Dumbo is a darkly subversive film.
To be sure, the 1941 Disney “classic” is a tale meant to boost young Americans’ self-esteem. It tells the story of an awkward young elephant with gigantic ears who becomes the star of the circus when he discovers his unique ability to fly.
Yet, like much circus fiction, Dumbo also contains a comment on circus animal use. The film’s miserable elephants struggle to squeeze into tiny rail cars ill-suited to house them; they labor sullenly in a storm to erect the circus tent; they snipe in resentment over dangerous acrobatic tricks they are forced to perform in the ring. Indeed, Disney made Dumbo for audiences at once nostalgic about the circus as popular entertainment and cynical from a century of witnessing circuses demonize and publicly execute elephants made unmanageable by captivity. Dumbo’s mother is locked away as just such a “mad elephant” after a chilling scene in which she assaults a visitor (who ridiculed Dumbo’s ears), then goes berserk as the circus’s ringmaster and his men confront her with whips, ropes and elephant hooks.
A couple of years ago viewers began exploring this critique by re-shaping Dumbo’s professionally-produced representations of animals as user-generated content on YouTube. A number of people extracted and posted the film’s “Baby of Mine” sequence on the site, suddenly revealing the clip as a long-time fan favorite. Countering the circus-friendly hopeful individualism of the film’s resolution, a multitude of users have commented on “Baby of Mine” to express identification with subjective elephant experiences of grief and loss:
- JimmySteller: “Can you imagine watching those scenes after your parents had passed on? It would be unbearable. That's what makes me weep when I see this.”
- TinyRagdoll, “it also makes me a little mad to see the injustice on how they would imprison and chain Mrs. Jumbo for protecting Dumbo.”
- Papillion1986, “Makes me cry everytime I see this. Not just the fact he can't be with mommy but also because she's chained up. :'( ”
- osunason: “i love you mom!!!”
Do we see here new public attitudes about performing animals? Or is the creative environment of YouTube simply helping consumers voice attitudes they have had all along, attitudes that in the past were drowned out by circus advertising and a complicit press?
And what does Dumbo mean to you?