GDR #4: Dumbo (1941)

dumbo-1941-poster

Dumbo is a strange, short movie. Seriously, it’s only a little over an hour long. I’m not complaining, though, because it’s not really one my favorite Disney movies (eventually, we’ll get to my favorites…). Maybe it’s because I never saw it as a child, but by the end of Dumbo, I’m always wondering what the hell just happened.

When I was younger, I always thought Dumbo was about an elephant that could fly. The posters always show him flying, and in the ride at Disneyland, you get to fly. There are no flying elephants in this movie until about ten minutes before it ends. Dumbo’s ability to fly isn’t the plot–it’s the resolution. I am so baffled by this. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I feel like the whole movie is leading up to this flying elephant business, and then it’s kind of an afterthought. Yay, he can fly! All of our problems are solved! The end! And the reason the resolution is so weird is probably because there’s no central antagonist, unless you count the mean circus dude who locks up Dumbo’s mom. Come on, Disney, you need good villains to keep the plot going–haven’t you figured that out, yet?

So, this is the first full-length Disney feature with an animal as the main character, and I find it really interesting as to how they handled that. Dumbo never talks, and he doesn’t really wear clothes other than the occasional clown outfit or funny hat. Pretty much, the only reason we know Dumbo is a boy is because everyone uses masculine pronouns to refer to him. And here’s another thing–Dumbo’s name isn’t really Dumbo! It’s Jumbo Jr., after his mom! It kind of bothers me that no one acknowledges this, because it’s so unusual to have this mother-child relationship in a Disney movie.  But more on that later. Looking back at Snow White and Pinocchio, which are obviously marketed towards either girls or boys, it’s kind of neat that Disney made Dumbo so genderless. Except for the part where he’s a boy, but still. He’s a boy with his mom’s name and completely genderless features.

A positive mother-child relationship has been absent from Disney so far, and…really, hasn’t been around much since Dumbo or Bambi. This is possibly the sweetest, most loving relationship between a mother and child you’ll ever see. “Baby Mine” makes me cry EVERY TIME. I can’t even think about it without getting teary. It’s beautiful and horrible at the same time. And unlike Bambi, the mother and child are reunited by the movie’s end. This relationship is my favorite thing in the whole movie. I wish Disney wouldn’t be so quick to get rid of mothers.

Once Jumbo is locked up, we have a lot of random stuff going on, because Jumbo and Dumbo’s separation is really the only plot. I want to know who came up with the pink elephants. Who sat down and was like, “Hey, we need to fill in some space before Dumbo suddenly learns how to fly and the movie ends. Maybe Dumbo and Timothy can GET DRUNK AND HALLUCINATE. What will they see? How about some TERRIFYING pink elephants that sing and do weird things?” I mean…what? And the thing is, considering how short the movie is, that scene seems to go on FOREVER. It’s so weird, but at the same time, I’m so glad it happened, because it’s such an awesomely bizarre acid trip of a moment. And I like that in a kids’ movie.

The other thing I have to deal with now is the Unfortunate Racist Moment. I hate how there’s one of these in almost every awesome piece of children’s entertainment before the 1960s. It’s usually something random and out of nowhere and unnecessary to the plot, anyway, so it just brings the rest of the movie or book down. I’m talking, of course, about the crows. Fantasia is the first Disney movie to have a blatant Unfortunate Racist Moment in it, but the DVD has snipped that part out, so I didn’t have to talk about it before. Dumbo can’t really do that, because there’s an Unfortunate Racist Song, and then, you know, we have to find out that Dumbo can fly. (And what sucks is that it’s actually a really catchy song that I can’t listen to without feeling horrible.)

Here’s my take on racism in Disney: I don’t think it’s a conspiracy, for one thing. I think it’s just an example of certain media being products of their time. Children’s entertainment is on some level meant to reflect a society’s values back to kids so that their parents don’t throw a hissy fit. You won’t find many progressive elements in children’s entertainment. It’s not surprising, then, that earlier children’s entertainment, Disney movies included, will reflect the prejudiced elements of the society in which they were made. It’s…just going to happen. The same goes with the more sexist parts of the earlier movies–damsels in distress as opposed to kickass heroines. It’s really, really awful that we’ve managed to preserve the worst parts of our society in movies meant to be fun and light-hearted and universal, but I don’t think it’s entirely fair to single Disney out.

BACK TO THE ELEPHANTS. I’m pretty much done, but I also think it’s worth noting that this is the first time we see a main character who’s obviously an outcast among his society. It’s a theme that’s going to continue, and I feel the need to point out that this is the first time. (Pinocchio almost counts, but not really, I say.)

I wonder what it would be like to actually get drunk and watch the pink elephants scene. I’m sure someone’s done it. Let me know.

Favorite scene: Baby Mine

Because it makes me cry EVERY SINGLE TIME. I’m not even going to watch it now. I’ll just post it so you can bawl, too.

Next time: Bambi!

–YoSaffBridge

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3 Comments

Filed under movies, The Great Disney Rewatchathon

3 responses to “GDR #4: Dumbo (1941)

  1. What really makes the crows racist? What broad damning statement about any ethnic group does their presence in this movie make? I know why we THINK they’re a racist creation, because of the stereotypical characterization they supposedly present.

    But just like the cruel, alcoholic, depraved clowns aren’t supposed to represent all white people, the crows don’t represent all black people of any era. Unlike the clowns, the crows are presented as empathetic, musically sublime, and good-humoured. What’s offensive about that? In fact, aside from the rodent and Mum, the crows are the only sympathetic characters in the film.

    For characterization to be justifiably offensive it must present a negative trait and brand it on an entire culture.

    Now, the black, droop-shouldered workers setting up the tent at the beginning of the film, singing about waiting for their pay then throwing it all away because why do they need money when they have the joy of working for the man… That just may be offensive.

    • YoSaffBridge

      That’s an interesting point, and it’s true–the crows aren’t unsympathetic characters at all. But the lead crow’s name is Jim Crow, and he’s voiced by a white man (who also voiced Jiminy Cricket, interestingly enough) putting on a certain accent and speaking grammatically incorrectly. They come off as less intelligent. There’s something kind of minstrely about it all, especially with the Jim Crow reference, and that’s what makes me uncomfortable.

      Perhaps in the movie this stereotype doesn’t mean to represent all black people, but in real life, the happily uneducated Jim Crow stereotype DID represent all black people to a lot of white people, so I still think it’s a shame that the movie has preserved this way of thinking about black people in the context of a children’s movie. I can see why it would offend people.

    • carmhelga

      When white culture is the dominate cultural narrative, not every white character HAS TO represent all white people. But when black culture and people are only represented as a version of a few different stereotypes, then yes, that is a problem.

      Racism doesn’t have to be overly “mean-spirited.” It’s just as often paternalistic and condescending, which is the biggest problem here.

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