Wednesday, June 22, 2011
The Flap Over Disney’s “Dumbo”
Disney's Fourth Animated Feature - 1941
When I was a little girl, my parents put up wallpaper in my room. It was decorated with characters from Disney films. As I think back on that wallpaper, the image of one character in particular jumps out at me: Dumbo. Actually, I should say it’s the image of two characters—the lovable baby elephant and his best buddy, Timothy the mouse. I have no memory of my first viewing of Dumbo, but I know that as an adult, I can only watch it every few years; it takes me a while to recover from the emotional strain.
I guess I’m not supposed to take the film so seriously, but let’s face it: Dumbo is insanely adorable. The central character of Disney’s fourth full-length cartoon is way cuter and more helpless than his predecessors in Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia. Granted, those dwarves are charming, and like Dumbo, Pinocchio is an unhappy child (albeit a wooden one). But the talking puppet can, at least, talk. Poor Dumbo is not only mocked for his overlarge ears, he’s also mute, so he can’t even speak up for himself. His emotions are expressed entirely through his body language, his facial expressions, and the large tears that flow down his face in several scenes.
“Baby Mine” sequence (so called because of the lullaby that plays as Mrs. Jumbo caresses and rocks Dumbo with her trunk through the bars of her cell) is probably the scene folks remember most fondly from the film. Another highlight is, of course, “Pink Elephants on Parade,” a four-minute explosion of weirdness depicting the hallucinations Timothy and Dumbo experience after accidentally drinking water spiked with champagne. This scene may be evidence of widespread pot smoking among Disney’s animators, as are several parts of The Three Caballeros.
Then there’s “When I See An Elephant Fly,” the song performed by a chorus of crows as Timothy attempts to teach Dumbo to use his large, wing-like ears to soar above the petty world that pulls him down. I remember being taken aback when a high school teacher I admired told me she would never allow her daughter to watch Dumbo because of the way in which this scene perpetuates racist stereotypes. This woman was, like my mother, a black woman born in the 1940s; indeed, she and my mom are the same age. Yet it had never occurred to my parents to shield me from Dumbo; I don’t think they ever even noticed the elements that caused my teacher (and others) such offense—or, if they did, they didn’t think that I would notice them … and they were right.
When my mother was growing up, she watched The Amos n’ Andy Show on TV and found it hilarious. Unlike the original radio program, the television version actually used African-American actors, but this didn’t keep the NAACP from protesting it constantly until its cancellation. My mom—just a little girl at the time—saw the characters as hapless everymen getting into funny situations (like, say, Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton), not as representations of an entire racial group. White people may have seen them that way, but that wasn’t her problem. One can say, well, she didn’t know any better … but who, exactly, was more ignorant in this scenario?
Regina Robbins is a theater and film artist. She has worked with several New York City stage companies, including Manhattan Theatre Source, the Looking Glass Theatre, UTC #61, and the Directors Company, and her films have been screened at venues in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Chicago, Asheville, and NYC. She also teaches kids how to write and perform, and is a four-time champion on the game show Jeopardy!