Reviewed by: Brett Willis
Starring: voices of Herman Bing, Billy Bletcher, Edward Brophy, Jim Carmichael, Cliff Edwards, Verna Felton, Noreen Gamill, Sterling Holloway, Malcolm Hutton, John McLeish, Dorothy Scott, Sarah Selby, Billy Sheets, Margaret Wright | Director: Ben Sharpsteen | Writers: Helen Aberson (book), Joe Grant
“Dumbo” is a favorite film of my second-grade daughter. This Disney classic is one of my favorites too, but with reservations.
“Mr. Stork” brings a baby to one of the Asiatic elephants in a traveling circus. The baby’s mother loves him for who he is; but the rest of the adult female elephants shun him because of his large ears, and change his name from “Jumbo Jr.” to “Dumbo”. After his mother is locked up as “mad” for trying to protect him from human hecklers who also make fun of his ears, Dumbo’s only friend is Timothy Mouse. But Dumbo has a special ability; and once he discovers it, everything that was wrong is made right.
Besides the snooty attitude of the elephants, there are several other problem content areas in this film.
The story’s ending is like that of “the ugly duckling.” As Dr. James Dobson points out, such endings don’t get to the root of the problem of discrimination; nor are they a comfort to real-life people who are picked on because of being “different”, because they’re not going to become swans, learn to fly or whatever.
The elephants are made to form pyramids or jump from heights; these are exaggerations of reality, but the animal stunts in real circuses are still unnatural acts. In recent years, concern has been mounting over the cruel training methods used to teach animals such tricks. One clown says, “Aw, elephants ain’t got no feelings; they’re made of rubber.”
Dumbo and Timothy accidentally get drunk because the clowns dropped a bottle of liquor into a watering bucket; we share the pair’s hallucinations through the song “Pink Elephants on Parade,” which may be the first “psychedelic” music video ever made. When my daughter was younger, I skipped that scene entirely; now I let her watch the fancy animation, but mute the sound. The scene even makes me uncomfortable.
The crows are obviously stereotyped blacks: they have the dialect and accent, the singing and dancing, and are familiar with emotional church services; plus the leader’s script name is Jim Crow, which is an old slang term for blacks. Disney Studios took enough heat over the allegation that the hyenas in “The Lion King” were blacks; if they were scripting “Dumbo” today, they’d certainly change this.
Finally, the film glorifies Dumbo getting vengeance on the clowns and the elephants; what he does is quite mild, but the principle is still there.
Positive content: the love between Dumbo and his mother, and between the other animal babies and their parents, is shown as unconditional. The animation and songs are generally excellent, and the movie conveys the feeling of an old-time circus. The film as a whole is very entertaining, and is better than almost anything being made today; but with the negatives noted above, even I as an adult can’t just relax and enjoy it the way I’d like to do with a G rated film.