There sure were a lot of freaks and outcasts in the mid 20th century. At least, there were a lot of freaks and outcasts according to the magical world of Disney. Pinocchio was a talking hunk of wood who wanted to be a real boy, while smoking cigars and playing cards. Snow White was narcoleptic with a little people fetish. And there are severe daddy issues abound in Bambi and Cinderella. Yet through all this darkness, Disney and his cronies always managed to make things sweet and adorable. Especially in the body dismorphia study, Dumbo.
It’s spring time in a circus. And that means the menagerie of animals are all expecting babies, delivered by stalks. Which is how babies were made in the 30s, before nature discovered the hibbity dibbity. It was also a time when society was fine with a kids’ movie being set in a circus where animals are forced to perform degrading, dangerous tricks, are chained up in confined spaces, and no one thought there was anything wrong with that.
One of the newborns is delivered to star attraction, Mrs Jumbo, the elephant. Her new son initially draws attention for his adorable cuteness, but almost immediately, their coos turn to jeers when Dumbo reveals his massive ears. No one knows what to do with this freakyderm pachyderm, except pull the piss. The only characters who can see past his ears are his loving mother, and Timothy Q Mouse (a mouse dressed as a ring master).
Spoiler alert, his ears mean Dumbo has the power of flight. As Dumbo is one of the most famous characters in Disney history, that came as no surprise. What was a surprise was the fact that it doesn’t happen until the last 10 for 15 minutes. I guess story structure was different in 1941. If Dumbo was being made today, he’d fly at the end of the first act, followed by a montage of all the kick ass, good times he had, all the while growing an ego bigger than his ears. Around the halfway mark, there’d be some major setback, and the second half of the movie would be his redemption.
But in 1931, they didn’t have time for all that. They were too busy getting the titular character (basically a child) drunk off his ass. They were too busy perpetuating racial clichés via some extremely offensive crows. They were too busy making the universe crap on Dumbo for the majority of the film’s running time to even consider giving him a moment approaching happiness until the closing minutes.
Watching Dumbo also reiterated something else I’ve noticed as I work my way through the Disney Classics. The composers in those days weren’t interested in toe tappers the audience might want to actually hear again someday, or sing along to. Forget earworms like Hakuna Matata or the latest Randy Newman ditty. Disney was all about choruses of classical choirs really wanking it up with the over earnest grandeur.
With Bambi, I was ready for the massive bummer. With Cinderella and 101 Dalmatians, there didn’t seem to be anything in their stories I didn’t already know. But I was in no way ready for the massive amounts of shit Dumbo has to eat before he gets any happiness. And even then, it’s just in time for the end credits to roll. The tone of kids’ movies sure has changed over the last 80 odd years.