Disturbing Disney || Dumbo: Art Imitating Disturbing Life

As any child does, Emma loves animated films. Perhaps television addiction is passed down through the genes, as I also watched a lot of films when I was younger. Of course, Disney was my favourite and, subliminal messages, propaganda and other issues aside, it still is. In my mind, if I can see their hidden messages, one day so will she.

Anyway, the baby elephant - Dumbo - is one of her favourites. I did not like it so much as a child, although I cannot really expound on why. I was possibly exposed to later films before Dumbo was available to rent or shown on television in South Africa. But rewatching the film now as an adult is quite eye-opening (so is watching every other Disney film).

I also realised that it is actually quite a disturbing film, especially considering that it is targeted at children. Apparently, at the time that Disney embarked on the film, the studio was in dire financial straits. It aimed to make an emotional piece to pull in an audience that was in the midst of union strikes and on the brink of the second World War. Its simple story's lightheartedness was much desired by the audience of the time and by successive audiences, and Dumbo has become one of Disney's greatest successes.

I think it was the darker side of the film that appealed to the audience sitting in fear and with little hope. Dumbo's development is from being ridiculed and cast out to being outstanding, all because of a little hope, something the pre-war audience desperately needed.

I know the disturbing nuances of the work are likely overlooked by children but they are still there, perhaps subliminally telling children the world is a dangerous and unfair place:
  1. The introductory song is an interesting reflection of the times: a conservative society would not wish its children to know the reality of mating, so the storks are a manner of avoiding this. Of course, the chorus saying 'Look out for Mr Stork' is more of a warning than a celebration of life.

    By the way, have you wondered why Mrs Dumbo has to wait longer for her baby? Well, elephants have longer gestation periods than other animals! They carry their baby for 21 months, almost two entire years.

  2. The lyrics of the music when the Big Top is being constructed are a reflection of the working conditions of the day and of the workers, with phrases such as:

    We work all day, we work all night
    We never learned to read or write
    We're happy-hearted roustabouts
    We don't know when we get our pay
    And when we do, we throw our pay away
    (When we get our pay, we throw our money all away)
    We get our pay when children say
    With happy hearts, "It's circus day today"
    (Then we get our pay, just watching kids on circus day)
    Boss man houndin'
    Keep on poundin'
    For your bed and feed
    There ain't no let up
    Pullin', poundin', tryin', groundin'
    Big top roundin' into shape
    Keep on working!
    Stop that shirking!
    Grab that rope, you hairy ape!

    Some of the phrases and stereotypes could even be seen as quite racist! And I hazard to guess that all the singers of the song were white, too.

  3. When Dumbo's mother protects him from boys teasing him, she is subdued by whip and elephant hook - no disguises as to how these elephants are reined in. When she is locked away in a cart, she is being broken in, a cruel practice that breaks the spirit of the elephant. If you have ever met an elephant, it is likely they have been broken this way. And when the elephants work to put the Big Top up, we don't see the hooks which are surely there.

  4. Elephants naturally have close relationships with their mothers. Dumbo is forcibly removed from her when she is taken away. While it is implied that he is removed simply because she is being punished, the practice is common today, as it's the best time to break an animal's spirit. Read more about this here, but don't visit the link if you're sensitive.

  5. When Dumbo is removed from his mother, he is seen rocking from side to side - this repetitive movement is often seen by animals in captivity.

  6. The pink elephant scene. To me, this cannot simply be explained by Dumbo being drunk, at least not with such a small amount of alcohol. Maybe the lack of oxygen from holding in his breath was to blame. Whatever the case, seeing pink elephants walking on the roof is quite odd. Apparently, the scene was included to add colour to the film and also to tap into the surrealist trend of the time.

  7. Finally, the way Dumbo is treated and thought of by the clowns is disturbing. He is poked and prodded to make him do tricks - he is poked twice during the film, once by Timothy himself. Of course, the writers really want us to think harder about whether or not animals have feelings, but the reality of a circus is that such cruelty is necessary to train the animals to do tricks.
I have other issues with the film. While it appears to pass the Bechdel Test, it represents women as cliquey gossips and shrews (and afraid of mice). It is also sad that Dumbo has absolutely no agency - he doesn't even have a voice! In this way he is taken advantage of by everyone in the film, even Timothy the Mouse, because he also benefits from Dumbo's fame.

Did you enjoy the film?

{Image credit: "Dumbo 1" by The Walt Disney Company - Trailer. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.}


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