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.

I myself am reduced to tears at least twice during Dumbo: once when the unlucky protagonist is cast in a humiliating role in a clown act, then again when he goes to visit his mother, who has been locked up for “attacking” (spanking) a naughty boy who is tormenting her baby. The “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?

Dumbo’s crows are clearly modeled on a certain type of African-American character familiar to movie audiences: all but one are voiced by black actors, and that one, the leader, is called “Jim Crow” in the script (though, thankfully, not in the dialogue. By the way, he’s played by the same guy who voices Jiminy Cricket. Wrap your mind around that one). I can’t say what kids of the 1940s would have thought about them, but I’ll wager that kids of the 2010’s have no idea that these birds are supposed to be analogous to any particular ethnic group. It is obvious that they are unsophisticated, speaking in country accents with lowbrow grammar—but then, so is Timothy, except that his accent is Brooklyn, not Alabama. Where’s the chorus of complaints about the stereotyping of fast-talking city slickers? I’m not arguing that the Disney Company wasn’t racist in 1941 (let’s be honest: everyone was racist in 1941), but that it’s okay to enjoy things that are otherwise pleasurable even if they have some potentially offensive content. For heaven’s sake, people still produce The Merchant of Venice, don’t they? And hey, the crows may be raucous and unrefined, but compared to Dumbo’s snooty fellow elephants, who shun him, the birds are all right.

There are a lot of reasons Dumbo could have failed to achieve the classic status it currently enjoys. The studio was reeling from the financial disappointment of Fantasia, so Dumbo was made on the “short and simple” plan, clocking in just over one hour. Disney’s animators went out on strike in the middle of production, and World War II was looming over the as-yet uninvolved United States. But the silent baby pachyderm with the sail-like ears ultimately achieved what Pinocchio and Fantasia could not—turning a box-office profit. The passage of time has redeemed those other movies, while Dumbo’s mid-20th-century ethos now has to contend with early 21st-century values. It may not pass with (ahem) flying colors, but, all things considered, the young and young-at-heart should be tickled as pink as those parading elephants.

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!

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