REVIEW: Dumbo [1941]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: G | Runtime: 64 minutes | Release Date: October 31st, 1941 (USA)
Studio: Walt Disney Productions / RKO Radio Pictures
Director(s): Ben Sharpsteen / Samuel Armstrong, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson,
Jack Kinney & Bill Roberts (sequence directors)
Writer(s): Joe Grant & Dick Huemer / Helen Aberson & Harold Pearl (book)

“I think you’re ears are beautiful”

It’s always weird watching a movie I haven’t seen since I was a little kid only to discover how different it is from my memory. I used to watch Dumbo a lot back in the day and yet I could have sworn the entirety of the film was about the titular elephant’s struggle to find the courage to fly without his magic feather. Suffice it to say: realizing that what I thought was the whole plot only takes up the last three minutes of the full runtime was shocking. I guess my younger self didn’t care about the drama of a bullied kid being orphaned because his mother dared to defend him. The idea of a flying elephant wowed my tiny brain enough to push the rest out.

I shouldn’t be surprised, though, since so much of what comes before it leads towards that climax’s resoundingly unforgettable success. All the ridicule Dumbo (Mel Blanc) received from bratty children and catty elephants that previously looked down upon his mother too allowed him to become the underdog we hope will set the record straight with a stupendous feat of impossible merit. That he accomplishes this goal with the help of a mouse in ringleader clothing (Edward Brophy‘s Timothy Q. Mouse) augments the theme that our biggest champions and best friends are sometimes totally different from ourselves. Tim has no ulterior motives either. He merely wants this troubled and discarded youth to understand he’s more than what outsiders and haters say. That’s a wholesomely inspiring message for impressionable kids.

If only it were part of a film that aged well since supervising director Ben Sharpsteen‘s environmental “color” is supplied in unavoidably racist ways. While you can chalk it up to the era (its 1941 debut was five years before Song of the South doubled-down on Disney’s race problems), you can’t simply ignore it. Children should still watch for its underdog messaging, but don’t forget to provide context as far as the blatant stereotypes gallingly portrayed as jokes. For example: the crows aren’t all voiced by Black men despite cartoonish dialects presenting them as such and the main one (voiced by a white Cliff Edwards) is literally named Jim. Luckily they’re (eventually) portrayed as caring friends so as not to be problematic in action as well as depiction.

There’s also the workman-like “Song of the Roustabouts” sung by a white quartet named The King’s Men with lyrics “We slave until we’re almost dead. We don’t know when we get our pay And when we do, we throw our pay away. We’re happy-hearted roustabouts.” It’s all cringe-worthy at best for adults watching today and being in song along with the crows’ famed “When I See an Elephant Fly” means it will stick in kids’ heads. So be conscientious about it and realize some of these Disney films must carry an asterisk. Context goes a long way towards being able to enjoy the good parts despite the bad especially when the good are meaningfully told. The love and hate dynamic is ultimately very well drawn and worth sharing.

Having a real story with a three-act structure that lets Dumbo see our world’s problems spanning entitlement and exploitation before learning to overcome them without resorting to violence or revenge means something. It’s depressing (Dumbo’s mother is caged as being “hysterical” when in fact she was just protecting what’s hers), but that only taps into viewers’ emotions to find the attention needed to parse complex ideas. And with a drunken interlude of pink elephants to lend a nightmarish vision of impairment by substance abuse, you might be asked a lot of questions besides those ones you should proactively be helping them answer. There’s plenty packed into this sixty-minute journey about identity and empowerment and with the correct perspective it should continue delighting children for generations to come.

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