#148. Dumbo (1941)

I know that we had it in the house and I’m sure my mom’ll say that I watched it a dozen times but I don’t remember ever seeing Dumbo before this, same as with Snow White, and it’s also one of the movies that, when I mention having missed it, people balk, and they do that fluttering blink, shockedShocked.

But it’s barely an hour long and, compared to the other Disney fare from that era (Pinocchio and Fantasia have also made the List), Dumbo feels pretty single. Less ambitious than earlier stuff.

And that was deliberate.

Walt wasn’t pleased with Pinocchio (for reasons I’m still at a loss to understand), and Bambi didn’t do so well with critics; Dumbo, then, was a small effort with which they intended to just recoup a little bit of what they’d been losing, both in money and in clout, and, to everybody’s surprise, it was a hit. Particularly a dream sequence in the middle featuring dancing pink elephants (like FantasiaDumbo enjoyed a kind of second wind with the rise of psychedelics a couple decades later).

dumbo vhs
As I’ve mentioned somewhere else on the List, Dumbo was the first movie Disney ever released on VHS back in the early ’80s.

It’s the story of a young elephant who lives with his mother at the circus. He’s ostracized and ridiculed for his ears being huge until, in the end, he learns how to fly with em and shows everybody up.

Just about every modern piece of writing about Dumbo flaunts a condemnation, early on, about the racist depiction of a group of crows (the leader of which is named Jim Crow) who embody some ugly stereotypes of African Americans in media up to then. And yeah, it’s jarring. I was watching this on my laptop at Starbucks on a rainy day, people couldn’t leave cuz it was coming down so bad, and somebody sitting across from me who’d noticed, earlier, that I was watching Dumbo, saw my eyes widen, signaled for me to take an earbud out, and asked if I was on the crow scene. We had a nice chat.

dumbo jim crowBut yeah — it’s interesting that everybody feels compelled to append their appraisal of the movie’s racism to any discussion of it. Of the five or six conversations I’ve had with various people in the week leading up to my seeing it (friends and colleagues are now in the habit of asking, after saying hello, which movies are coming up on the List), Pavel’s the only one who didn’t immediately mention the crows. The haste with which it’s addressed in conversation suggests that people fear they will be perceived as racist if they don’t mention it. Like I’m gonna cock my brow and tap my toe if they say that they enjoyed it as a child and don’t immediately renounce themselves for having done so.

That’s a product of the times, though, is this feeling like we can be labeled racist by omission. The silence about it the overtly racist scene in an 80-year-old movie is interpreted as complicity. Which seems ridiculous at first but then I think of all the times when silence really is complicity.

“Just following orders,” etc.

Even at the workplace, when an employer starts abusing their power, and you stand around with your colleagues and everyone’s just quiet and miserable. You might be risking or complicating your job by calling that person out, but if you don’t say anything the silence does follow you home. Talking to yourself in the car, contriving witty and righteous rebuttals, exhausting your spouse with a lecture on all the ways in which your boss’s behavior is Not OK.

dumbo mom

So I get it. But on top of not having much to say about the movie at all, since it was so brief and I wasn’t all that interested and there isn’t even much to be said about it in the Walt Disney biography, I was dreading writing this essay cuz I felt this pressure to focus all of my faculties toward finding some creative and eloquent way of condemning something that is so obviously fucked up and antiquated that the thought of mocking or denouncing it just feels like yelling into a hole. Exhausting. Pointless.

Ahdunno. The movie’s whatever. You probably already have your feelings about it.

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