One of Disney’s shortest animated films that clocks in at 64 minutes, Dumbo had one specific role: to quickly recoup the financial losses suffered by their commercial flop, Fantasia. Based on a little-known book by Helen A Mayer, it tells the story of an elephant who is socially outcast and ends up finding that he is a great deal more special than anyone ever expected. Perhaps Shneider’s book best describes it as “simultaneously loving biblical virtue and skilled gunplay…the movie revels in camaraderie, chaste romance, and dueling fisticuffs…a Hawksian world…perfectly transposed into a biopic long on small-town values and short on the violent conflict that made the real life Alvin York famous.”
I really enjoyed this as a child, and it was surprising to revisit it in my adulthood as I have gained perspective and an education. I love the fact that this film is not as sing-songy as a great deal of the Disney oeuvre, but it being so short, the major points are meant to be a carefully constructed sentimental piece, and that made the pacing weird at times for me.
What is perhaps what I like about the film is also something I hate about it. The anthropomorphist realism in the film – a story about the cruelty of the real world and how people treat each other like garbage until you can prove yourself – is a great tale… But the fact that the resolution of the piece lies in the innate talent that Dumbo was born with and that everyone is special and can be rich and famous in their own way if only one were to tap into that core thing that everyone should love and worship and throw money at was something totally disgusting. As a teacher, what lies in the virtues of this film is also what I absolutely hate about our American-idol, talentless reality TV and professional sports youth. There is a belief that if one were to only find the one thing within them that is spectacular and amazing that everything will be okay and they will be successful and their life will mean something in a validating, extrinsic way – and it will come easy because it is your gift you were born with. That said, this set a lot of people and many generations up to struggle with their self-worth because of the fact that this isn’t entirely how things work most of the time.
To me, there were three notable scenes… The postmodern, psychedelic booze sequence was absolutely captivating (and weird to discuss with my seven-year-old). The scene with the mother in elephant jail was terrifying and heartbreaking. The scene with the crows was strange, and I wasn’t sure if I was watching a lampoon on black dialect or straight up cartoon blackface – this is the one thing about children’s films of the era and earlier that one might consider doesn’t stand up to our contemporary cultural standards.
I enjoyed watching Dumbo again, but I am honestly unsure if the themes totally hold up today. Can one who is bullied and treated awful by the world overcome it? Sure! Can they overcome it by finally becoming the thing that people love and value above all else, especially when the love and respect are tied to something conditional like fame and success? Well, not only is the answer ‘no,’ but all I have to do is look to Facebook to recognize how many people I know that still believe it.