When I See an Elephant Fly

We’re back to the Revisiting Disney series with the fourth animated film, Dumbo. This is one I can recall seeing a fair amount as a kid. It was the first of the animated classics to be released on home video, and they used to show it on television occasionally. In fact, I distinctly remember a broadcast of the movie being delayed because President Reagan was giving a speech on, I don’t know, saying no to drugs or something. It had been some time since I last saw it, though, and one thing I particularly noticed on this viewing was how weird the pacing was. I believe this is the shortest of the full-length animated features, and in fact it wouldn’t count as full-length if released today. So it’s kind of odd that Dumbo’s ability to fly didn’t even come up until there were only about fifteen minutes left. But let’s start at the beginning for now.

The movie starts with a song about how the stork will find you no matter what. Kind of creepy, really. Even if you don’t want a baby, you’re getting one anyway, sucker! The circus animals all seem pretty happy about it, though. One stork, voiced by Sterling Holloway, takes a little while to find the expectant mother he’s seeking. That would be Mrs. Jumbo, apparently the only elephant in the circus who ISN’T a total bitch. Actually, the ringmaster later mentions the circus having a total of seventeen elephants, presumably not counting Mrs. Jumbo or Dumbo, but we generally only see five. According to the IMDB goofs page, the pyramid scene switches between showing seven and eight elephants. Maybe the bull-elephants ride in a different car that’s never shown on screen? I don’t know. Anyway, Mrs. Jumbo’s only line comes when the stork asks her the name of the newborn calf, and she says “Jumbo Junior.”

His nickname is given by one of the bitchy elephants, who, upon seeing his big ears, claims he looks more like little Dumbo. Because ear size is a reflection on intelligence now? I have to suspect Dumbo might simply have had an African elephant somewhere in his ancestry. I guess Dumbo and I have something in common, since my mom tells me that people made a big deal about my ears sticking out when I was born. Now I can just say I have the same ear condition Stephen Colbert does, but without the partial deafness. Getting back to the movie, when Mrs. Jumbo defends her son from an unsupervised juvenile delinquent who keeps pulling his ears, the ringmaster has her locked up. Now motherless and shunned by the other elephants, Dumbo’s only friend is a mouse named Timothy, who is voiced by Edward Brophy, a guy most famous for his roles in gangster movies.

This plays on the legend that elephants are afraid of mice, which we see in action when Timothy terrifies the nasty elephants. From what I’ve heard, it isn’t that elephants have anything against mice in particular, but that they’re spooked by things they can hear but can’t see. I can’t say I know where the other mouse stereotype that we see in cartoons, that they are particularly fond of cheese, comes from. Generally they prefer nuts and grains, so Timothy, who keeps peanuts in his hat, might be more realistic than a lot of animated mice in this respect.

After Dumbo fails at a horribly inhumane and likely physically impossible stunt involving a pyramid of elephants, the circus makes him into a clown, which horrifies the other elephants. Actually, I think I can agree with them here. The clowns’ stunt with the baby elephant includes the use of a lot of fire inside a tent. You’d think they would have learned their lesson after the tent collapsed at their last show, but they just keep on being totally reckless. Speaking of recklessness, we then see Dumbo and Timothy get drunk. Granted, it’s unintentionally on their parts, but it’s amazing to me how casually children’s movies from this era could show alcohol consumption. I don’t think a scene like that would fly (get it?) in a modern film geared toward kids. What follows is a lengthy hallucination involving pink elephants, which became associated with alcohol after Jack London linked the two in 1913.

This scene is really pretty disturbing, but I don’t remember thinking anything of it as a kid, any more than I realized the crows were racist stereotypes.

Actually, I’m inclined to defend the crows, as, despite their stereotypical mannerisms, they were portrayed positively. In fairness, though, I’m a white guy, so my opinion doesn’t count for much on this matter. Still, their song is quite likely the catchiest one in the film, so that has to be worth something, right? Getting back to the pacing issues I mentioned earlier, it’s weird how little of the movie involves Dumbo flying, and how quickly the magic feather is introduced and then discarded as a plot device. Dumbo becomes a big star, and apparently has enough celebrity pull to get his mother released. I wonder if he’ll still be able to fly when he becomes fully-grown, but the movie obviously doesn’t address that.

One interesting aspect to this movie is that its protagonist never talks, and his mother only ever says two words, but they’re both quite sympathetic characters. I guess it just goes to show what good character animation can do. It’s really a sad story, too, with Mrs. Jumbo being locked up simply for defending her child, and Dumbo forced to fend for himself. It has a happy ending, but a pretty abrupt one that doesn’t totally make up for all the crap the Jumbos go through. It’s no surprise that the ringmaster is sometimes listed as a villain, even though he’s not strictly evil. I have to wonder if there’s been anything written on how cruel this movie makes the circus look, which is pretty realistic from what I understand.

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10 Responses to When I See an Elephant Fly

  1. I always liked the pink elephant scene as a child, but then I am weird and tend toward the psychedelic….

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