Coming in at a scant sixty-four minutes, Dumbo is a breezy little yarn about overcoming your fears, transforming your weaknesses into strengths and, most importantly, teaching us the difference between actual racism and just being racial. Of course, the very story of Dumbo doesn't necessarily lend itself to a discussion on race but, when a movie made in the 40s includes both a murder of affable, jive-talkin' crows and a team of hulking, African American roustabouts, the by-product of such is unavoidable.
New ground isn't exactly being broken in discussing the racial implications of the crows since Dumbo's Wikipedia page even includes a section detailing that very subject titled: “Allegations of racial stereotyping.” Yes, the crows are obviously meant to be African American; their de facto leader is named “Jim Crow” (in script only), they speak in a broken, southern dialect (“ask” becomes “axe”) and they sing a delightfully jazzy number called “When I see an Elephant Fly.” Also, save Jim Crow (who is voiced by Jiminy Cricket tonsil Cliff Edwards) the entire murder is voiced by members of the Hall Johnson Negro Choir. Racial? Indubitably. Racist? As a white man, I'll only go as far as I feel I'm qualified to say without saying “no” – I really, really don't think so. Merely depicting the characteristics/stereotypes of an ethnic group personified into animated animals of the same colour racism does not make. Also, their role in Dumbo's journey is decidedly positive since they're the catalysts in the young pachyderm overcoming his insecurities and instilling the confidence needed to realize his destiny of flight by teaching him that “the very things that held you down are gonna carry you up and up and up!”
In direct contrast to the negativity the crows have garnered is the relatively unnoticed “Song of the Roustabouts.” For example, if one googles “Dumbo Crows Racist” it would yield 120,000 results while “Dumbo Roustabout Song Racist” only gives a return of 18,500 (if there's a more scientific way of measuring something like this, I'm all Dumbo ears). By all means, this song blatantly features all the hallmarks of racism - it dehumanizes and marginalizes these LITERALLY faceless black men through perpetuating and rationalizing negative, institutionalized stereotypes with lyrics that would make Mel Gibson blush. Do yourself a favour and watch the video below for yourselves but here's the general gist of the song: “Hi, we're a bunch of 'happy-hearted' 'slaves' who 'never learned to read or write' and love working sooo much we 'throw our pay away'... oh, and we also refer to our fellow workers as 'hairy apes.'”
Really??? Seven times as many people who have seen Dumbo are googling the “racist crows” over this fun, little diddy? What exactly is it that makes the general hoi polloi wantonly jump all over the harmlessly racial yet, virtually ignore overt racism? It seems that when it comes to racism, it's easier to bury one's eyes in their floppy ears and say as much on the subject as Dumbo would - “. . .”
On a more whimsical note...
Appropriately enough, the story doesn't open with a book like Snow White and Pinocchio but with a series of brightly couloured circus posters.
With the voice over in the beginning and the penultimate scene including its montage of newspaper headlines, Dumbo is book-ended with a very World War II-esque Newsreel motif.
In that aforementioned newspaper montage, Dumbo looks to take on the characteristics of another national hero of the time - Charles Lindbergh.
Dumbo is the first and very rare Walt Disney Animated Classic to be contemporary with its story.
As “Mr. Stork,” Sterling Holloway takes his first of many turns voicing classic Disney characters. Some of his more well-known roles were the “Cheshire Cat” in Alice in Wonderland (1951), “Kaa” in The Jungle Book (1967) and “Winnie the Pooh” in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977).
Except for in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Tiger, you may notice that Mr. Stork delivers all of the baby animals to single mothers.
The name of the circus is “WDP (Walt Disney Picture's) Circus” and its winter quarters are based in southern Florida.
There's no sign of that donkey who was addressed to be shipped to a circus from Pinocchio (1940).
As the circus train, “Casey Jr.” might be the only Disney character based on a personified inanimate object (not counting the Pixar movies).
Casey Jr. takes his chant of "I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can" from the popular childrens' story The Little Engine that Could (1906).
“Dumbo” is a mean-spirited nickname given to him by the other female elephants in the troop. His mother Jumbo named him “Jumbo Jr.”
Those elephant cows seem to have the characteristics of a bunch of cackling yentas who may have migrated from Brooklyn to sunny Florida in their older age.
Dumbo is brought to Jumbo with two birth defects: freakishly large ears and he's a mute.
I'm not sure if there's a mama alive who doesn't become verklempt with emotion during the “Baby Mine” sequence.
Both in story and character, Dumbo shares a lot with Pinocchio:
1. Both of their existences are conjured by lonesome star gazers (Gepetto and Jumbo).
2. In Jiminy Cricket and Timothy J. Mouse, they are both flanked and counseled by street-wise, hand-held friends.
3. They're both exploited as performers and achieve various levels of fame.
4. They both suffer from a bout of childhood drunkenness.
The “Pink Elephants on Parade” drunken dream sequence has all the psychedelics of the 60s twenty years before its time.
Was that champagne or absinthe that spikes the tub of water Dumbo and Timothy drink from?
Considering Timothy went on to have a career in Hollywood, one can posit that the events he experienced in Dumbo (spiked drinks, waking up in high places with no memory of how he got there) could've led to him playing an integral part in the development of Hollywood Blockbuster The Hangover (2009).
Both being ostracized due to physical abnormalities that would ultimately serve as strengths, Dumbo and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1939) are strikingly similar. Though, it's difficult to say if either one was inspired by the other since the original story that inspired Walt Disney to make Dumbo came from an obscure comic strip-like book that was given away in cereal boxes in... 1939.
Is there a main villain in Dumbo? The only prospects are the Elephant cows, the clowns and/or the Ring Leader.
We love Disney. Period.