Movie Review - Dumbo

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Ben Sharpsteen
Walt Disney Productions

Dumbo is, evidently, Disney’s least vocal title character to date, with a total of zero lines. And yet, he manages to express his thoughts (and those of his creators) without having to say anything at all.

Everyone is familiar with the old, worn-out story of the misfit who makes it in the end, having followed his dreams (and so forth) in spite of what his peers might say. Usually, however, the misfit is a child, and those who put him down are children—a story that may be worn-out, but is still trendy enough to affect the misfits of the new millennium. In Walt Disney’s Dumbo, the hostility might still be classified as childish, but it comes from adults—from “ladies” of a very proud race. This is where Dumbo steps a little apart from the rest of the follow-your-dreams stories; and what it loses in ability to give hope, or at least sympathy, to today’s audiences, it gains in its uniqueness.

Even so, Dumbo is not without its vices, and today’s viewers should not assume that its pre-WWII charm necessarily indicates family-friendly qualities. The very theme of rising above expectations and physical limits has proven to be a stumbling block to movie makers of all decades.

Violent Content:
Of the Disney animated movies I have seen, Dumbo does the best job at showing comical pain for what it is: oxymoronic. The clowns in the story capitalize on the heartlessness of their fellow man by inflicting pain both on one another and, of course, on Dumbo. This is exposed—through the images, the music, and transferred dislike for the characters—as a mindless and base practice. As nice as that is, Dumbo’s triumphant scene (perhaps there should have been a warning about a plot-spoiler right there?) finishes with a peanut strafing run over his former enemies.


I doubt if phrases like “hot-diggity” are likely to be a corrupting influence on children, and of course when the other elephants refer to Dumbo as an “F-R-E-A-K,” it is clearly demeaning. When the derogatory language is dressed up a little, and is aimed at fellow “ladies”, it may not seem as intolerable as it really is. “Oh, mama!” is not, perhaps, an exclamation most parents would be best pleased to find in their children’s everyday vocabulary—not in that tone. “Golly” and “gee” are, according to dictionaries everywhere, euphemistic forms of “God” and “Jesus,” respectively; and as such are at least worth some serious thought.

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
Adults have enough trouble remembering that drunkenness is not any funnier in film than it is in fact, and to introduce small children to it in a comical scene is, I believe, very unwise. The accidental intoxication of Dumbo and his associate doesn’t stay funny for very long, however, and turns into a wild, perhaps alarming, vision of hostile (albeit pink) elephants, which is probably too intense and too bizarre for very young eyes. Incidentally, this sequence also involves brief images of Latino and belly dancing.

This movie might present the belief that, under sufficient provocation, unlawful behavior is reasonable behavior. Dumbo’s mother’s acts of destruction and violence are understandable, after she sees her own offspring being harassed; but we shouldn’t necessarily condone the action, just because we have some sympathy with the motive.

There are other subtle trends and pictures that might be observed; that is, they are there for us to observe if we’re looking for them. If families are interested in watching Dumbo, I would recommend that they read through the lyrics of the songs, first; particularly the Song of the Roustabouts*. In order to get what the song is really about, you might need to know that all the circus workers in that scene are black. The flock of crows is also caricatured after the black pop culture of the day, though not necessarily in a demeaning way.

A more important caricature is a mouse—an everyday citizen, who stands behind a make-shift pulpit, is addressed mockingly as “Reverend,” and delivers quite the sermon on the “cold, cruel, heartless world” and its treatment of Dumbo, without once appealing to religious language… Social Gospel style.

Maybe not the most significant, but certainly the most essential problem of Dumbo, is (another common stumbling block) the very fact that the protagonist is an animal, that the majority of his supporting characters are also animals—and animals with feelings. This movie suggests—subtly, and probably without meaning any harm—that, if animals aren’t “made of rubber,” they must have feelings. To some degree, we all recognize that animals experience “emotions” that can be compared to ours; but we live in a strange society, and sometimes the barrier between the human and the human-like gets obscured. However, Dumbo is not Bambi; the animals have a simple social order, not a complex one, and in this film, the greater antagonists are fellow elephants, not humans. It may be observed, though, that not one human character displays kindness toward the animals in the movie.

Dumbo has all the charm of the early Disney pictures, and all the moral, but I find that its fine message is marred by the minor but numerous negative points. I can’t give it a Recommendable, but it comes in with an honorable mention. This movie will probably be Enjoyable for anyone with at least six years behind them.

* The Song of the Roustabouts:
"Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike! / We work all day, we work all night / We never learned to read or write / We're happy-hearted roustabouts. | "Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike! /When other folks have gone to bed /We slave until we're almost dead /We're happy-hearted roustabouts
| "Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike! / We don't know when we get our pay / And when we do, we throw our pay away / (When we get our pay, we throw our money all away) | "We get our pay when children say / With happy hearts, 'It's circus day today' / (Then we get our pay, just watching kids on circus day) | "Muscles achin' / Back near breaking / Eggs and bacon what we need (Yes, sir!) / Boss man houndin' / Keep on poundin' / For your bed and feed | "There ain't no let up / Must get set up / Pull that canvas! Drive that stake! / Want to doze off / Get them clothes off / But must keep awake | "Swing that sledge! Sing that song! / Work and laugh the whole night long / You happy-hearted roustabouts! | "Pullin', poundin', tryin', groundin' / Big top roundin' into shape / Keep on working! / Stop that shirking! / Grab that rope, you hairy ape! / Poundin'! poundin'! poundin'! poundin'! / Oh..."

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