G, but hold on a second. Dumbo has one of the most racist characters in Disney's history. It's perhaps not as on the nose as Song of the South, but the crows are wildly offensive. It also is a super bummer of a movie. Dumbo and Timothy get into some booze and trip pretty bad. Regardless, it is still considered G. My kids watched it and they didn't pick up on some stuff. But that itself might be a bit of a crime...
DIRECTORS: Sam Armstrong et. al
I got hired to write an advance review of the new live-action version of Dumbo. Who loves Dumbo? I don't know if Dumbo ever had the cultural importance that the other Disney characters did. But I decided to knock this one out of the park. Anyway, it's only 64 minutes. Do you understand how easy it is to knock out a 64 minute movie? Well, this all leads to the fact that I totally forgot that Dumbo is the one with the racist crows. Apparently, the leader of the crows is actually named Jim Crow. Isn't. That. Fascinating.
All of this brings back an argument that I've probably thought of time and again. Where is the line drawn when it comes to art? Can we enjoy things that are fundamentally problematic? If we flash back to Birth of a Nation, we can't divorce the overt racism from the storytelling. Birth of a Nation resculpted the historical landscape of America. Then we have second tier racism. That's the kind of stuff that we deal with in Dumbo. Dumbo never led to the insurgence of the Klan like Birth of a Nation did. But also look at the intended audience of Dumbo. It's aimed at my four-year-old son. I'm taking my son to the new movie for his fifth birthday. But can a four-year-old really appreciate it? Should he watch Jim Crow and his flock shuck and jive when there is so much better stuff out there? I don't know if Dumbo has the legs that many of the other Disney creations have. The one thing that my wife noticed is that Dumbo is actually very light when it comes to the script. It's kind of just bleakness. Dumbo, as a film, almost feels like it is a precursor to Fantasia. Rather than being a traditional narrative, Dumbo almost acts like the background character study. I don't mind a character study. It's fine. But there really isn't a story. There are moments. I can't deny that there are elements of a narrative. Mrs. Jumbo protecting her child and being locked away is a plot point. Dumbo and Timothy getting drunk and ending up in the tree is a plot point. SPOILER: Dumbo flying is a plot point. There are things that make the movie fairly traditional. But oddly enough, I think that Dumbo kind of has more in common with The Passion of the Christ than it does with other films. Imagine that The Passion of the Christ had a happy ending. I mean, it kind of does. It totally sets it up for a sequel. But both Dumbo and The Passion of the Christ takes a character with whom we quickly love and admire. But within moments of that introduction, we have to start sitting through greater and greater tortures from almost all places. From moment one, Dumbo is bullied by the other elephants. The drawing of Dumbo shows how innocent and adorable he is. He has these bright blue eyes and these adorable ears and he smiles all of the time. But he's being ridiculed without his knowledge. Every single character with the exception of Mrs. Jumbo hates this kid. Timothy isn't in the story yet. He only shows up once Mrs. Jumbo is incarcerated. But everything in the story compounds with the torture. We feel worse for Dumbo than Dumbo himself feels.
But The Passion of the Christ isn't exactly for kids. It's an important story. Disney is doing something really weird with this movie. It's a movie about bullying and if we were to distill a theme, it would be just that. It is a story about bullying. But it also doesn't really have the character have any agency. It's the ugly duckling narrative. Yeah, there's no shift between a misunderstanding and realization. But the very thing that makes Dumbo ugly is the thing that ends up being his escape and realization. It's so weird. I'm going to continue to make comparison with other movies, but this ties into Babe and Charlotte's Web. Most movies give the characters agency when the protagonist realizes that he or she has abilities, that is where the morality falls upon the character. The second that characters have that skill, it is how they use it and whether or not that they will turn the tables. However, the film just kind of ends once Dumbo discovers his abilities. It's kind of a fairy tale rather than a morality play. We don't know what Dumbo really does with his abilities. There are these fun newspaper clippings. The circus finds its star in the flying elephant. If anything happens, the circus doesn't actually have any consequences for their treatment of Dumbo. Dumbo is tortured throughout the story. Then they get the show the century, the only flying elephant. So what's the message that can be read in the narrative of Dumbo? Dumbo is almost talking about the utilitarian value of the individual. Dumbo is ignored by the entire circus with the exception of Timothy and Mrs. Jumbo. But everyone likes him once he can fly. Rather than taking care of Dumbo, the elephants who should have a responsibility for raising this child hate him. They blame him for every discomfort and actually sell him to the clowns. But the movie ends with this overly happy ending. The elephants all seem to love him now that he can fly. There's no moment of atonement. I know, it's a kids' story. But that scene might be important. If you are good at something, people will like you? Why do I want my kids to have that idea? I want my kids to know that they have value in themselves. I want all of that great love and all of those great skills to only add to their experiences. It's a really problematic story. Bullying doesn't often end in happiness. Dumbo lives in this toxic environment and yet continues to look for validation from his peers. Why? I'm not saying that there isn't a version that doesn't leave Dumbo with the circus. There definitely is. But Dumbo doesn't really make choices. He's a silent character. All of the other characters make choices for him. Bullying needs to have Dumbo making choices and at no point does he. Think about it. Dumbo, at one point, has to climb all of these elephants. (I don't know why this wasn't rehearsed.) But he is terrified. The choice he makes is to flee. That's a valid choice. I can stand behind that choice. But Timothy puts a pin in his butt, forcing him to run forward. The same thing with the flaming towers. Dumbo just does what everyone tells him. Why would there be a story about bullying without having the character make any choices? You can't get mad at Dumbo because there is no expectation for Dumbo to make these choices. Instead, we have to relate to Timothy, who is definitely a secondary character and doesn't really have a stake outside of love for Dumbo. It's a really weird setup. But that's why it is more of a Fantasia segment rather than a story in itself.
Now it all comes full circle. Remember, I watched Dumbo with a purpose. I was getting ready to see the live action version and I had to brush up on the original for the sake of the new article. This brings something into my thought process besides the fact that people in 1941 knew that circuses were just animal torture factories. One of the things I've been riding pretty hard is the notion that the live-action Disney remakes are wholly unnecessary. They can't be as good as the originals because they are made to play on our nostalgia of the originals. But they also make money because of people's obsessions with the originals. But the new Dumbo might actually end up having some value. Few people are obsessed with the original Dumbo. It's one of the ones that kind of flies under the radar, mostly because it is so problematic. It's a bummer movie with racism. No one wants to revisit that. But what this does is open doors for Disney that financially make a lot of sense. They have this property that only a select few absolutely adore. They are rolling out all of these live action films. It's only going to be a matter of time before all of the beloved ones are gone and there will be a streak of titles that don't inspire nostalgia. Not only that, but these movies would be coming out at a time when there's going to be live-action remake burnout. But if you make Dumbo before Aladdin and The Lion King, Dumbo actually can do something new with the property. The new Dumbo can course correct a lot. If no one is in love with the original version, the changes that can be made can actually fix a lot of the problems. No one is beholden to the original vision because that would just be a weird choice. The byproduct of this choice, then, is the opportunity to actually fix a bad movie and have something that might actually have legs after it is gone. I'm one of the few people who really dug the Jungle Book remake. But even I acknowledge that, immediately after I watched it, I had a "who cares?" attitude about the whole thing. These movies don't last. They are meant for quick cash grabs. But the new Dumbo could have potential. The original has some foundation for good storytelling, but it mired in the age it was made in and also is just a huge bummer. A retelling of Dumbo is kind of what Hollywood has been playing at for a while. Why remake a good movie that is close to everyone's hearts when you can remake a movie that has lots of problems despite having a solid foundation? That's what I'm looking forward to in the new movie. Yeah, I'm not a Tim Burton fan. But lots of people are big Tim Burton fans. So I can look forward to this film in the hopes that there's something great here because the original Dumbo, while pretty looking, is barely a movie. And when it is a movie, it makes some big mistakes mostly because it was made in a different time. The good news is that my kids didn't really pick up on the content. But it also made me aware that maybe I should be more careful before just throwing on anything that is aimed at children.
But could you imagine me binging Dumbo alone? That might actually be creepier.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.