LASSETER, the award-winning animator and CEO at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, has directed two “Toy Story” films, “A Bug’s Life” and “Cars.” But what counts as his favorite movie of all time?

“Dumbo,” the 1941 Disney classic animated film.

“I have studied it from every aspect, from story, to story structure, to art direction,” Lasseter says. “It’s very funny. It’s emotional. It’s the most cartoony [of Disney’s animated features]. It’s very short.

“It’s like 64 minutes, and it’s so concise in its storytelling. I learned a lot from it, as a student at CalArts and a young animator at Disney.”

The film came up in conversation during a recent dinner between Lasseter and Curtis Hanson, the Oscar-winning writer-director of “L.A. Confidential.”

“We were just talking, and he says that he does this series at UCLA where he gets people to come and show a movie that inspired them,” Lasseter says of Hanson. “I thought that was brilliant.”

And that’s when their discussion turned to “Dumbo,” the beloved story of a baby circus elephant who is ridiculed for his big ears only to discover that he can use them to fly, after he’s given a “magic feature” by his best friend, Timothy Q. Mouse.

On Monday, Lasseter will present “Dumbo” at Hanson’s series, under the auspices of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood. He’s also selected three of his favorite animated shorts for the evening, including “Rabbit Seasoning,” with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd.

A new print of the Technicolor “Dumbo” has been struck for the screening, and “it’s going to be shown in its aspect ration of 1:33,” Lasseter says. “And Disney films, when you see them on the big screen. . . . These are the way these films are meant to be seen.”

Lasseter says one reason he appreciates “Dumbo” is that it’s the only Disney animated film in which the lead character doesn’t talk. “I’m a big fan of pantomime storytelling, being an animator,” he says.

Dumbo’s “voice,” so to speak, is Timothy, who befriends the little elephant when his mother, Mrs. Jumbo, is locked in solitary confinement after going into a rage when some snotty boys make fun of her son.

“It also has one of the most emotional scenes that Disney ever made,” offers Lasseter, referring to the “Baby Mine” sequence featuring the Oscar-nominated song that accompanies Dumbo’s visit with his mother.

“When I had children and watched the sequence, I was bawling my eyes out,” says Lasseter. “It is the mother just protecting her child, and she was deemed crazy and locked away. So, the child goes to see her mother, and they can only touch by trunks. It’s so emotional.”

As for Hanson, who hasn’t seen “Dumbo” since he was young, it’s the first time his series has delved into the world of feature animation and he couldn’t seem more excited.

“We are in the golden age of animation, because you have these great creative talents [at Pixar] -- John, Brad Bird and so forth -- who are taking advantage of all the technical advances and amazing tools they have at their disposal to produce beautiful work,” Hanson says.

“But at the same time, they relentlessly pursue classic movie storytelling -- meaning well-thought-out entertaining stories, great characters, heart and a lot of emotion. It’s ironic that these are the very virtues so often missing from live-action movies today.”

‘THE MOVIE THAT INSPIRED ME: DUMBO’ WHERE: Billy Wilder Theatre, Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., WestwoodWHEN: 7:30 p.m. MondayPRICE: $7 to $9 (online tickets sold out, but same-day tickets are available at the box office)INFO: (310) 206-FILM,

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