Up through December 1941, almost all TIME covers had featured a close-cropped, solemn portrait of a man. That month, however, editors prepared something quite different: a cartoon elephant.

Two months earlier, Disney released Dumbo in theaters, hoping to recoup their losses following the financial failures of Fantasia and Pinocchio and a contentious animators’ strike. Although the film was just 64 minutes long and made on a comparatively shoestring budget, audiences and critics alike loved the tale of the circus animal. “It is probably Disney’s best all-round picture to date,” the TIME review read.

TIME editors, hoping to release an uplifting issue for the Christmas season, commissioned artists from The Walt Disney Studios to draw a black-and-white portrait of the elephant for the cover. The accompanying story was scheduled to run on December 29 and would anoint Dumbo the “Mammal-of-the-Year.”

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