Behind These Castle Walls, Part IV: Dumbo (1941)

We're still in the 40s with our Disney movies and now we get to the famous elephant who is known for the slur everyone else uses for him. That is a good indication for the weirdness of this movie. It is a movie I had seen before. For its short runtime, it is not very entertaining and feels stretched anyway. It also does not have the same artistic skills the previous movies have shown. 

The first thing to notice is how normal circus life for animals supposedly is. All the animals seem perfectly happy and when they continue their travel every wagon is cutesly adjusted to their needs, a pool for the hippos, holes in the roofs for the giraffes and the elephants… well, the elephants have to squeeze themselves into one tiny wagon and their leader seems really angry about it. But the doors are closed and they have to live with it. It’s their fault that their fat, right?

When we get to the inside, suddenly there is more than enough space for all of them (the car must be huge) as the stork arrives for Mrs. Jumbo to bring her baby. Yes, it is well established that this is how babies appear and when he asks the elephant women who of them is “expecting” most of them seem really offended by that question. So, first the notion of sexuality is avoided all the way and using an expression that might make you think of it is offensive. Welcome to Disney.

When the train arrives at the next station at night, we see dozens of workers putting up the tent and getting ready. They don’t really have faces but their skin is clearly dark. We will never see their faces throughout the movie, they remain those shades who do the hard work at night together with the animals who are treated with more respect and nuance than any black person here. Not to mention that their only portrayal is limited to physical work while singing songs to the rhythm of the hammering, emphasizing even more the idea of slave work.

To continue the idea of happy circus animals, we see, as mentioned above, also the animals happily working on the circus tent in the rain, obviously enjoying building their own prison and exploitation arena, willingly working for their captors who sit somewhere inside, dry and warm while the animals and the blacks work for them.

The movie has more racial stereotypes for us. At a circus parade we see camels with dark-skinned arabs, equipped with huge sabers, sitting on top.

But let’s get to our protagonist, the titular Dumbo (actually called Jumbo Jr.). He is the kid of Mrs. Jumbo and, well, he has big ears. So he becomes sort of an outcast right away. The other elephant mommies trash-talk him and when the first humans come to the circus they make fun of him, causing his mom to go berserk. All of this seems alright, but when she freaks out (quite understandably protecting her child), the audience, kids mainly, have to watch a mother being whipped, bound and caged away in solitary confinement while her child is taken away from her. It is another one of those typical Disney moments that might generate nightmares for a while.

If that’s not enough, the extreme way the other elephant “ladies” (as they call themselves) shut him out is also beyond reason and really heartbreaking. They call him a freak and one elephant says she wouldn’t eat from the same bowl of him, which makes it sound like actual racism.

The movie then shows him trying to become famous with the help of his only friend Timothy, a mouse (ha ha), who tricks the circus director into using him as the climax for the insanely dangerous elephant act, by pretending to be his sub-conscience, which is interesting considering how much these movies influence kids’ sub-consciences. Anyway, nothing works, he becomes a clown and after a bad trip of accidental alcohol (they love psychedelic sequences that go on forever that I cannot imagine any child does enjoy) he wakes up on a tree.

Finding him and Timothy there are five crows, the most infamous aspect of Dumbo. They are black birds and they very clearly are supposed to be black characters too. They talk in a stereotypical way to make the distinction clear. There is something clearly racist in using black animals being representations for black people but I have to wonder, is this worse than the similar characters in Transformers, 60 years later? Or all the other black stereotypes in endless movies and TV shows? It really doesn’t help that one of them is called Jim Crow and is voiced by a white actor. It gets really weird when they make (harmless, really, compared to what we’ve seen already) fun of him and Timothy gives a speech asking them how they felt, if they were “left out alone in a cold, cruel, heartless world” just because of his ears? Well, yes, they probably knew very much about that in 1941. If this is supposed to function as an analogy, it doesn’t really work, especially as these characters now feel pity for the elephant. Sure, they help him and seem like nice guys, but there is still something really awkward about the whole scene. Other people have been way more critical about this than me but I really don’t like it. It seems wrong but it could have been worse, I think, considering the time.

In the end, Dumbo proves to be really special because he can fly and that’s the end of the movie already. It is super short for a feature and its plot is incredibly simplistic. Outcast proves he is special, the end. But there is enough trauma and racism here to be wary of the movie anyway. The crows certainly cannot shake off their institutionalized seclusion from society as easily as Dumbo and they don’t get to sit in a special train car in the end. They remain sitting on the sideline while the train moves on without them. That is the final image. What a strange little movie.

Next: Bambi!