The Persistence of Disney, Part 4: Dumbo (1941)

| July 31, 2016

For a child the world can be a cold, mean place.  What is suppose to be – and often is – a wonderland of enchantment and discovery can often reveal itself to be bitter and unforgiving, swooping in and cruelly pointing out anything and everything that makes them different.  We’ve all been there.  We know that imperfections can be a target.  A kid can have big teeth, big hands, big feet, a funny laugh, bad skin, a big nose, an odd voice, strange hair.  They may be too tall, too short, too skinny, too fat, too shy, too smart, too stupid.  I’ve never met a person in my life that didn’t have one attribute that another person couldn’t point out.  Dumbo is the perfect movie for children because, just like Pinocchio, it speaks directly to them.  In incorporating a hero who is shunned because of a pair of oversized ears that no one seems willing to overlook, it speaks directly to their experience.  In effect it says “You’re not alone.”

What I noticed this time in returning to Dumbo is that the cruelty comes from the adult world, in his case the world of adult elephants who cruelly change his name from Jumbo to Dumbo and later even dismiss his right to be called an elephant.  He doesn’t have any other friends and his only close relationship, at first, is with his mother.  There has never been another movie that dealt so beautifully with the bond between mother and child, with the comforting parent as a happy and nurturing place of safety and love.  When the rest of the world is ready to pounce, he returns to the comfort that she provides.  It is something that most of us can relate to, the idea of having a hard day out in the bitter cold of the world and then returning to the comfort of someone who gives us love and helps us to recharge the emotional batteries.  It can be a parent or a spouse or a brother or sister or even a friend.  We all need a comfortable nest.  Disney films are the most complex in this area because the best are  about growing up and leaving the comforts of home.

For this, the Disney films are famous for the parent-child relationships that are fraught with complications.  Disney movies are famous for relieving their heroes of one parent or the other.  Within Disney lore it has become something of a legend.  But why is that?  Disney producer Don Hahn who worked on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast told Glamour magazine in a 2014 interview that there are two reasons: “One reason is practical because the movies are 80 or 90 minutes long, and Disney films are about growing up. They’re about that day in your life when you have to accept responsibility. In shorthand, it’s much quicker to have characters grow up when you bump off their parents.  Bambi’s mother gets killed, so he has to grow up. Belle only has a father, but he gets lost, so she has to step into that position. It’s a story shorthand.”

The other reason, Hahn says, came from Disney himself.  Apparently sometime in the late 30s, Disney bought a house for this mother and father and had some studio guys come over to fix the furnace.  Something went wrong and his mother died due to a leak.  It was a tragedy that Disney carried with him the rest of his life.  He never spoke about it.  Something of that tragedy may be in his work.  Parental absence is a theme throughout.  Up till now we’ve covered the fact that Pinocchio essentially deals with surrogate parents: Jiminy Cricket and The Blue Fairy and now Dumbo whose father is absent and whose mother is locked away.  The father issue is easy to dismiss.  Bull elephants don’t stay in the herd to care for children any more than male lions.  The mother’s role is diminished by her incarceration though the movie gives her a happy ending.  This may have been a sense of reversing the events of Walt’s tragedy.  His mother died after he became a success; meanwhile Dumbo’s mother is freed from captivity after his.  Was this done on purpose?  Hard to say.

Whatever Disney’s motivation for making the film, it remains kind of an enigma for the studio.  The production was almost the exact opposite of that of Fantasia.  It was moved through very fast.  The crew of animators was very small.  It was created more in the style of the Silly Symphony short cartoons than as a major feature.  The narrative is simple, but not simple-minded.  Its length is unusual at only 64 minutes, though it still feels like a complete story.

Plus, it showed Disney’s intention to get back to making entertainment that wasn’t necessarily artistic exploration.  Fantasia showed the work of a man who wanted to push the horizons of his art form but had learned to cull his instincts when bad box office returns proved audience wasn’t interested in being challenged.  After the film failed Walt said regrettably “We’re through with caviar, from now on its mashed potatoes and gravy.”  Dumbo was the film that immediately followed but I don’t necessarily see it as any sort of step down.   It’s still a great artistic expression even if it isn’t quite as monumental or groundbreaking as Fantasia.  There is no sense that the movie is made on any sort of limited budget.  He was still making art but you sensed that he was making it easier for public consumption.

In the finished product you can still see a lot of the wonderful details that had made Pinocchio a success, the tiny elements in the corner, the small things that weren’t necessarily important to the story, but made the film special.  My favorite is the addition of “The Little Engine That Could.”  As the circus train, Casey Jr., makes his way up a hill he begins chanting the familiar “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”  Was it important to the story?  No but it gave the film a little more color, a little something extra, a little something special.  Plus the train is given an extra dimension, a personality as it struggles initially to pull its heavy load.  I love that it was created to have an engineer’s cap, and that it speaks through the train whistle.  It’s just wonderful.

There are colorful little moments tucked into Dumbo that don’t further the story but bring make the film feel alive.  For example, when the circus train arrives in town we get a shot of a gorilla roaring and shaking his cage until he accidentally pulls out one of the bars.  He looks sheepish for a moment and then tries to replace it.  Another favorite of mine are the clowns.  They’re presented as mean and kind of thoughtless (they want to put Dumbo on a platform 300 feet high) but their fireman act is a lot of fun, so much so that when I was a kid and I saw real life circus clowns I was disappointed that they weren’t as funny as the ones in Dumbo.

The emotional level is just as brilliant.  As I said before, this is a movie very much about the relationship between mother and child and the need for the comfort of a warm embrace.  It is one of the most touching that I can remember, especially when Dumbo sneaks out to her cage in the middle of the night to be cuddled by his mother as the scene is intercut with other animals comforting their own children.  When the little elephant wipes his tears on her trunk, I defy anyone with a heartbeat to keep a dry eye.

That visual palette makes for one the most colorful films I can remember.  The backgrounds are all watercolors and the details therein are kind of beautiful.  I love the landscapes as the train moves to it next destination.  It creates the world of the circus for all its colorful pageantry but also for all its ugly behind-the-scenes underpinnings, not just the clowns heading out to hit the boss up for a raise but the inability of the ringmaster to come up with a good idea for the show.

And then . . . the pink elephants.

Where in the name of Mother Mary did Walt’s animators come up with this sequence?  What drunken party wrought such a brilliant, bizarre acid trip of animation?  Within the film it makes no narrative sense and that lends the animators the freedom to play, to experiment, to express, to bend and twist the forms and the shapes into pretty much anything they want.  It is an excuse to play with black-eyed pink elephant balloons that do, pretty much anything until it climaxes in a bizarre crazy house of consciousness.  It’s a funny, horrifying, and curious piece of eye-popping animation.  Yet what was the thinking here?  Were the animators using this as just an artistic release?  Is its purpose to steer kids away from alcohol in the same way that the donkeys in Pinocchio were suppose to steer them away from cigars and pool?

I don’t think it has a purpose other than as a free-form of allowing the animators to work with abstract images.  The only requirement: do what you want but stay with the pink elephants.  The strange thing is that the hangover is what draws out Dumbo’s realization of his special ability – he can fly!  It’s an odd and funny way to introduce such a talent especially when the movie only has about ten minutes to go.  I don’t mind it.  Others don’t see it that way.  Henry Barnes of The Guardian made a much less jolly interpretation: “Dumbo wakes up in a tree with a hangover. Timothy wonders how they got up there and then realizes – it was the ears! Dumbo can fly! But it’s not Dumbo’s self-belief that leads him to salvation. It’s not pluck, nor guts, nor persistence. It’s booze that unlocks his gift.  That’s a terrible adult message.”

I would completely disagree.  In this case I say, get there any way you can.  Its function in the story isn’t exactly essential, but that’s not a criticism.  It serves only to break up the sadness of the story.  What follows only gets him to the meat of his abilities, but I don’t see that as destructive in any way.  Dumbo is the story of a kid who is dismissed by most until he finds an ability that makes him special.  He makes friends with those who share his world view of being outcasts: a mouse and a flock of crows.

With that, let’s talk about the elephant in the room (so to speak).  Are the black crows racist?  It would be easy to think so.  But I’m not so sure.  Their movements, vernacular and their attitudes are definitely modeled on African-American culture, but it’s not exactly blackface.  They aren’t serving anyone.  They seem happy.  They seem to have formed a tight group.  Their vernacular and their style are based very much on Harlem jazz scene of the times.  Sure one could argue that they seem lazy, but then again they’re crows.  They’re outcasts, scavengers by nature.  Like Timothy, they are seen by most of human nature as petulance.  Did African-Americans in the early 40s feel that they were seen this way by white America?  Does the movie suggest this?  Only in context.  In the age of political correctness it would seem easier to place these characters in a box and label it “racist” but I think that is dismissive.  I’m in the camp of “better negative than nothing.”  Personally, I never thought of stereotypes seeing the film as a kid.  I thought the crows were kind of interesting.  I liked the way they spoke.  I liked the fact that they identified with the hero and helped him along.  Plus, compared with other images of black characters in cartoons at the time, they seem to be far less racist than most.

Yet, how do you explain it to a kid?  As with anything else, I think it is dismissive and crude to simply bury it in the ground where an educational dialogue can’t be taught.  If it is to be seen as a negative, the positive can be a springboard to teach kids about African-American history at the time.  Plus it can be noted that all but one of the crows were voiced by African-American actors.  It could introduce them to those actors.  Furthur it could be a springboard for introducing them to the works of black filmmakers like Spencer Williams, Oscar Mischeaux, Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, Julie Dash. Cheryl Dunne,
Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay and The Hughes Brothers.  The point is, use it as a teaching tool, not a lightning rod for political correctness.  Let it start a dialogue instead of closing doors and minds.

There is so much goodness that comes out of a movie like Dumbo.  It is a teaching tool, a great education for kids that being different is not so bad.  They are stepping out into a cold world that will mean them harm, that will poke fun at their failings, but it might help them to know that they are not alone, that they must find what strengths lay within them.  It is a movie of sweet gentility that has a lot to say.  In that way, it’s a treasure.

Bambi (1942)
Fantasia (1940)
Pinocchio (1940)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.