I was going to wait a little while before continuing my survey of Disney animated films but with the way things are going now I figured I ought to watch 1941's Dumbo while I still can on Disney+. I'm glad I did, it's another film, like Pinocchio, the full genius of which I never appreciated as a child, at least not consciously. In a way, it presents the opposite of Pinocchio's argument. Where the strangeness of Pinocchio as a living puppet is something he must surpass to become real, or a normal boy, the idea with Dumbo is that the child must learn to embrace his peculiarities to become strong and survive.
The similarities to Pinocchio do not end there. There's another tiny companion character, not a conscience embodied by a cricket but a sort of promotional agent or manager in the form of a mouse named Timothy (Edward Brophy). Instead of trying to guide his charge away from show business, Timothy aims to make Dumbo a star attraction with the implication throughout the film being that in this the young elephant will find personal fulfilment despite the abusiveness of the circus staff, circus patrons, and even the other elephants.
Dumbo's mother can hardly be considered mad when she rages at the humans viciously mocking her baby. And it's certainly a sign of negligence on the part of the ringmaster and circus staff that patrons are able to lay unkind hands on an elephant calf directly in front of his mother. The obvious hazard would seem best avoided for multiple reasons, even in the less than safety conscious atmosphere of the mid-20th century American circus.
The clowns, who become Dumbo's co-stars and tormentors, are also presented as sadistic or at least terribly callous. There's not one person or animal, aside from Timothy and Dumbo's mother, who treats Dumbo with kindness and respect. And yet the implication is that Dumbo should want to earn the admiration of his detractors.
As a story about owning one's strangeness and making it work for you, it might be taken as very modern, but in its emphasis on fitting into a community and environment that often seems to take pleasure in putting down the vulnerable among them, it's rather old fashioned. In the hazy, glib philosophy of Captain Marvel, the harsh teacher played by Jude Law is someone whom the protagonist must learn not to desire approval from. And yet in that film, as well as in Dumbo, these instructor antagonists are indeed catalysts for the personal growth of the protagonist.
At one point, these attitudes of embracing the alien or new while pushing against it were not necessarily contradictory. In fact, it's how American capitalism was supposed to function--the bold innovator would present their ideas or products and then, in the crucible of practical use and competition, it would demonstrate whether it had wings, whether it was a viable contribution to civilisation. Going too far in either direction is obviously dangerous-- embracing novelty without consideration or restraint could result in wasted resources of time, money, or even lives while denying the new out of hand would naturally lead to stagnation. So the antagonists in Dumbo play a valuable role in resisting Dumbo as well as in embracing him in the end when his strangeness becomes a wonderful asset.
Dumbo couldn't have done it alone. He needed a mouse to believe in him, pink elephants to bring him outside the box, and finally a murder of crows to provide a supportive sounding board.
The pink elephants scene is regarded by many as a bit of a non sequitur, a detour into a surprisingly frightening and bizarre nightmare. But after awakening from the alcohol infused dream, Dumbo finds himself having performed the impossible when his conscious mind was not in control. Only in the dream state, divested of all conceptions imposed on him, is he able to express his physical potential and only is his faithful agent, the little Timothy, able to see it rationally. That is until the crows see it.
With so many brilliant and distinctive segments, it's hard to believe that, at just 64 minutes, Dumbo is one of Disney' shortest feature films. With the last thirty minutes of the film we have the lovely "Baby Mine" musical number, the pink elephants scene, the crow scene with the film's signature song, and also the climax where Dumbo proves himself in the ring. It may be for the film's short running time and the scene's crucial position in the plot that the crow scene will never be cut. And it shouldn't be.
Like everyone else, the crows laugh at Dumbo but unlike the other elephants or the human boys there's something strangely affectionate in the ribbing that comes from the crows. The song they sing with its string of amusing, clever comparisons, seems to both acknowledge the impossibility of what Dumbo will achieve while also heralding its inevitability. To say that they would "done seen about everything" when they see an elephant fly implies a lack of completion without that impossible sight. So along with acknowledging the absurdity of what Dumbo is, they also confirm him as someone with a natural and valuable place.
Which is certainly not the kind of role often seen for black characters in American films of the 1930s and 40s. The crows, unlike the buffoons exemplified by Stepin Fetchit or Sleep n' Eat, are clever and nuanced. Most of them were voiced brilliantly by black actors (James Baskett, Nick Stewart, and Hall Johnson) but the leader, "Dandy Crow," receives a great vocal performance from a white musician (Cliff Edwards).
In their cardinal act, in providing Dumbo with the "magic feather", is a perfect illustration of the kind of calculated delusion an innovator must have in order to feel encouraged. Dumbo knows on some very deep level that he has value but the normal world around him is so consistent in its oppression he needs an appealing dream to sustain him until he can achieve the real thing. This makes it fitting that the gift comes from members of the black American community, too. Of course, whether we are to take the voiceless Dumbo himself as black or white is not really clear.
A work of terrifically imaginative style and animation, Dumbo is another example of Disney at its very best. Like enduring myths and legends, Dumbo illustrates the psychology and the dreams of its time and people in a remarkable way.
Dumbo is available on Disney+.
Twitter Sonnet #1368
Between the spokes a theory rides ahead.
When gnashers spoke the corn was off the cob.
The many voices fell from out the head.
Mechanics storm the mall to make the snob.
The priceless birds were more than featherweights.
The time to drink between the eyes arrived.
To put beneath the hats the thinking pates.
The better angels better now contrive.
Protected pearls entrust the land to paint.
Approaching boats were manned to fish for squid.
The numbers add but don't create a saint.
A coffee bag conducts an op'ning bid.
The rolling clouds continue past the town.
Umbrellas black at dusk were dusty brown.