First Home Viewing Release: June 26, 1981
My Rating: 3/5 stars
Where I Found It: My Library’s DVD collection (once more, 70th Anniversary Edition!)
Bechdel Test Score: Passed. This movie features several female elephants who gossip with one another frequently. It barely squeaked by with a passing score — most of their conversations revolve around Dumbo, a male, but their griping about a circus act as they perform it constitutes non-Dumbo centered talk.
When I posted about Pinocchio, a conversation emerged on my Facebook page in which a couple of my friends confessed to feeling frightened of Pinocchio when they were children. I was wracking my brain to see if I could remember feeling afraid of any Disney films when I was a kid, and nothing came immediately to mind.
Shortly thereafter, however, I remembered: The Pink Elephants on Parade sequence in Dumbo. (Also, the Heffelumps and Woozles in Winnie the Pooh, which is a post for another day). :: shudder ::
This was the segment of Dumbo I remembered most vividly, and when I watched it again yesterday, I saw that it was just as creepy as I remembered. In the “Making of Dumbo” featurette on the DVD, even Disney historians admit that the sequence serves no real purpose in advancing the story, and was mainly a chance for Disney animators to show off their technique.
And frighten little girls.
Dumbo and Winnie the Pooh are the Disney movies that go back the farthest in my memory; I cannot remember a “first time” viewing either of them, but I remember watching Dumbo when I was so young that I had almost no context for anything in the movie — I didn’t realize that the wet droplets on the elephants’ faces in the Pyramid of Elephants sequence were sweat, or that the image of Florida at the beginning was a map. I didn’t understand the scenes where the clowns’ silhouettes show through the tent as they get out of their costumes because I didn’t yet have a concept of circus performers being “real people” outside their performance roles. I didn’t understand why the water Dumbo drank ignited that horrible Pink Elephants sequence.
All this is to say, a lot about Dumbo surprised me on my adult watching of it. Such as…
Disney is often accused of watering its source stories down to make them more “palatable” to young viewers. Such is not the case here. It’s easy to mis-remember Dumbo as a “cutesy” movie because it’s more “cartoony” than most of Disney’s feature films — it is, literally, Disney on a budget. Instead, it disabuses the viewers old enough to process it of any romantic notions they might hold about life in the circus. We see the roustabouts setting up in the rain. We see the animals getting whipped. We see the clowns boozing as they strip out of their costumes, laughing about how elephants have no feelings (because they’re “made of rubber”) and gearing up to demand a raise from their boss. Dumbo’s “behind-the-scenes” portrayal of circus life is surprisingly realist, so much so that you can almost smell the peanuts and animal dung.
One thing I’ve always respected in Disney movies is that they aren’t afraid to use words that children in the audience are not likely to know. I have a whole list of words I learned from Disney movies! From Dumbo, I learned that a pachyderm is an elephant. I never bothered to ask what “climax” meant, although I could see it was something to get worked up about!
As controversial as the Crows are, their song is full of intelligent wordplay, some of which I caught and delighted in as a child, some of which I caught for the first time yesterday.
It’s About Identity
I think nearly every Disney movie is about identity in some way. But it’s especially concrete in Dumbo. As soon as Dumbo’s ears are discovered, he is ostracized as abnormal by all the elephants except his mother. These female elephants serve as the same sort of identity police we’ve all encountered in middle school — they’re the ones who tell you when and just how you don’t measure up; they’re the “mean girls.” And after Dumbo messes up the big finale in the Pyramid scene, the female elephants formally strip him of his identity, declaring that he is “no longer an elephant.” Soon thereafter he is thrown into the clown act, where he is regarded as little more than a glorified prop — no longer an elephant, but not really a clown, either. In the end Dumbo’s message is one about embracing the “and” — You can be an elephant AND you can fly; you can be a good mother AND you can get angry.
In the comments on The Darker Corners of Pinocchio, a professor talks about how students in a film class always reacted poorly to Pinocchio and Dumbo, claiming they were “not what Disney is all about.” And indeed, we see the same exploitation of innocence in Dumbo as we saw in Pinocchio. Dumbo often doesn’t realize others are making fun of him; he is simply delighted to be in the presence of “fun” and laughter. He is poked with pins and slammed with planks to force him into performing. And when he finally figures out what is going on, he cries big, soul-wrenching tears. He even inadvertently drowns his sorrow in drink.
And he does this all without a mother. This was another aspect of the movie that I didn’t quite get when I was younger. I didn’t even really understand why his mother was kept in chains, separate from him. One of my friends who is following this project mentioned watching Dumbo a few years ago, realizing that Dumbo’s mom was “basically on death row.” She said she cried. I didn’t think it would come to that when I watched the movie again.
And then when Dumbo learns that he can fly and shows off his newfound talent in the next Big Top show, the movie is over remarkably fast. It’s strange that what I remember most about the movie was everything that happened AFTER the Pink Elephants on Parade scene, some of the only bits of buoyancy in the movie; I remembered this as being “most” of the movie when it’s really only about 15 minutes. MOST of the movie is Dumbo getting abused by everyone around him.
There is not a clear villain in this movie; instead, the elephant clique, the ringmaster, the clowns, and the crowds are all wretched in their own turns. So this is another movie in which we don’t really see justice served. Yes, at the end all involved see Dumbo’s ears, once a liability, as an asset. They see how what makes him different also makes him extraordinary. He will presumably receive more respect in the future, and he is reunited with his mother.
But they both stay with the circus, in which Dumbo’s flying has surely become the main attraction. While this may be adequate payback for the catty female elephants, it actually rewards the abusive ringmaster, and the exploitation of the circus in general.
I would have rather seen Dumbo and his mother fly away for good.
So, what about the message it sends to kids?
As I already mentioned, most of Dumbo went totally over my head when I was a kid. I do remember once calling someone a “Dumbo,” and getting scolded by my mother for it. This was a little confusing to me, since the word was featured so prominently in a movie that was a mainstay of my early childhood. To this day, the title of the movie makes me cringe.
Despite all the cute baby animals, the movie’s message is not entirely palatable. When I discussed it with my older sister, who is expecting a baby in six weeks, she declared that she’s not going to let her kid watch “a lot of the Disney movies” because she doesn’t think kids should have to watch “sad movies” that “they can relate to” — that is, movies that feature tragic things happening to children.
But I’m starting to think that these movies are more traumatizing to adults, who fully understand just how vulnerable children are. When I was a child, Dumbo never broke my heart quite the way it does now.
For further reading
- An overview of the original picture book the movie was based on
- A History of Dumbo, including the Disney strike that followed