Dumbo: Then and Now

Curator's Note

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?

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Great clip and commentary, Susan. What a loving trunk! I particularly like how mother elephant's love appears alongside other displays of maternal animal love (so natural that it can be done sleeping!) I can see how film fans would be drawn to this scene.

I think the YouTubing of it reminds us of how multivalent animal imagery (moving or still) really is, even Disney's. My sense is that this is not new, but some of the ways of accessing these counter-readings are. Good news for historians.


Thanks for doing this topic!

I think we should be careful about assuming these are displays of elephant grieving and loss. You have to look at these things in the context of Disney's general tendency to anthropomorphisation -- these are projections, really, of human - cliched human - affects and emotions onto animals. We should also think about how Dumbo repeats a basic disney trope: killing off the mom to start a narrative. It's ruthless in Disney, so ruthless that these films disturb many children (as they have both of mine). Think of Bambi. The film begins with the murder of the Bambi's mom.

I would also question the assumptions about naturalness of maternal affection that seem to underly this clip. Again, these are clearly projections of a human ideal onto animals. I think it would be better if we could come up with some other language than love to discuss animal gestures of what appear to be affection, even to their young.

That said, it struck me when I was watching Dumbo again last year how it did portray the violence done to circus animals. 

Christopher, there is indeed not much that is "natural" about the maternal love depicted here. But I see lots of naturalizing of maternal love via the multispecies sequence of mommy/baby bondings -- that is, if we understand circus animals as somehow closer to nature than ourselves (itself a tricky proposition). In any case, the gestures we see on screen probably bear little resemblance to how living elephants or zebras, hyenas, hippos, etc. interact with their offspring.

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