American Mythology in Disney's Dumbo


by Bill Benzon

I’ve just been watching Dumbo. I suppose it’s been over thirty years since I last saw it, or some part of it, so my expectations were most strongly influenced by what I’ve read in the last year or two. I was primed for the “Baby Mine” and “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequences. The crow sequence caught me off guard, but as soon as it got started I had a sense of recollection.

What’s interesting about that sequence, of course, is that the crows are voiced and animated as African-Americans, though they’re just crows. Many of those featureless roustabouts earlier in the film appear African-American as well; but they are people, and they don’t talk or sing. They are bit players. The crows are more significant to the plot. While they start out with ridicule – though a rather odd sort of ridicule as it’s directed at the notion of a flying elephant – they’re quickly won over to Dumbo’s cause by a “sermon” preached by “reverend rodent” (Timothy Mouse). They then work with Timothy on a scheme that succeeds in getting Dumbo to fly. That is to say, they provide both social support and practical aid.

What interests me is the specific role these African-American crows play. For that role is deeply sanctioned within American culture. Though I’m not prepared to sketch out a history, I can give some salient examples.

Perhaps the single most important example is Mark Twains’ The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck’s father was an abusive alcoholic who beat Huck so frequently and badly that Huck finally decided that he had to run away in order to save his live. In the course of running away he met up with Jim, a slave whom he knew and liked, who was running away as well. The fact that Jim is presented as simple and naïve shouldn’t blind us to the fact that he plays the role of a supportive a nurturing parent to Huck. Here then, at the canonical heart of American literature, we have an abused white child seeking solace in the company of an African American.

And that’s what Dumbo does. A couple of years later Disney does Song of the South – which I’ve not seen since whatever fragments showed up on Disney’s TV program – where the frame story has the same situation, a white child finding solace with a middle-aged African American, good old Uncle Remus. A few years after that, in 1950, Kirk Douglas stars as Rick Martin in Young Man with a Horn, based on the novel by Dorothy Baker (which, in turn, has some relation to the life of Bix Beiderbicke). Rick Martin was orphaned as a young boy and came under the spell of jazz. He was befriended by Art Hazzard, an African American trumpeter, who gave him trumpet lessons and acted as a father to him.

Thus the fact that those crows in Dumbo are given African American moves and voices is not at all a casual matter. It taps very deep currents in America’s cultural mythology. Disney’s audience would have had no difficulty seeing and hearing those crows as African American. After all, Amos ‘n Andy had been a popular radio program since the early 1920s. The sound of black voices was a familiar one in just about every household that had a radio – though the characters on the show were voiced by white actors. But there was nothing unusual about that, either; that practice dates back to the 19th century. And Cliff “Jiminy Cricket” Edwards, who voiced the lead crow, was clearly well-grounded in that tradition. The other crows were voiced by members of the Hall Johnson Choir, which was an African American outfit.

Now, in bringing this up, I’m not trying to tar Disney with the charge of racism. I’m just pointing out what’s there and how it relates to larger patterns in American culture. Walt Disney wouldn’t have achieved his near mythic status if he hadn’t been able to reach deep into American mythology. This is one example of his ability to do so, and in a startling way – in a story about an outcast baby elephant. [Surely it is worth nothing that those crows were animated by one of the jazz musicians on Disney’s staff, Ward Kimball.]

So, Dumbo is restored to society through the mediation of some African-American crows. Once I got that far in my thinking I began to rethink the previous sequence, the pink elephants. That is a marvelous piece of animation, but what does it have to do with the story? How does it advance the action? To be sure, something very important happens in the course of that sequence – Dumbo flies up into the tree – but that event isn’t depicted in the sequence itself. The sequence is just there.

Well, what if Disney and his animators had decided to depict Dumbo’s first flight? It seems to me that that would entail real problems, especially for Disney’s aesthetics, if not cult, of cuteness. It is one thing to show this cute big-eared baby elephant getting tipsy and blowing funny bubbles and seeing things, but do you really what to depict him bumbling around and somehow managing to fly without really knowing what he was doing? While there’s no technical difficulty in doing that, it does seem to me that keeping it realistic, even within the terms of the cartoon, would require that you besmirch Dumbo’s cuteness, or come dangerously close to doing so. Further, it would rob the “learning to fly” sequence of its interest. There wouldn’t be any dramatic point to it. Finally, it would reduce the difference between Dumbo’s circus world and the crow’s world to one of mere geography. We see Dumbo stumble around in the circus, he somehow begins flapping his ears, takes to the sky, and ends up in a tall tree – all before our watchful gaze. How dull, but disillusioning.

Instead, Disney takes us into this marvelous surrealistic sequence of transmogrifying pink elephants. What that does is eradicate the circus world from out minds. And that circus world was a pretty cynical one. It’s not simply that Dumbo and his mother were ostracized, but that the circus itself was not a place of fun and fantasy, but just a gig. Whatever it is that children have in mind when daydreaming about running off to join the circus, this is not the circus they dream about. The boredom and cynicism displayed by the animals (e.g. the yawning lion) in the opening day parade, for example, was marvelous, as was the nastiness of the clowns. These performers are, after all, what the show is about, and Disney reveals them to us as just, well, creatures, with interests of their own and no particular admiration and affection for the circus that so enthralls the audience.

The pink elephants sequence replaces all that with an example of real magic and whimsy – though at times its also a frightening. Thus, at the end of the sequence when the last of the pink elephants transform into clouds at sunrise, we’re ready to enter a different moral universe, one with different values. It’s not simply that the crows, as individuals, are more sympathetic to Dumbo, but that they live by different values than those status-driven elephants that shunned Dumbo and his mother and those clowns who were only interested in exploiting Dumbo so they could hit the boss up for a raise. The crows were able to consider Dumbo’s ears as signs of remarkable ability and were willing to act on that perception, though with a little deception thrown in (the “magic” feather).

The pink elephants sequence tells us that the difference between the circus world, in which Dumbo is shunned and his mother imprisoned, and the crow’s world (in the sky), is not simply one of geography. It is a difference in imaginative and moral capacity. Thus the transition from one world to the other is not merely physical; it is also mental and imaginative. The pink elephants sequence underlines that aspect of the transition.

A few other things are worth noting in this general context. First, while Snow White and Pinocchio were set in a fairytale Europe of sometime past, Dumbo is set in a highly stylized American present. Thus in the newspapers that flash across the screen after Dumbo’s triumph on the first has a story entitled “Britain in Greatest Offensive” while a bit later we see a color picture of Dumbo-inspired airplanes entitled “’Dumbombers’ For Defense.” The characterization of the crows is another aspect of this contemporary setting. Then there is that odd stork beginning. I have no idea whether or not it derives from the source book or was created by Disney. But there’s a very telling lyric in the song: “You may be poor or rich, it doesn’t matter which. Millionaires, they get theirs, like the butcher and the baker . . .” That lyric in effect frames the rest of the story with egalitarian sentiment.

Thus when the elephant matrons reject Dumbo, their actions explicitly contrast with that framing sentiment. The film is not sympathetic to them at this point. But that’s not the final judgment. During sequence where we see laborers setting up the circus tent during a ferocious rain storm—the show must go on!—the film surely asks us to identify with all those who do that back-breaking physical work, a group that includes both the faceless roustabouts and the elephants and other circus animals—a bit of cross-species comradeship, incidentally, that’s especially telling in our era of growing ecological awareness. When we get to the circus show itself we see the elephants building a ridiculous pyramid while the ringmaster is blathering away. At this point the film definitely sympathizes with them. Their lives are on the line, but there’s no evidence that the ringmaster-owner is concerned with anything beyond spectacle. At the very end of the film, of course, the matrons are restored to grace in the (fragile) bounty that has come to the circus through Dumbo’s success.

What interests me is the scene after the pyramid collapses, bringing down the big top, and the matrons are wounded and bandaged. That’s when they take a solemn vow that Dumbo is no longer an elephant. That, of course, is cruel of them. It is precisely because their cruelty is so obvious that it is also obvious that Dumbo is being scapegoated for that disaster. Did he play a role in the disaster? Yes. Was it his fault? Not in any clear and obvious way. But they can punish him while the ringmaster, who surely shares in the blame, is beyond their reach. That are, after all, only elephants and are ultimately dependent on that boss for their livelihood.

It seems to me this cuts deeper than the elephant’s initial disdain for Dumbo. That’s mere snobbery and we have to take it at face value. This scapegoating is the result of a rather nasty social process which is, however, common and familiar in tens of thousands of school yards and neighborhoods and central to the psycho-dynamics of all too many political campaigns. Surely Disney is to be commended for depicting this process.

In the end, though, it’s not clear to me that Disney was entirely successful with Dumbo. For one thing the ending seems a bit quick and easy to me. In a way the pink elephants sequence is too successful; it simply erases the previous movie from our memory. But that erasure does little or nothing for those faceless roustabouts, or even those avaricious and exploitive clowns. Dumbo has his crow “posse” and he and his mother now live in a luxurious railroad car. But the values that kicked him to the curb are still in place. The matrons may be singing Dumbo’s song, but they’re singing it in the careful accents of middle-class propriety.

The emphasis is certainly on Dumbo as an individual. But, by establishing a contemporary setting, an egalitarian sentiment, middle-brow snobbery, and those African-American crows, Disney entails a wider social context. This leaves me with the odd feeling that, in some ways Dumbo is a more ambitious film than, say, Pinocchio. The Pinocchio story seems strongly self-contained within the relationships between the three central characters; it’s an entirely personal story. Dumbo, though intensely focused on a very important relationship – that between mother and child – embeds that relationship in the larger world in a fairly open-ended way. Disney was reaching for more than he undertook in Pinocchio. Is it too much to see in Dumbo the first step down a path that Disney chose not to explore?

ADDENDUM: Last year Michael Sporn devoted two posts to the tent set-up scene. The first features preliminary art work while the second is based on the filmed sequence. From Sporn’s second post:

The bold and dramatic artwork represents nothing so much as Russian poster art of the 20s and 30s. Whether this is accidental or not is open to question, but given the political nature of many of the workers (pre-strike) I think they knew what they were doing. You can see that in the strong chalk drawings, done as preliminary art, and you can see it in the final.

The men’s chorus singing the piece just underscores that theme, and is entirely supportive.

Piece originally published at New Savannah | Creative Commons License