Dumbo - Tolerance Of Self Part 1

Thoughts On: Dumbo

An elephant is born with oversized ears, an apparent flaw in character, but, in the end, a hidden strength.

Ok, I want to start off with the claim that this is a racist film. Examples of this criticism can be found by following these links...

I'm sure there's a lot more out there, but they paint the picture. Either way, Dumbo is not racist, not at all. You have to be absurdly stupid to see that. There are elements of racism in this film with the black workers and so on, but, this, in no way, makes the film racist. All you have to do here is look at Spike Lee's classic Do The Right Thing.

There's insurmountable racism in this film - but that doesn't make it racists, it's trying to comment on themes of society and tolerance. The only reason why you'd make the claim that characters are racist, or that the film, Disney, or whatever, is, would be that you have a blind pessimistic agenda, or you're just trying to get as many views and clicks as possible with a catchy title such as '6 Disney Films That Are Undeniable Racist And Sexist'. I've been watching these films my whole life and in no way have I been offended in the slightest. The claims made in the links all lack explanation, or a detailed analysis of the film and context. Without context, anything can be offensive - just look at comedy. So, what we're going to do here is what no one else has been bothered to do. We're going to look at why certain 'racist' elements are in this film, why they are there, and what they mean.

Before we start, Dumbo is clearly a film about rising up, about being different, about being marginalised. It's because of this that I think it's so absurd to label the film racist when it's tonally uplifting in every respect. Let's not get into a rant, but jump straight into things. The most coherent way to do this is to go through the film chronologically, so, we open up on a storm, hail, rain, wind, thunder, lightning. This juxtaposed with the storks - babies - is a symbol of struggle. This may be the struggle of birth itself, but possibly the hard life these animals may endure. What is most sensical however is to see the storm as representative of a harsh world. This is reinforced with the overlaying song and its lyrics, 'you may be poor or rich, it doesn't matter which, millionaires, they get there's like the butcher and the baker. So look out for Mr. Stork'. This is obviously an allusion to sex (how you make babies - just in case you didn't know). But, what it does is reduce all people to humans, seeing them in equal light. We see this again with 'don't try and get away, he'll find you in the end'. This sounds a little scary out of context, but merely implies that the need for family, love and so on is inherent to being a person. What this then sets up is a harmonious view of people in face of a storm - the tough world. In the very opening we see tolerance, and a humane perspective of equality. Not a great opener for a racist film.

Next we move into the zoo, seeing animals have their children delivered to them. What's most interesting about this is the animals themselves, the fact that this is a movie that entirely focuses on them and not humans. The only two humans we see in any detail are the ringmaster and the asshole kid:


Everyone else is blurred or in very little detail:


This may be attributed to production issues, with Fantasia not being very successful at all. It actually postponed production of Bambi, pushing Dumbo forward because it could be made cheaper. But, I think the detail (or lack thereof) with humans also says a lot about the film's intentions. It says that animals are what matter. This isn't a commentary on animal rights and circuses here, but minorities. The animals are used in the same capacity they are in Zootopia. They represent humans not as these things with two arms, two legs, and a head that walk upright. Animals are used to, metaphorically, make clear diversity and an idea of individuality. Again, not a wise decision for a racist film.

So, pushing on we come to the delivery of Dumbo. He is late for both comical and subtextual reasons that we'll get into momentarily. First, let's look at the small scene with the cloud and dumbo falling through. Again, comical, but also a metaphor. Dumbo's key symbol is of height (which will become all the more clearer as we progress) and to start the film at the highest point - the 'heavens' - is to possibly foreshadow a fall. This is emphasised with Dumbo sinking through the cloud. This may represent his social buoyancy or his precarious place in a higher position of social hierarchy. In other words, he has a lot of potential, and the small family of elephants eagerly await what they think is a perfect baby. For him to fall through the cloud as a result adds stakes, making clear that Dumbo's in for a rough ride. This allows us to move onto the elephants themselves.

We'll start with Dumbo's mother. The greatest thing about her character is of her silence. Before you start, no, this is not sexist. What this emphasises is the elements of silent cinema imbued throughout the film. To understand how this works and what this means I recommend checking out essays on Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans or Chaplin's The Kid. But, to make the point briefly, her silence makes the emotion of her performance all the more poignant. However, there are other reasons for her silence. Again, we can look at the cheap production, and time saved in not voicing her charcater. But, what makes most sense is to look at the only words she says 'Dumbo, Dumbo Jr.' and how she signs for his delivery:

Her only words being her son's name, shows the importance of him to her, but also her inarticulation - that fact that maybe she can't speak, maybe she is dumb. This idea is reinforced by the signature as she probably can't write either. You could say this is down to the fact that she's just an elephant, but come on, a stork just sang a song, delivered a baby elephant... you get the point. Symbolism is all. Understanding that Dumbo's mother isn't very well educated, we can also infer that the circus is representative of poverty in a certain sense - of hard work with little pay. And so a theme of social class is introduced into the film, that mixes in well with themes of ethnicity and minorities. To get into these themes, we come to Dumbo and his ears. They are of course large, whereas his mother's and the other elephants' are small. This is a symbolic image of a simple difference, but also has solid ground too. There are two main types of elephant, African and Asian:

The easiest way to tell the two apart is by the ears. Notice that Asian elephants have smaller ears and African elephants have larger ones. This in turn suggest that Dumbo is an African elephant and his mother is Asian. What then comes of question is how this happened. In short, African and Asian elephants cannot crossbreed due to major genetic differences. The only known hybrid ever produced died shortly after birth. To find out more about the differences between the two species click here. But, in the context of the film, of fantasy, maybe Dumbo was adopted(?), maybe his mother bred successfully with an African bull. It's with the latter interpretation that we may understand why Dumbo was late - trouble at birth possibly. But, either way, Dumbo is a different kind of elephant - this is what is of most significance. Him being African is something we'll return to, but isn't of dire importance in understanding the message of the film. However, the use of a circus (slavery almost) as well as African and Asian animals connotes an aspect of colonialism, of white people...


... being above black, brown, whatever people. For the white guys in this case to be the bad guys... well, not a great decision for a racist (toward black and other coloured people) film. Anyways...

We can move swiftly forward with this idea, seeing that animals and minorities are the ones who work, which is where the 'racist scene' comes in. Whilst it is questionable (though, personally, not offensive at all) as to why there are only black people doing manual labour, it's also the animals that are working through the stormy night. They are the focus, they are also the ones dealing with the harsh world, as made clear by the next day when they all awaken in captivity, bored and fatigued. Moreover, there is an huge element of pacification, of conditioning, seen in these animals, especially with the gorilla and the camel. The camel swallows its spit and the gorilla screws its bar back into place having shaken it loose. These animals have been domesticated, put under the control of others - this is Disney's commentary on the scene before. There is no criticism, there is no shaming, there is no negative portrayal of minorities here - I don't see what makes it racist.

This brings us to the main themes of the film, there's pride, race and dignity. The other elephants revere these ideas, eventually disowning Dumbo because of them - because he is not like them. They essentially do what the asshole kid up top does. They criticise someone similar to themselves for apparently irrational reasons. What I mean here is that the ginger, buck-toothed, ass-face has huge ears. What gives him to confidence to mock an elephant we'll never know. And this is summarises the critique of racism. It's shown to be irrational, that there are, again, inherent links between all people. It's fear of surface level differences that fuel racism - and this is where Timothy, the mouse steps in. It's because he is so small that he freaks the other elephants out. But, like Dumbo he is the little guy, he is alone - and this is what brings them together.

It's now that I leave you on a brief cliff hanger...


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Dumbo - Tolerance Of Self Part 2

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