Ah Dumbo. There couldn’t be a more appropriate way to kick off this series than with this Walt Disney Classic, not only because it was the voted as the favourite of the first set, but because it premiered on October 23rd 1941, meaning this month Disney’s 4th animated feature film celebrates its 74th anniversary!
With no further ado, let’s talk about Dumbo. In summary (just as a refresher) the movie tells the story of young Dumbo, a baby elephant who is brought to his mother, who is a member of a travelling American circus, by the Stork. The dilemma comes in right at the beginning when the other circus elephants discover that the little elephant, who was actually named Jumbo Junior by his mother Mrs. Jumbo, has unusually (read: “unnaturally”) large ears. This leads to a never ending string of teasing and abuse towards little Dumbo, whose mother is placed into isolated confinement as a dangerous and crazed elephant, for defending him agains the circus visitors and staff. He is deliberately and painfully ostracized by the other elephants and subsequently “adopted” but mistreated by the clowns. Along with his unlikely friendsTimothy the circus mouse and the crows (and after an accidental drunken night that looked suspiciously like a drug induced high) he learns to not only embrace but benefit from his large ears as he learns to fly, making him a worldwide sensation. This lifts him and his circus to international stardom and his mother is set free, and treated luxuriously.
Now, I don’t really know where to begin, especially since, if you’ve read my previous writings, you will know that I am not a fan of adults imposing interpretations on children’s movies to suit their own idealized agendas. That being said, I just wish to state a few things that I observed and then add what my thoughts on these things are; if at any point you agree or disagree, I would love to know about it in the comments below and if this writing should encourage the one or other dinner table conversation about this movie, movies in general or even how everyone can interpret movies differently, then I would be delighted.
I think I’ll just go through my key discoveries and will try to discuss their possible implications, whether these are good, bad or neutral.
Observation 1: When the stork asks “are any of you ladies expecting” all of the lady elephants seem appalled by the idea. Quotations include “The very idea!” and “Certainly not.”
Thought: I find this interesting since there are two juxtaposing ideas here. First there is a clear absence of male elephants in the performance group, even though they are visibly present as working animals/assistants in the circus, which might suggest that there was some sort of working affair. However on the other hand, the stork is specifically looking for Mrs. Jumbo, which especially in the 40’s was a title that offered clear indications of being wed. She also names her baby boy “Jumbo Junior” so we can (relatively safely) presume that Jumbo is her partners name, even though he is notably absent from the movie. I don’t really know what to make of this scene, and I’m probably reading way too much into this for a movie that has a whole song dedicated to how the storks bring the babies, but the opposing ideas of the scandalous “expectancy” vs. a lady elephant with a married name expecting a baby is curious all the same.
Observation 2: As soon as Jumbo Junior’s “deformity” is revealed, the other elephants do not hesitate to start teasing and mocking him.
Thought: What is most revealing in this sequence, is that the elephants make excuses for each other’s behaviour, very much like we see in real bullies, both young and old today. They pretend like they are just ‘pointing out the obvious’ but when Mrs. J smacks the other elephant’s prodding trunk away in defence, we hear questions like “What did I do? Did I say anything?” and the elephant who is clearly the leader of the group, declares it was “a most perfectly harmless remark“, before dubbing the baby “Dumbo”. Even though this movie is 74 years old this year, we very clearly see anti social behaviours like this, being, not only enforced but normalized, by means of a pack- mentality. This, to me, is horrifyingly current and undeniably present in many aspects of our modern society which shows me that Disney knew it was a problem 74 years ago, and we haven’t fixed it to this day.
Observation 3: There are tangible distances between the family of elephants, other circus employees and Mrs. Jumbo’s struggle. She is trying to raise Dumbo to love his ears as a part of himself, and yet no one will help her and she permanently has to stick up for him.
Thought: This societal “fear of the other” which we see in the other elephants, and the blatant disregard for someone else’s struggle, which we see in the circus employees, culminates into Mrs. Jumbo having a violent outburst to defend her child. She spanks a visiting circus brat who had physically pulled Dumbo out by the ears and she tries to ward off the circus employees who are attempting to stop her from defending him. This results in her being locked away as “crazed” and deemed dangerous. This sequence makes me particularly sad; I myself have very passionate parents who would physically defend my brothers and myself, a fact for which my language skills still do not have sufficient words with which to express my appreciation. That very fact though, just makes me imagine and wonder how many parents may really have been torn away from their children, just like Mrs. Jumbo, just because someone in a position of power above them considered them “ill suited”, dangerous or unfit, without them knowing the full circumstances of certain situations. This leads me right to my next thought/discovery:
Observation 4: The confinement of Mrs. J. seems to be meant to resemble penitentiary incarceration, and throws an interesting light on what a child is left to face when torn away from its parent. The circus keepers would presume that the other elephants will tend to the calf, and yet they don’t. He is left completely alone, to fend for himself. He is “adopted” so to speak, by the most unlikely of fellows (the circus mouse Timothy) and winds up performing in strange acts (in the circus) and getting drunk (by accident).
Thought: Whether these parallels were meant to be drawn or not, I can not say, but this is what I see when I watch it: a loving mother and her darling child, who did nothing other than unintentionally (and uncontrollably) defy the “status quo”; they found themselves abused by their family, let down by the system and separated over misunderstandings. The mother was punished for acts she wouldn’t have had to commit, if those around her had helped her in the first place, and her child is left homeless, hanging out with strangers and getting into all sorts of dubious and precarious situations (the catastrophic elephant tower trick and the 10 story burning circus building jump) to make ends meat, before prematurely getting drunk and having hallucinations about the things that scare him. For me, it just goes to show that not everyone who ends up doing what are considered to be categorically “bad things” is necessarily a “bad person”. It makes me think of the homeless youth I see on the street everyday and makes me ask myself, how did they get there… Did their mothers fight for them? What happened for them to be out there alone in the cold, rather than tucked into a nice warm bed? A similar thought applies to people who steal food to feed their families, or have even caused physical harm to others for hurting their families; this does not excuse or pardon such crimes by a long shot, but I think it should make us ponder whether that person really is inherently a bad person and a danger to society, or just someone who was desperate and alone.
Observation 5: Dumbo’s “shame” of having a “crazed” mother, having his massive ears and now being made a clown, is too much for the other elephants “to bear”, and after not even wanting “to eat at the same bale of hay as him” earlier in the movie they now take a solemn vow that “from this day forward he is no longer an elephant”.
Thought: This just breaks my heart in too many ways, because I have seen way too many youths be kicked out of their homes by their families for being “too different” for them to bear. Either by not adhering to the right religion, having become pregnant or caused a pregnancy, or just openly living their lives as themselves which oftentimes does not suit the family’s expectations, especially as with LGBTQ youth. The fact that anyone could be so fearful, so hateful, so spiteful and so backward as to turn their backs on their own family has always horrified me, and this old movie just showed me, that, tragically, this is not a new phenomenon.
Observation 6: The clowns seem happy to have Dumbo on their team, but not because they value him as an individual, but because his “shock value” makes them more popular. They discuss making him jump from even higher, and when one protests “careful, don’t hurt the little guy” another refutes that “elephants have no feelings, they’re made of rubber“.
Thought: Firstly, we again see the pack mentality in full swing; the only clown with a guilty conscience and wanting to protect Dumbo is shut down by the masses. Secondly, (even though using the expression “dehumanizing” when humans are talking about an elephant may seem a little ham fisted) they do not see him as equal to themselves and indeed, dehumanize him and see him as less than them. They discount that he could have any feelings of his own and see him as a “thing” rather than a living being, not unlike many a modern, uneducated shmuck who thinks this way of other people. Again, this almost 3 quarter century old movie, has me baffled with the similarities to today.
Observation 7: Oh the lullaby scene. I didn’t take many notes here, since, just as every time before I just cried my little heart out.
Thought: She misses him so badly and even though Mrs. Jumbo has been so badly done by, she tries her very hardest to encourage Dumbo, make him feel special, loved and beautiful. Unconditional mother love.
Observation & Thought 8: I don’t want to spend too much time on the drunken hallucination scene, since many other people have already dissected it until there was nothing left, so no I will not go into my thoughts on the alleged freemason imagery, however, as a brief aside, I personally found this sequence to show some of Dumbos biggest fears. The song is literally called “elephants on parade” and it seems to represent not only the various tasks that the circus elephants are expected to do, but also how everyone has a partner, or a friend, but him. It also seems to show various locations, cultures and seasons, indicating that maybe there is an immeasurable passage of time, rather than just one night.
Observation 9: Next they meet the crows. Now, this where things get dicey and I know I have to be careful of backlash, but here it goes. These guys react like most other folks do, making fun of little Dumbo (in the iconic song “When I see an elephant fly“) and later of Timothy’s suggestion that he may indeed be able to fly. However, after a very touching speech by Timothy, “go ahead, kick him while he’s down!” they come up with the idea that could change everything. They suggest using the placebo effect by giving one of their feathers to Dumbo and calling it the “magic feather”. The trick works and Dumbo, who found his confidence in this little crutch from his new found friends, flies and soars with them through the skies with their encouragement.
Thoughts: I have heard many an argument that the depiction of the crows is racist, however, I would argue that even though their visualization may be stereotypical of performance groups of the era, I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re a racist depiction. The song that they sing is clever and funny and isn’t much different in style from what was common at the time. (Please feel free to disagree with me, or even correct me if there are facts I am missing, this is merely how I saw them.) As far as their characters are concerned, they are a beautiful representation of common people getting swept up in the status quo of making fun of the other; it’s common and accepted in their time and place to make fun of those who are different and to point out what they think to be the ridiculous. What sets them apart from everyone else though, is that when this is pointed out to them, via Timothy’s speech, rather than defend their abhorrent behaviours (like the elephants did) they see reason, and not just reason but their own faults. They apologize for what they’ve done and try to help make things better. This shows humility and earnest respect for lessons learned and I think they make excellent examples of how you don’t have to start as a night in shining armour, but if you’re willing to listen, learn and put yourself in someone else’s position, you can be a better person than you were before. I love these characters, because the elephants started cruel and stayed that way, Mrs. Jumbo loved her son and that was her soul desire, Dumbo grew in confidence but stayed the same character and Timothy was our number 1 hero from the start but these guys, they showed real development and were, to me, the most realistic and earnest characters of them all.
Observation 10: During all of this, Dumbo doesn’t speak once. Everything that happens in the movie is done to or around him and he never says a word.
Thoughts: This is something I didn’t notice until the very end. Dumbo is very young and has gone through this hectic, cruel and confusing world and never once has he said a word. No one actually asked him what he wanted. Maybe he just remained too young to speak throughout the whole movie, which would make this all the more horrifying since it all happened to a baby. But maybe, it represented how it must feel to have others make all the decisions for you; having your life’s path decided for you, having everything done to you but never being asked or consulted, as so many children who end up in “the system” with their lives being decided for them, might feel. (That’s just gotten really dark there, but it’s what I felt when I made the discovery.)
The movie climaxes with him dropping the magic feather at a crucial moment and Timothy telling him the whole truth; that he has been amazing all along and that he needs no feather and he just has to believe in himself – and it works. Dumbo soars on high, gets his revenge (by spitting peanuts out of his trunk at his bullies) and becomes a worldwide success, insuring his ears for a whopping $1,000,000 and freeing his mom from wrongful imprisonment.
My final thoughts are, that this is a movie that, even though it is almost 3/4 of a century old, perfectly showcases the way in which we still live in a society that mistreats people who deviate from the standard norm. It showed me that, in 74 years, we still haven’t learned our lessons and that if I could tell a child, a teenager or even another adult to take away even just one lesson or a message from this movie, it would be this:
Remember the very simple truth is that we have been preaching for years: Do not judge a book by it’s cover. There is no reason to be afraid of someone who is different, just because they’re different. You do not know what someone else is going through, so you have no right to judge them. Be kind to others. And – sometimes we will find friends in the most unlikely of places, if we just open our hearts and minds.
There are a lot of layers to this movie, and I am sure there is a lot more than I could discuss; as I go along I am sure to find a better way to organize these “reports” by theme or something, but hey, I’ll get there. 😉
Thank you very much for joining me on this little journey and please leave your thoughts in the comments below.
Thanks for stopping by! xoxo