A Study in Disney: ‘Dumbo’ (1941)

| November 20, 2021

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

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Early in the life of the animated feature, Walt Disney seemed to have a good bead on the world of the average child.  In three of his first five films, he tried to mirror the pure experience of being a child from their point of view, identifying with all of the darker spaces that their world; everything from stranger-danger to unhealthy habits to lying to misbehavior and right up to his constant perennial: parental death.  Dumbo is no exception.

Possibly even more than Pinocchio or Bambi, the template of Dumbo is built on a very common experience; in this case that of being different.  Every child knows that the world is cruel, cold and merciless to those who look, sound, walk or talk a little bit different.  Dumbo is an outcast almost from the moment that he is born.  He is a cute baby elephant who had the misfortune to be born with a set of over-sized ears.  Such a disgrace is this apparent malady that he is dismissed and has his name is changed from Jumbo Jr. to Dumbo.  When his misadventures get him into trouble, the other elephants are so unforgiving that they even deny him the right to be called an elephant.

Dumbo’s only safety net is his mother and so, true to the Disney tradition, she is taken away from him.  Disney’s idea of parent-child relationship was always complicated.  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.  Dumbo’s surrogate family seems mostly made up of outcasts.  Timothy is a mouse, a rodent, a pestilence and therefore understands his pain.  The much-debated crows are too seen as a outcast.  Despite the African-American stereotype they come to understand Dumbo’s problem – as crows they are scavengers and a pestilence, as an analog they are black and in the 1940s would have understood being shunned by society.

In 1941, it was a very cruel world with segregation at home and the war overseas, the skies must have seemed very dark and for a child it might have been doubly hard.  So, in that, a movie like Dumbo tells kids that someone understands their fear and confusion.  It might have helped 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 is a treasure.

About the Author:

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