The original 1941 Dumbo is a strange little movie. Not only is only an hour long (it’s almost a long “short”, if you get my meaning), but has many weird scenes of mostly padding (which would make for great Peetimes, BTW).
It’s also…um…wildly racist (there’s no other way to say this, and not in just the scene with the jeering crows — don’t even get me STARTED on Song of the Roustabouts). And Dumbo is so casually, completely inhumane. The moniker “Dumbo” alone is intended as a cruel nickname by his own fellow elephants — his actual birth name is Jumbo Jr, in case you wondered.
But much worse, Dumbo the film depicts the massive abuse of circus animals, with harsh whips, cruelly binding leg chains, and minuscule cages. Circus performers are willing to toss baby animals a thousand feet off of rooftop platforms, because they reason the higher the fall, the more money they will make…and so what anyway, because “Elephants are made of rubber.” (Listen to the clowns talk this over. Seriously.)
Also, a crucial plot point features the main character, an infant, getting massively drunk. The ‘pink elephants’ sequence is played for laughs, but, you know what? I’ve been drunk, and I don’t hallucinate. That watered-down champagne must have had something much more hard-core in it. The scene is weird as hell, and if I was a child, it would give me nightmares.
These things just wouldn’t ‘fly’ today – pardon the pun.
From the get-go, I honestly thought Dumbo was a strange choice for one of the first live-action remakes from the Disney Vault. There are a whole lot more bigger hits to choose from, and at least a dozen Disney Princesses to get through.
But. It’s not all bad: Dumbo has Disney Classic status after all.
So, I re-watched the original to prepare for the 2019 Dumbo redo and, yes, I sentimentally cried. A lot. Granted, I’m an easy crier, but the mother-child scene set to the tune of “Baby Mine” had me really blubbering. Dear lord. Much as I complain about the unforgivable inhumanity of the 1941 Dumbo, this is absolutely a moment I want to see in the remake.
There’s other good stuff too. The unnamed mouse deserves a medal for going above and beyond in being a true friend. We should all be so lucky to have such a “mouse” in our lives. Compassion, as a concept and in execution, is where Dumbo shines.
I’ll talk about that below the video of the original trailer:
So I wondered about the Dumbo remake. Maybe the general theme of love and kindness is enough of a reason to drag this out of the Vault.
The aforementioned kindly mouse who befriends poor baby Dumbo contains a great message: even one small person can make all the difference in someone’s life.
And Dumbo reminds us that taunts hurt, especially about body image: it’s not just about teenage girls. There is tremendous pressure to be a perfect physical specimen. This is certainly timely in our modern era.
And the crows do come around and help transform Dumbo’s life. Their song is a showstopping standout (“When I See An Elephant Fly“) with the bestest puns, and I hope this is retained — minus the off-putting racism.
Ultimately, my hope is the new Dumbo will increase awareness about the plight of elephants in worldwide circus acts and zoos. And in the wild, if one can dream. I was heartened to learn PETA contacted Tim Burton to change the ending of the new Dumbo — and Burton did! — in a way that should be very satisfying and maybe give us a few tears of joy in an iconic film, for once.
You will believe an elephant can fly.
Flying is, of course, a metaphor for finding one’s own path to happiness and meaning. And I say YAY, with fingers crossed, that the remake will give us exactly that transcendence humans can achieve if we care enough.
(PS: Extra note: Dumbo won the 1941 Academy Award for Best Original Score. I’m adding the videos and lyrics to some of the iconic songs to RunPee already — see below.)
Movie Grade: I can’t even grade Dumbo without overthinking it. I like the idea, and there are lovely grace notes, but man, is this film is so bizarre for today’s audiences. I wouldn’t let children watch it without a lot of discussion. Maybe give it a C+ for what they attempted to do, within the mentality of the 1940s. Buried under all the uncomfortable weirdness and unpleasantry, there’s a good message and a lot of heart.
Co-Creator of RunPee, Chief of Operations, Content Director, and Managing Editor. RunPee Jilly likes galaxy-spanning sci fi, superhero sagas, fantasy films, YA dystopians, action thrillers, chick flicks, and zany comedies, in that order…and possesses an inspiringly small bladder. In fact, that little bladder sparked the creation of RunPee. (Good thing she’s learned to hold it.)