Ed. Note: As a father of two young daughters, our television is typically tuned into the latest heaping slop from the likes of Disney, Nickelodeon, Pixar, and other billion-dollar corporations looking to fleece moms and dads (like myself) out of mountains of moulah to keep their youngsters shut-the-hell-up long enough to allow parents to zone out for a few moments each day, I am starting a new review series of our ‘favorite’ children’s entertainment.
As a parent who cares about my children deeply, I often find myself analyzing the good, the bad, and the crazy that abounds in children’s entertainment so that I can choose appropriate content for my kids to watch — all while taking comfort in the notion that good quality family entertainment builds strong moral character. And classic Disney movies have it all.
Re-watching these titles some thirty years later sheds light on society’s norms and values at the time of the films’ release — particularly less-than-veiled values of sexism, misogyny, and racism. These factors surely explain why, in today’s America, we are still collectively backwards sons-of-bitches in our heart of hearts (or is it “hearts of heartses?).
Let’s start this series with one of Disney’s first offerings: 1941’s “Dumbo.”
Dumbo is a story about an underdog. Dumbo is a story about discovery of one’s inner potential. Dumbo is a story of a “chosen son” who overcomes his physical deficiencies through an accidental dosage of hallucinogenic champagne that randomly helped the protagonist discover his hidden talent. Dumbo is a lot of things and more, and after watching this more recently, I realize it has truly helped youngsters dating back from decades ago up through today’s modern society to learn several of life’s key lessons.
Lesson 1: The Birds and the Bees
In Dumbo, we learn how babies are made. Baby animals, sure, but babies nonetheless. Delivered by storks from on high, baby animals of all species are delivered to their unsuspecting mothers — mothers who, in Dumbo’s case, have had no contact whatsoever with a male species. Perhaps this is also a nod to another mythical immaculate conception story from a similar, centuries-old fairy tale.
Frankly, as a dad, I’m glad to have this metaphor to use when my two daughters begin asking where babies come from. Hell, they’ve seen Dumbo hundreds of times, so they will never need to ask. Thanks, Disney!
Lesson 2: Old Single Women Are Cruel and Jealous Beasts
Almost immediately after Mrs. Jumbo is bequeathed with her new elephant son from the heavens above, her so-called female pachyderm friends ruthlessly make fun of the mother’s first-born child because of his ears. More mature viewers (not me) might conclude that they are jealous of Mrs. Jumbo, presumably because she got some action (or did she?) and as a result, had something else they desired but could only achieve in their dreams — a child. This is only the beginning. These gossip queens continue to heap their ire on infant Dumbo, shunning him from their social circles and refusing Dumbo a basic level of empathy after the kid’s mom is locked up in the circus insane asylum for trying to protect her child. Shortly thereafter, they ostracize Dumbo completely after he makes an innocent mistake by tripping over his oversized ears, stumbling into their carefully balanced pyramid formation, and nearly sends them and circus onlookers alike to an early demise. Leave the kid alone, you overweight, vain-for-nothing, shallow spinsters!
Lesson 3: When Life Has You Down, Drown Your Sorrows
After Dumbo’s disastrous debacle as the circus’ headlining act, viewers of this movie learn that the splendors of bubbly booze can and will cure any ill that life throws at you. We see Dumbo gulp down a few hearty swallows of champagne that was accidentally spilled into his water container, and from there, the Disney magic ensues. We learn that this alcoholic concoction not only numbs and melts inhibitions, it catapults one into a psychedelic state where new powers are discovered. In Dumbo’s case, his hallucinogenic trip leads him to realize his enormous ears can actually transform him into the world’s first flying elephant. See kids? Alcohol is the solution to all of your problems.
The veiled (or overt) racist depictions used in Dumbo has been documented elsewhere around the interwebs, but it’s still worth pointing out the black stereotypes employed for Dumbo. These include characters depicting African Americans as slaves — the guys pounding sledgehammers to assemble the big top tents during the rainy night scene — who sing about slaving away for the man. And the crows, the leader of whom is named Jim (!), are portrayed as jive-talking hams, lazily laughing it up as Dumbo and Timothy the Mouse try to retrace their booze-addled memories of getting stuck atop a tree.
Review In A Nutshell
Will the kids be entertained? Yes.
Will the parents be entertained? Mildly, if only for marveling about the “traditional” stereotypes used in a classic Disney movie, and also for chuckling at an infant elephant tripping his balls off from hallucinogenic champagne.
Is it wholesome entertainment? I guess. My kids are too young to pick up on any of the stereotypes engendered in Dumbo…and most other Disney films. At least consciously.
Will you watch it again? Probably…as in “you” = my kids, though they are growing out of this one.