This may have been my first time seeing the original Dumbo, definitely my first time as an adult. Disney’s 4th animated film tells the story of a baby elephant who overcomes (I’ll call it what it is) mistreatment in the traveling circus. He rises to fame when he learns he can fly. It’s a short film, running only 64 minutes.
Look, I’m not a snowflake. I’ve been reflecting on how to write about this movie and the only thing I can really think to do is point out all of the negativity–the backwards stuff that really…disappointed me. But that’s not why I started this blog, to point out inequities in films created decades ago. Disney should not be canceled. Everything that I noticed has been pointed out before and discussed somewhere at length. It’s a known thing that there are some real problems with this film. All the same, I can’t write a post entirely about how the Casey Junior train gives me all the Disneyland feels or how the way baby Dumbo and his Mama look at each other brought me right back to looking at my sweet baby for the first time either. I can’t pretend that the film didn’t leave a really bad taste in my mouth.
Here’s 4 that will make you say, “Aww” and 5 things that will make you go, “Seriously?”
1. The Storks/Baby Dumbo and Mama Jumbo
The storks. I loved this part. Who doesn’t love a baby Disney animal? And baby Dumbo fresh out of his package? OMG. Notice that the voice of Dumbo’s stork sounds familiar? Sterling Holloway! He’s the voice of Winnie the Pooh, Kaa from The Jungle Book, and Roquefort from The Aristocats!
2. “Baby Mine”
Can’t. Get. Through. It. Without. Crying.
3. The Pink Elephants
The drunken hallucinations look a lot like heffalumps, am I right?
4. A Reunion Ending
Dumbo flying into his Mama’s arms in the end. But really Dumbo, you should probably fly the hell outta there!
1. The whole animal cruelty thing.
It’s a happy ending, but they’re still in the circus. It worked in 1941 but it’s pretty crummy now.
2. The Elephants
They’re awful! They love baby Dumbo until they see his ears. Let’s not forget where his name comes from. “Jumbo? You mean Dumbo!” Rude. Then they disown Dumbo when his mother is taken away from him, vowing that he is not to be considered an elephant. “I wouldn’t eat at the same bale of hay with him.” “Pretend you don’t see him.” Sometimes I forget that when I hate a character, it’s because they were written that way, and I’m supposed to hate them. So actually, good job Disney on this one! Those elephants are real a-holes.
3. The Song of the Roustabouts
The Song of the Roustabouts. I was cringing through this scene as I watched it, but then I looked up the lyrics and–woah it was worse than I thought. If you’re interested, you can read them for yourself. What I can tell you is that the image of black men singing a song about being “happy hearted” as they “slave until (they’re) almost dead” is repelling. Having them make song out of “never learning to read or write” and not knowing when they’re going to get paid but “happily” working all through the night because the “boss man (is) houndin’” is repulsive. This is a children’s movie and this scene glorifies slavery. “Grab that rope, you hairy ape.” Really!? It’s harmful and I think the scene could be redacted from the film and the film would be better for it.
4. The Clowns
Hey let’s put the traumatized baby elephant in a tower in front of a crowd and make him jump off of it. Let’s light the tower on fire! The people loved it!? Let’s make the tower higher!
5. The Crows
Come on MAN! The leader is named “Jim Crow”, he’s voiced by a white man using highly caricatured “jivey” slang. Yes-the songs are sung by a black choir and they are the characters in the film that essentially see the talent in Dumbo buuuuuuuuuuut there’s no justifying these characters. It’s animated black face. Face. PALM.
A Personal Note
My husband asked me if this movie makes me change my mind about how I feel about Disney movies. And it does. I don’t know that I’ll have my younger son watch Dumbo, but if I do it will be so that I can watch it with him, and explain everything that he’s seeing, it’s true place in history (in the past, to be learned from, not to be glamorized in a happy kids flick), and how we treat animals and especially, humans, in this family. It makes me want to hold the Disney company to a higher standard, for all of the fans who have grown up loving it, and all of the children who will learn societal norms from its movies. I care about the company, the films, and the magic enough to stick with it, defend it, and urge it to do better. It goes without saying that Disney has evolved since 1941, thank goodness. I think the new release of Dumbo gives it new life.
Like Casey Junior climbing up the tracks, I *think* Disney *can* keep moving in the right direction.