Thoughts On: Dumbo
In the previous part I covered everything up to Timothy the mouse meeting Dumbo for the first time. If you’ve not checked out the first part, check it out here…
… that said, let’s finish.
Having established an idea of fear and of irrationality within larger spheres of minorities and social hierarchy, we come to the elephant’s first performance and the ringmaster’s epiphany. Here is where the film dips deeper into its subtext, opening up apparent plot holes. The ringmaster has a vision of a pyramid, a pyramid of pachyderms – something quite obviously impossible–and with mammals that can’t even jump. Now, I know we’re already quite a way into a film with talking animals, but it is easy to call bullshit on this. However, this not a plot device designed to be sensical, but strengthen the narrative message. What the ringmaster is foreseeing is a symbol of hierarchy – I mean, a pyramid of pachyderms, right? For Timothy to step in here and suggest Dumbo is the climax, that the runt can jump to the top of the pack, is tantamount to an american dream of sorts – of any kind of hopeful thinking really. What Tim’s plan consists of is bringing Dumbo up through the ranks of society, to showcase his true potential, his true self that is worthy of love, success and so on. This is all a little fanciful, I accept that, but I think it’s also pretty easy to accept a positive story once in a while. So, having planted the seed, Timothy preps Dumbo for the jump whilst the ringmaster preps the audience. What’s most interesting about this image…
… is the ball. Not only is this stunt physiologically impossible, not only has this stunt never been practised by these elephants, but the ringmaster decides to stage it on a ball. WHAT!? WHY!? In terms of sense, outside of fantasy and subtext, this is utterly ridiculous. But what is being set up here is a plan doomed to failure. This is the irrational dream of an idiot wanting to make money, a better name for himself at the expense of others. The ringmaster is willing to make everything all the more harder for the purpose of an audience. And so, in this the real enemy, the real conflict of the film is presented. It’s the nameless, the faceless, the humans. The audience represents an idea of facade, of a character without character. This then makes clear why people are never shown in detail – as discussed in the previous part. And of course, the culmination of this insanity is disaster, both literally and metaphorically. Dumbo fails to prove himself, he fails to climb social ranks because of his ears and as a result he’s socially exiled.
Having failed to reach new heights Dumbo is literally made out to be the fall guy. Here, what becomes most clear is height as a symbol of social stature. In the beginning, with the cloud sequence, Dumbo is implied to have descended from the heavens. For him to sink through the cloud is what foreshadows both the aforementioned disaster and now this…
Height is an image of precariousness, of danger, of a fall in all senses of the word. And to reinforce this idea, he is made out to be a clown. In this, Dumbo being both the fall guy and a crowd’s fool, it’s made all too clear that the world exploits him, constantly manipulates, leaving him nothing, a shell – success an empty idea. And so from here comes plans from the other clowns of pushing the exploitation, of wanting to drop Dumbo from greater heights – and all in the name of entertainment. What this begins to suggest is the aspect of human nature that measures itself off the idea of others. When you’re alone, sitting at home, reading and analysis of Dumbo, you may be miserable, happy, numb, whatever. But, say someone sits next to you and they are 3 times more miserable, 4 times happier, comatose with abject senselessness – utterly numb – it changes the way you see the world, right? It’s the infamous underlying mechanism behind reality T.V. You want to see a better life than yours to make you feel miserable. You want to seeing absolute ruin to make you feel a bit better. Dumbo, caked in white makeup, holding a rattle, stood dozens of feet above the ground is Tanisha, arms crossed, feet tapping, biting her lip, waiting… ‘he is not the father of your baby’…. YEAH!! And then L.G’s on his feet, celebrating, break dancing, Tanisha embarrassed, unable to do much more than shake her head. Maybe that was a little racist, but all for the next point. The white makeup? And with Dumbo still being and African elephant… I don’t know, what’s going on here, right? Well, what we’re seeing is the manipulation of Dumbo’s image yet again. He’s made to look more human, more like the audience waiting to see him fall – and all so they can better attribute themselves to him, waiting for the SPLASH so they can let loose a sigh of relief knowing that was not them who made the mistake of coming onto T.V to be made the fool of – or in better context, smash into a pool of custard. Moreover, to make Dumbo look like a baby is in part sadistic to a weird degree, but is also a spit in the face. For him to be a baby, but comically, insinuates he looks nothing like one. And of course, he’s no more than a month or two old, so, again, manipulation of character, Dumbo is being told who and what he is. I mean, I’m calling him Dumbo, right? That’s not his name. His name is Jumbo Jr.
To be embraced by his true character as nothing more than a baby with the weight of the world on his shoulders Dumbo retreats to his mother in one of the most touching scenes of all time. Undeniable cinematic beauty, irrefutable perfection. It’s this acceptance of character, that marks the turning point of the narrative, and which also brings us to the most surreal scene Disney has ever produced. To dive into this, because it most definitely has meaning, I think it’s best to start off by seeing it quickly…
Pink Elephants On Parade
The first thing to ask here, is why pink elephants? Well, the answer seems to stem from the idea that its common to hallucinate seeing pink elephants when drunk. Now, I’m not sure about this at all, but its what Google said, so, what I’m going to rely on instead is personal interpretation here. The elephants being pink may imply an idea of manipulation of character again. This is best understood through the apparency of them being balloons -blow up things. They are toys meant to entertain, just like Dumbo, stood before an expectant audience. Before diving deeper, yes, Dumbo is drunk here. The film has been often criticised as showing this as a solution to your problems (with Dumbo realising he can fly after this). This is perfectly valid criticism, but to look at this film, not a kid’s movie, but simply a piece of art, the alcohol doesn’t seem to solve problems, but push Dumbo lower, into the depths of depression and thought. And from this is he emerges all the better. To understand why, we have to dive into the sequence.
We start with pink elephants and music. This is a call back to the circus of, expectation and a performance – making clear why this is a ‘parade’. What also needs to be made clear is that the elephants here all stem from Dumbo’s concept of his people – of elephants such as his mother, and especially the group he was expelled from. The other female elephants not only parade a facade to entertain, but uphold an idea of race and pride. Dumbo however sees them as stepping on and over one another – which explains the early imagery of elephants squashing, merging, hitting. After this we get a lot of ghostly imagery, implying that the society of elephants haunt Dumbo – each other even. This culminates in them surrounding a symbol of rest and comfort – a bed. More haunting imagery comes with the worms and ‘Technicolor pachyderms’. This breaks the fourth wall a little pointing the finger at the audience with Technicolor, implying that we are like what is being discussed. We are the elephants. We watch one another’s pain for entertainment, to empathise, sympathise, feel better about ourselves. And what this all makes clear is that this is not a commentary on elephant society, but human society. We are the ones who can be fake, step over one another – and all to seem like better people. What happens next is the incorporation of early themes of race and identity with the shift to a more Eastern style of music, pyramids and dancing… things… this:
There’s an argument of sexuality, and phallic imagery here (if you look at the trunks, snakes and so on), but I’m not sure its grounded. There is however an idea of attraction and of affection (encompassed by the image of the single eye) which soon comes into play. But what the return to race based themes does is remind us that Dumbo is an African elephant and every other elephant he knows is Asian. What Dumbo is then made clear to be contemplating is his place in elephant society – where he belongs. Next, we come to a theatre production, a show, a dance. This is where the idea of affection comes in. Elephants dance, but seem to be using one another, as captured by the image of stairs. We shouldn’t get caught up in this idea though, as using people isn’t always a bad things – especially when tables are balanced in a mutual way. This is why there’s a shift from cold to hot, to show that elephants do get along, that maybe there’s sanity in what ensues: industrialisation, society at large. And with an explosion, everything is over. The pink elephants, an idea of society, settles into pink clouds. Dumbo finds his epiphany and it is of tolerance. He sees society as fake, chaotic, surreal even – but in the end, simply what is. And with this acceptance comes the scene with the black birds.
We went over this before, but I’ll say it again, this maybe seems racist – but I don’t think it is. All we have here are a group of black men acting in a stereotypical manner. Stereotypes may not be exactly accurate in all cases, they are broad statements, but we’re dealing with a film of archetypes. The birds are archetypal, snappy black guys. I mean, they’re pretty cool though, right? I don’t know, I don’t want to argue the point. What I do want to bring back is what was recently brought to the forefront and that is Dumbo in association to race. Remembering that Dumbo may represent a black person, an African, for him to encounter these African American birds pushes the theme of tolerance. At first they see him as a stranger, someone out of place, just like the other elephants did, but with an appeal to morality with Tim presenting himself as a preacher (? – heavy stereotyping, I know) they see the connection between them all – and so, they help him to fly. But, hold on, we skipped something. How did Dumbo get up in the tree in the first place? Physically, well, he flew. But, in terms of narrative message, he had an epiphany of tolerance in his hallucination. This gave him the confidence to start climbing social ranks – and ends him up on that insanely high platform, caked in makeup, ready to fall and splash down again. However, he’s got a tool this time – a magic feather. What this represents is an idea of culture, of there being something magic about being black – specifically an African American. Hold on to your hats though, and let Dumbo jump… he drops the feather. This drains his confidence. He doesn’t identify as a crow, as an African American. In this sense, he’s no longer faking an identity to feel included. However, this leaves him in a crisis, the ground below screaming closer, humiliation, possibly death looming.
But of course, Dumbo flies and in doing to exacts his revenge, asserting his place upon all who wronged him. What this all means is Dumbo had to accept himself. His success, his greatness was achieved by not pretending to be a crow, by not pretending to be an Asian elephant, a clown – he flies because that’s the advantage his ears give him. And in that, we have conclusivity – a horrible end to a racist film. In the end, Dumbo is about being you, finding it hard to do so, but managing, thriving having found the way to do so. The film is that simple, but nonetheless, poignant.
Dumbo – Tolerance Of Self Part 1
Bus Stop – Know Your Place
More from me: