Disney Revisited: Dumbo

Some thoughts after rewatching Dumbo (1941)…

  • It resembles Pinocchio much more than Snow White or Fantasia. This is not an overwhelming, ornate work of art; it’s a series of cute vignettes that feels like an hour-long short subject. The modest animation style and slight narrative compound this impression. It’s the same story as Pinocchio, but on a much smaller scale.
  • Nuanced character animation is reserved for the animals. Dumbo, Timothy Q. Mouse, and especially Mrs. Jumbo are all drawn with faces and bodies that convey a full range of emotions. Human beings, meanwhile, are rendered through blur, shadow, or extreme simplication. This disparity results from Dumbo’s low budget, but it also clarifies where the film’s sympathies lie, as human beings become the distant, indistinct Other.
  • Episodes move visually from chaos to order. In one scene after another, frenzied motion plays out onscreen, culminating in an image of relative stillness and composition. Mrs. Jumbo’s outburst, for example, ends with the ringmaster in the center of the frame, standing in a bucket of water, and when Dumbo accidentally triggers the destruction of the circus, the scene ends with him peeking out from under the collapsed tent, still waving his little flag. These are self-contained cycles of tension and resolution.
  • The “Pink Elephants on Parade” musical number transmutes intoxication into nightmare. In keeping with Dumbo’s episodic format, it has only a loose connection to the broader narrative (in that the post-“Elephants” hangover teaches Dumbo that he can fly) and is primarily a chance for the animators to cut loose with champagne-induced hallucinations. Elephants metamorphose, explode, and coalesce in increasingly threatening configurations. It’s the movie’s clear visual high point.
  • The crows are overt racial caricatures. Granted, their depiction isn’t hateful or negative, but they’re still totally rooted in stereotype. In their mannerisms, dress, and dialect, they cater to white audience assumptions about African-American behavior, especially in the South. They’re cartoonish and reductive, traits that are certainly in keeping with the rest of Dumbo’s cast (cf. the human audience or female elephants), but only here applied to a real-life racial category.
  • Dumbo is an inert protagonist, defined by his suffering. Whereas Pinocchio was about its hero’s moral choices, Dumbo—another innocent whose story starts the day he’s born—never makes any choices. His entire life is mapped out by his mother, the other elephants, the ringmaster, and especially Timothy. He never acts of his own volition, but has success or failure visited upon him by fate. The closest he comes to acting on his own is during his (Timothy-guided) climactic flight: with no audible outside input, he spits peanuts onto the elephants who’ve persecuted him. It’s a Carrie-like burst of revenge and his only independent decision.
  • Consequently, Edward Brophy’s uncredited performance as Timothy drives the movie. Dumbo may be the star attraction, but Brophy is the lead voice actor. He propels the story with his Brooklyn-bred cadences, lending it narration and color commentary through his one-sided conversations. His streetwise, bubbly voice sets the film’s tone and attitude. It’s just as fundamental to Dumbo as the animation.

(This is part of “Disney Revisited,” my chronological film-by-film exploration of the Disney animated canon.)

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Disney Revisited: Dumbo

  1. Interesting observations – I think of Dumbo as being the central attraction because it’s a great silent performance. But you’re right that he is more acted-upon than an actor. As for the crows, what I find myself impressed (and, ultimately, dismayed) by is how likable and positive the complete stereotypes are. Sad to say, this one of the more positive depictions of black characters in all prewar Hollywood… And to be honest, more positive than some of the later coded depictions (like the hyenas in Lion King, where it was almost certainly unconscious, unlike in Dumbo, yet far more negative).

    • Great point about the crows. They’re definitely an unusual example when it comes to black characters in ’40s Hollywood: they’re morally neutral, with pleasant demeanors and a great musical number all to themselves, yet still subservient and completely lacking in complexity.

      So their collective role in Dumbo is relatively progressive, especially vis-à-vis concurrent live-action movies, but still fairly belittling. And, like you say, far from the most egregious sample of racism in the Disney catalog.

  2. I still maintain that sequence of the workers and animals erecting the circus tent in the rain has more to thrill Eisenstein than anything in Snow White, though otherwise what I find so charming about the film is its simplicity. Dumbo himself is a masterpiece of soft drawing, with all the lines gently fading into one another until it seems he’s hardly bordered at all, yet still clearly formed.

    And I’m more or less in MovieMan’s boat when it comes to the crows. Uncomfortably, and yet one of Disney’s more progressive handlings of race (How. Sad. Is. That?)

  3. I love your Disney Revisited posts! I haven’t seen DUMBO since I was a little kid- it was never one of my favorites. I just remember the one scene where his mom sings through the jail cell, it was one of the few movie scenes that would always make me cry so I didn’t watch it too much. I’m not sure if I picked up on the racial stereotyping of the crows, though I must have gained a vague awareness of it later.

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