I was a child of the VHS era. Whatever dozen films you had on tape, that’s what you watched—over and over and over again. Disney’s original Dumbo was one of those twelve films in my house, an animated escape that I joyfully rewatched I don’t know how many times.
And there was heaps to love. Witnessing a group of elephants form a pyramid? An animation miracle. Seeing Dumbo’s mum reach her trunk out of a cage to comfort her child? Truly heart-wrecking. The pink elephants on parade? I can still feel that post-Fantasia hangover.
Dumbo will forever remind me of joyous and carefree times in my childhood, but it’s unfortunately tainted with unsuitable material my kid mind couldn’t untangle. So it does my heart good knowing the new generation will get a different Dumbo, one that’s more reflective of who we are today.
Yes, yes, we all know about the racist portrayal of black people in the form of those crows, a blotch so well-known that even Family Guy mocked it. Equally disturbing, I find, is the scene of literally faceless black men performing “slave” labour in the musical number Roustabouts.
The film claims they’re fine—happy, even—about this way of life. It’s all in the lyrics:
“We work all day, we work all night, we never learned to read or write, we’re happy-hearted roustabouts. When other folks have gone to bed, we slave until we’re almost dead, we’re happy-hearted roustabouts.”
I’m no authority on social issues and I’m not trying to earn woke points by shooting inside the fish barrel of 1940s racism, but the racism’s clearly there and a Dumbo without it would make for a better Dumbo.
It all stems from how the filmmakers (i.e. white American men in positions of power) perceived the world and what they considered ‘normal’.
This extends to Dumbo‘s portrayal of animal confinement and cruelty, a practice the film also tries to normalise with shots of exotic animals smiling gleefully in their tight cages and giraffes merrily boarding a train that clamps their necks shut. At a time where a doco like Blackfish can take down SeaWorld, you simply can’t be glib about such subject matter today.
Dumbo exists in a messed-up world that tries to put a happy face on everyday suffering. This isn’t a kind portrayal and it certainly isn’t a compassionate one. It’s ironic given that, at the core of it all, Dumbo‘s tale is one of kindness and compassion.
Poor little Dumbo remains a figure of innocence. “Look at his ears” chuckles some teenager with big ears who goes on to physically abuse the animal. A quartet of gossipy elephants labels him a “F.R.E.A.K.” before excluding him from elephant-kind. His mum defends her child, only to be locked up in the only scene that makes imprisonment look bad.
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That leaves Timothy Mouse, the heart-of-gold stranger who wards off the bullies and tells Dumbo exactly what he needs to hear: “Aw Dumbo, I think your ears are beautiful.” Timothy’s kind. Timothy’s compassionate. Timothy’s the person this film wants us to be.
Dumbo‘s central message preaches tolerance, love, and understanding of those different from us. It’s essentially an adaptation of The Ugly Duckling, where the ‘ugly’ is a big-eared baby animal and the ‘swan’ is an aerodynamic elephant. It still delivers this one message beautifully, but it stands opposed to everything else around it. (No moment highlights the irony more than Timothy rat-splaining discrimination to the racially stereotyped crows.)
The core message works as well as it ever does in 2019 and will be the ultimate comparison point between the original and the remake. Though he may not have the best batting average, there are two things you can say about Tim Burton.
1) His best films perceive the beauty in someone that others label a F.R.E.A.K.
2) He’s not one to slap a happy face on a cruel and miserable world, even for a family film.
I have a weird amount of faith that Burton will successfully push the original’s message forward while putting a critical eye on a disturbing time and place. (Fittingly, it opens alongside this Hindi film that pits a man and an elephant against poachers.)
A lot of Disney’s remakes like 2015’s Cinderella and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast stick so close to the source that I find myself saying: “Just watch the animated original.” Dumbo might be the first that makes me say: “Watch the remake instead.”