Dumbo Drop: How World War II Kept Dumbo From Becoming ’TIME’ Magazine’s “Mammal of the Year”

The charming elephant was seen by ’TIME’ as an antidote to bleak current events, but he was bumped from the cover.
A scene from 'Dumbo' (1941).
A scene from 'Dumbo' (1941). / Walt Disney Productions

Each year, TIME magazine commemorates a Person of the Year, someone the editorial staff believes had the greatest impact on the culture at large. For 2023, Taylor Swift was chosen; past years have included everyone from presidents to popes.

But in 1941, the magazine satirized its own idea by naming Dumbo “Mammal of the Year.” And were it not for Pearl Harbor, the pachyderm would have been on the cover.

Based on the book Dumbo the Flying Elephant by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, Disney’s Dumbo was the story of a baby elephant who is exploited in a circus for his oversized ears—ears that eventually enable him to take flight. Though brief (it runs just 64 minutes), the film represented a comeback for Disney, which suffered financial losses with Pinocchio and Fantasia and production setbacks from an animators’ strike.

Dumbo was, in a sense, the baby Yoda of the period, and so TIME formulated plans to present him as Mammal of the Year on the cover of its December 29, 1941, issue. The magazine even commissioned Disney artists to render the character as a black and white pencil drawing.

But as the issue was being prepared, news broke of an attack on Pearl Harbor. The battle would catapult the U.S. firmly into World War II, an event that made profiling a cute cartoon elephant irrelevant at best and offensive at worst. Instead, TIME scrambled to place General Douglas MacArthur on its cover.

Dumbo was never intended to supplant or replace TIME’s Person (formerly Man) of the Year. In 1941, that was President Franklin D. Roosevelt. To date, the publication has named only two non-human subjects for the annual honor: the computer in 1982 and Earth in 1988.

TIME did still profile Dumbo in the pages of its December 29 issue, citing him as a kind of respite from the tragedies unfolding around the world.

“The most appealing new character of this year of war, he is almost sure to end up in the exclusive kingdom of children’s classics,” the magazine wrote. “He may not become a U.S. folk hero, but he is certainly the mammal-of-the-year.”