Going back into the vault for this one, so get ready for sexism, racism, and a mute baby elephant who gets literally led around by the nose by a mouse who sounds like he’s from New Jersey.
Thankfully, Disney’s older films are considerably shorter (and Dumbo is one of the shortest) than the contemporary ninety minute affairs (I’m not sure I could handle much more than the hour that is Dumbo; even that was pretty excruciating). The first and most apparent thing about the shorter run time (even before the thought that I only had to invest an hour to watch this film) is that everything about the plot is compressed. There’s still a pretty standard three act structure, but where contemporary movies tend to devote a good half hour to each act, Dumbo wraps each act up in twenty (for a sense of pacing, that’s just enough time for one good song and a few cartoon antics), which results in some really uneven pacing as each act is padded with lots of fluff before cramming plot relevant events in about the last five minutes.
Yeah, I think you could tell the story of Dumbo effectively in a fifteen minute short.
I remembered that the end of the movie involved the elephant finding the confidence to fly on his own when he lost the “magic feather,” but it never occurred to me before that there’s about a five minute gap between Dumbo’s realization that he can fly and the crisis that forces him to give up his security blanket. Other stories that use that whole “confidence is all you need, but here’s a placebo” device typically introduce the placebo really early in the plot, and then dashes it away in the climax (the Futurama episode “The 40% Iron Chef” uses this device, and it’s a much more enjoyable twenty minutes). The problem here is that Dumbo doesn’t learn he can fly (the thing that’s he’s really most famous for as a Disney character), until the last ten minutes of the movie, so there’s absolutely no time to develop that thread so we can believe that Dumbo really does have the confidence he needs to fly.
But I’m nitpicking over issues with the story that are probably just a product of the time. The cartoons I’ve seen from the 1930s and ’40s (Dumbo was released in 1941) just aren’t terribly complex affairs when it comes to plot. Most of what happens in a given cartoon from that era is typically intended to show off the animation and entertain the audience with some slapstick comedy. Plot’s not so important (which probably explains why the most memorable sequence from Dumbo, “Pink Elephants on Parade,” has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story and is introduced as a hallucination that Dumbo suffers after accidentally getting drunk).
What we should really be looking at is the inherent sexism and racism of this movie. One of the central themes of Dumbo is about the bond between a mother and her child. Dumbo is a misfit from the start of his life, and it’s only the love of his mother that protects him early on, and it’s restoring his mother to her good standing in the circus that serves as Dumbo’s reward in the end. In between these bookends we get a little bit of a coming-of-age tale where Dumbo works to find his place within the circus, but it’s almost entirely predicated on the intercession of Timothy the mouse, who takes pity on Dumbo when the rest of the elephants shun him after his mother attacks circus patrons at the sideshow for teasing Dumbo. I suppose you could read the arc as Dumbo being nurtured by his mother in infancy, and then when it’s time for him to develop his independence, a father figure steps in to guide him (although if Timothy is Dumbo’s father surrogate, he’s really lousy at keeping the kid out of trouble).
Still, aside from the circus workers who really don’t have any interest in Dumbo other than as part of whatever act they can make him work in, there are no male authority figures in this movie. Rachael pointed out that it probably had something to do with the idea of the gendered spheres of influence where child rearing was female centered. We’ll just ignore the odd fact that except for one scene involving a pair of tigers, all the families in this film consist of single mothers and their children (I’m sure this would be terribly scandalous if they weren’t all animals to boot). I mean, it’s a rather extreme reflection of the gendered spheres principal that fathers aren’t even depicted in this movie. It’s not even like the creators weren’t aware of it, since the scene where Dumbo is delivered via stork (that song about the storks is really creepy by the way; just look at the lyrics) has the other elephants acting pretty indignant at the suggestion that they might be the ones who are expecting (I suppose it’s possible this is one of the many sexist jokes that surround the scenes with the elephants, who are unrelenting stereotypes of vain, gossipy women, where they’re insulted because why would anyone think they were pregnant, but I prefer the reading that they’re scandalized by Mrs. Jumbo’s single mother status). The whole construction of the world here is a weird conflation of the realities of keeping animals (there’s not really any reason why mates would be kept together in a circus if it didn’t fit the needs of the show) with human relationship standards.
As for the racism, well, there’s the crows. They’re black. There’s probably not much more to say about them, because this film’s over seventy years old, and anyone with any kind of racial sensitivity can explain why you shouldn’t cast a flock of crows as black characters. You especially shouldn’t name the leader of the flock Jim Crow (it’s never mentioned in the movie, but that’s his name in the script).
All in all, Dumbo is an incredibly dated movie. It’s also an original story (okay, it was adapted from a children’s book that was written specifically to sell a toy called a “Roll-a-Book,” but still), which means there’s not so much adaptation of any source material going on here. From a historic perspective, Disney was strapped for cash after Pinocchio and Fantasia flopped, and they needed a cheap project that would draw audiences. That project was Dumbo.
I guess there’s not much more to expect from a cash grab.