Typical of early Disney animation, Dumbo isn’t a finely crafted story but rather a film that examines greater ideas in a touching emotional context. It also features a scene in which a mouse and an elephant get blind drunk, hallucinate, and end up waking up in the cartoon ghetto with a hangover. What’s not to love about that?
However, all racist crows and animal alcoholism aside, Dumbo is an inspiring film about a biological misfit who uses his disadvantage to become a hero. Born (or rather delivered by the lazy stork) with comically large ears, Jumbo Jr. is shunned by most of the elephants in the circus. However, after getting some confidence care of a magical feather, he discovers he can use those massive ears to fly.
As much as I love this movie and recognize the image of a flying elephant as an indelible icon of Disney animation, this got me thinking: Could Dumbo really fly with ears like that?
The Answer: Of course not. Maybe if they were bigger and placed on his shoulders.
There are two species of elephant in the world, the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). The two species are differentiated in many ways, but the most obvious one is the size of their ears: African elephants have large ones while Asian elephants have comparatively smaller ones. Asian elephants are easily domesticated and trained, so they tend to populate circuses, and all the adult elephants depicted in Dumbo appear to be this species.
However, upon delivery, Dumbo is set apart from the rest of his herd because of his large ears. This, of course, raises the question as to who Dumbo’s father is. Was Mrs. Jumbo having an affair with a wayward African elephant? Did some form of cross-breeding occur? Was Dumbo a mutant?
Those are questions to be answered at another time, possibly on a gossip site like TMZ, not here. Regardless of Dumbo’s genetic makeup, he came into this world with unusually large ears. If we are to assume that he was the size of an average baby elephant, he weighed about 250 pounds and stood about 3 feet tall. While there’s no hard data that describes the size of the ears, they appear to be about 4 feet high and 2.5 feet wide.
However, Dumbo doesn’t fly right away. He gets a little older, and he’s independent from his mother for the most part. Still, he hasn’t gotten too large, compared to the crows seen in later scenes in the movie. Crows grow to be about a foot and a half long, and they appear to be about as tall as Dumbo’s leg. Let’s assume that Dumbo has grown to about 600 pounds and stands about 4 1/2 feet tall. His ears appear to be about as tall as he is, and about half as wide. So…
Is that enough to fly?
First of all, Dumbo appears to glide more than he flies. This is a significant because much greater speeds are needed to propel an animal to take-off speed. While we see him flap his ears periodically, we never see him actually take off. The closest we come to this is when he allegedly leaps off a cliff with his magic feather and when he falls from the top of the apartment fire set piece in the big top.
The science of aerodynamics is extremely complicated, and it becomes even more complicated with animals because they tend not to be built to the rigid specifications of aircraft. However, in a general sense, we can boil Dumbo’s flight-worth down to his wing area, which factors into the wing load. The wing area is simply the wingspan multiplied by the chord, which is the width of the wing. In Dumbo’s case, he has about a 10-foot wingspan and a chord of 2.25 feet. This yields a wing area of 22.5 ft^2.
If Dumbo weighs 600 pounds, his wing load would be 600 lbs divided by 22.5 ft^2, which works out to be 26.67 lbs/ft^2. In order to fly with a wing load of that size, Dumbo would have to travel in excess of 200 miles per hour, which is approximately the speed of a DC-3 airliner. He might have been able to reach those speeds falling off the cliff or the apartment fire set, but as soon as he slowed down while making a turn, he’d reach stall speed and plummet to his death, not exactly the content you’d want to see in a Disney cartoon.
So how big would his ears need to be?
For a 600-pound elephant to glide, he’d need a wing load of 6.8 lb./ft^2. In order for that to happen, his wingspan (or earspan) would need to be close to 19 feet, or approximately 9 feet for each wing. This is about twice the actual dimension of Dumbo’s ears.
More over, his ears would need to be placed on his back rather than his head. Wing configuration is important for weight distribution and balance. With his “wings” on his ears, Dumbo’s body would dangle like a sack of wet cement.
However, Dumbo would have one more challenge: size and age. As Dumbo would get older, he’d get larger. As he reached adulthood, Dumbo would grow from an adorable 600-pound flying elephant to a full-size Asian elephant, reaching more than 5 tons, or 10,000 pounds.
If Dumbo wanted to continue being in the circus and keep his darling mother in her own private railroad car, his ears would have to grow exponentially. Even if all he was able to do was glide into adulthood, his ears would each have to grow to close to 40 feet long and 20 feet wide, reaching an earspan of at least 77 feet!
That’s freaking huge! It’s about 4.5 times the wingspan of the Wright Brothers’ original plane they flew at Kitty Hawk, and it’s the size of a large propeller plane. It’s seven times the wingspan of the largest flying bird on the planet, the albatross.
With ears like that, Dumbo could fight Godzilla. (Hmmm… Dumbo vs. Godzilla. I’d watch the hell out of that movie!)