the saddest circus movie
Hi there and welcome back to “Oof! Right in the Childhood” I’m Jen, and this is a podcast where I watch the Disney animated feature films in the order in which they were released, and both tell you the history and react to them from a modern standpoint.
This time, we’ll be talking about the fourth Disney movie, 1941’s Dumbo. The saddest circus movie ever made.
Dumbo is based on a children’s book by Helen Aberson-Mayer and Harold Pearl. Walt first saw this book in 1939 and had intended to make this a short, but he realized really quickly that he needed to make it a full movie.
The nice thing about Dumbo is that they didn’t need the special effects that Pinnochio, Fantasia, or Bambi did. And after two films that didn’t turn a profit in a row, Disney really needed a win. The aim of the animators of Dumbo was to make the film as inexpensively as possible. That’s why there are some very worrying simplistic elements to this movie that we’re going to definitely talk about in the summary slash reaction part.
Regardless, Disney wanted to get the elephants right, so they brought some into the studio so that the animators could see how they moved. The animators were asked to use watercolours for the films backgrounds rather than the oil and gouache that other movies had used.
Disney was in such a hurry to finish the movie, he rushed the crew and insisted on bringing in younger, less experienced animators that earn as much pay and then asked the more senior animators to supervise them. With animators working 6 days a week under grueling conditions, something was bound to give.
In May of 1941, Walt arrived at the studio to find that over 200 of his animators had walked out. They had formed a picket line at the gates of the studio with signs demanding fair pay for workers. Walt was furious. He felt betrayed by the new union leader who had been one of the studio’s lead animators.
The strike lasted nine weeks, leaving Walt Disney Productions with fewer than 600 animators to continue working on both Dumbo and Bambi. Walt refused to negotiate until the National Labor Relations Board stepped in and forced him to create a contract with the union.
However, Walt never truly forgave the union for the strike. He created caricatures of them in Dumbo as clowns demanding a raise from the ring master.
The thing is, the Disney Animators’ strike didn’t just affect Disney. It began a chain reaction with animators from all the major studios calling for far wages and better hours. Animation World Network says that it changed the landscape of animation and comics permanently.
In the end, Dumbo cost the studio $950,000. That’s 16.6 million dollars now-a-days. It was released at 64 minutes, a length that RKO felt was too short, which is ironic after how they acted about Fantasia being too long. Walt explained that, under no circumstances could he make it longer. There wasn’t enough story, and he didn’t have the money. Eventually it was released at that length.
And Walt got the miracle he needed. Dumbo quickly became the highest earning Disney film of the decade. After its first release, it earned 1.3 million dollars or 22.8 million dollars today.
Critics loved Dumbo. They enjoyed the film’s colours and animals, one critic named Cecelia Ager called it “the nicest, kindest Disney yet.” I’ve watched this movie, and I wonder if Cecelia and I watch the same one.
This podcast is sponsored by my patrons on Patreon. I love creating content for you, and becoming a patron on my Patreon helps me cover hosting fees and upgrade the equipment I use while allowing me to minimize ad time and promote small businesses. At the $5 level you not only get an ad-free version of each episode, a day earlier than its released, but starting next month, you get a special bonus episode on the first of each month with content available exclusively on Patreon.
In October, I investigate the role of Walt Disney Studios during World War 2 from the occupation of the studio by the U.S. Military to the hundreds of hours of training and propaganda that the studio released. I also provide synopses and commentary for nine of the propaganda pieces they released during the war.
Information on my Patreon can be found on my website at oofmychildhood.com
Before I get into the reactions to this movie, I’m going to give you a big ol' trigger warning! For what? Like everything. This movie has racism, animal abuse, ableism, more animal abuse.
I’m watching these on Disney + which has been traditionally very quiet. Netflix is fine at level 20 volume, we usually have Disney + at 30-35. The opening for Dumbo, though, IS VERY LOUD. I was knocked off the couch.
The movie starts out with synchronized stork flying over Florida. The stork myth has always fascinated me. The idea that people just wake up one morning and a baby has appeared without any notice.
The storks bring babies to all the animals in the circus except for Mrs. Jumbo the Elephant. As someone who’s been in fertility treatments for years, I especially feel her pain.
We zoom out to another stork who has Lost. His. Baby.
Seen from the clouds, the USA is neatly separated into states with clear labels.
We saw before that, if your baby arrives at night, it just shows up. If it comes during the day, a giant bird shows up in front of your friends, makes you sign for it, and then sings happy birthday to it. This seems like the equivalent of giving birth in public.
This wittle tiny elephant rolls out of the stork’s bindle and he is the cutest thing ever! And then as soon as everyone starts cooing over it, his ears pop out and they’re as big as his whole body.
The other lady elephants proceed to insult this adorable baby and then say Mrs. Jumbo has a nasty temper when she tells them to cut that crap out. Sounds right.
Now for the first racist song of the film. Hey, I'd completely forgotten about the black workers talking about how they're thrilled that they never learned to read or write. And then we watch the elephants be forced to help set up too. Oof! Right in the childhood. This was an anti-circus movie, right?
They have a really cool circus parade to launch the circus. I can see in it some inspiration for Aladdin’s parade, but with more clown violence. But Dumbo gets distracted by the crowd and trips over his ears into the mud.
My favourite animal podcast, Just the Zoo of Us talked about how sometimes, animation shows animals drinking directly through their trunks, but I appreciate how in the bath scene, both Mrs. Jumbo and Dumbo suck the water up then release it from their trunks as they would in the real world.
I would also like to take this moment to note that neither of the main elephants have their own name. Dumbo’s father, whom we never meet, Jumbo. Dumbo’s mother intended to name him Jumbo Junior until everyone decided that him having big ears made him less attractive. So his mother goes by her mate’s name and he has an ableist name that isn’t real.
Also, it’s during this scene that I realize that they’re the only elephants who don’t talk. That’s an interesting realization.
But there’s this beautiful mother-child moment where they play together and just love each other.
The circus opens, and almost immediately, some jerk little kid with big ears starts making fun of Dumbo. This is ironic and shows how disdainful humans are.
Mrs. Jumbo tries to move him away, but they drag him out and start to pull on him. So, like any mother, she decides to defend her baby. This does involve her spanking the boy, but it was the 40s. That was done all the time. Nevertheless, the circus workers get upset. They whip her and lock her away. All humans are terrible.
It’s also at this point that you should take a moment to realize that they drew people of colour without faces.
Danger: Mad Elephant, my aunt Fanny!
So, they’ve separated a mother elephant from her calf within, what we assume is, days of his birth. According to Elephants for Africa, an elephant research group, elephant calves continue to drink milk from their mothers for up to 10 years. They aren’t just separating a mother from her child, they’re starving the child.
The other bitty elephants are making fun the humans that Mrs. Jumbo fought back against. But oh, she must remember she’s a lady! Ugh. Someone tell these hellions that cinnamon rolls are better than gender roles.
One of them says she doesn’t blame Mrs. Jumbo, and another says, yeah, it’s totally the baby’s fault for being born with large ears. How dare he?
Timothy Mouse overhears this, and he’s like, “He looks a’ight to me.”
They shut Dumbo out from the hay, which, oh by the way, he shouldn’t be eating anyway but someone took his mother from him. So he’s definitely gonna starve now. So Timothy decides that he’s going to scare the elephants. I think Mythbusters did an experiment that elephants are actually startled by mice, so that’s a fun fact.
Side note: Where did Timothy get his little band uniform? I want that story.
There’s an adorable scene where Timothy makes friends with Dumbo using peanuts. Do elephants eat peanuts? According to the Smithsonian, no, no they do not. When the peanut doesn’t work Timothy offers to break out Mrs. Jumbo. They’re friends now!
The circus’s ring master is seen silhouetted in his tent. He’s yelling at someone named Joe about this new elephant attraction that sounds hella dangerous, and all the while he’s stripping out of his clothes, and Joe keeps getting closer. Finally, he yells, "And then comes the climax!" and I'm older than 12, I swear.
“Dumbo, you’re a climax.” O-o-o-kaaaay.
Timothy starts his speech, “I am the voice of your subconscious mind,” which is not a thing that a subconscious would say. Also, there are many more references to
I want to also bring up that either Timothy speaks human or all the animals speak human. In these movies, I always assumed that the animals speak to one another, but humans would just hear the same sounds we always do.
They do this massively dangerous stunt with the elephants which seems to be done for the first time ever in front of a crowd. Why would you not practice this? Also, all these lady elephants are terrible to each other. This feels like a special kind of sexism or a patriarchal construct of how women act.
Timothy didn’t think to practice with Dumbo either.
So, There is one elephant on a ball with 6 elephants on top of her. Let’s do some math. According to the Denver zoo and Elephants for Africa, female elephants weigh between 6 and 9 thousand pounds, or 1800 to 4000 kg. Asian elephants are generally smaller than African, but it seems the cows have the same weight range. So, let’s assume all of these “ladies” are average elephants of non-specific genus.
We now have a ball holding 52,500 pounds of pachyderm or 23,800 kilos. And 45,000 pounds or 20,400 kg is on the back of ONE of the elephants. One Kind Planet says that elephants can easily carry up to 9,000 pounds or 4000 kg each. Thats — that’s not safe.
Dumbo is scared because OF COURSE HE IS. And it’s a miracle no one got seriously injured or died. It seems the worst of it is that the tent is destroyed.
So we move to watching the train chugging away in a sad fashion. The elephants are hurt, but again, they should have died. And what they want is to spank him. But instead of realizing that this is a baby who maybe needs his mom and a little more humane treatment, they’ve made him a clown. There’s This whole thing of the ladies saying he can no longer be an elephant if he’s a clown. What jerks.
So, they put an infant elephant in an actually burning house with the clowns messing around to “save him.” and I, and adult human, would be terrified of this situation. Him’s a baby. How could he understand? Afterward, the clowns drink to Dumbo. At least someone likes him. Timothy tries so hard to cheer him up. He’s doin his best.
And here’s the most beautiful, saddest song ever. Baby Mine shows animals throughout the circus with their babies. But the more I watch, the more I believe this HAS to be anti-circus. Looking at hippos in a tiny bathtub and Mrs Jumbo in chains in a cart too small for her, this movie cannot be pro circus.
Back to the clowns planning to put Dumbo in more danger. There’s precisely one clown who is afraid of this, but the others think “Elephants is made of rubber.”
They sing “We’re gonna hit the big boss for a raise.” Remember that animator’s strike?
Meanwhile, adorable baby elephant hiccoughs are about to not be cured by alcohol-laced water.
In Pinocchio, we said "jackass". In this G rated movie, we have a juvenile elephant and a mouse of unknown age drunk. Best children's movies ever!
Alcoholism allows you to magically blow bubbles that are alive. And Self replicating. Everyone get drunk!
Remember how I said Fantasia was Disney’s first acid trip? Well, someone dropped acid during the Pink Elephants on Parade scene. Prove me wrong.
I need a psychiatrist to write a dissertation just on Pink Elephants on Parade. I can't break this down. If you’re a psychological expert and would like to have a conversation about this scene, let me know. We’ll do a bonus episode just on this.
So Timoth and Dumbo get super drunk and wake up on top of a tree. We’ve all been there, right?
And the crow appear! Here’s the thing, there’s a lot of discourse on whether the crows are racist depictions, and most of its fair on both sides. First of all, the head crow is named JIM CROW. You know the laws that constitutionally mandated segregation and suppressed the voting rights of black people in America? And he’s voiced by Cliff Edwards, the same person who voiced Jiminy Cricket. And, in case you don’t want to look it up, Cliff is white.
So we have a white man mimicking the vocal stylings of a black man as a character named Jim Crow. That’s pretty danged racist.
But also, the crows are like the only characters apart from Timothy who love and respect Dumbo immediately. They think he’s awesome and give him the confidence that he needs to find his true worth (which, as an aside, is that he’s an awesome pachyderm, not that he can fly).
And a lot of people of colour like Whoopi Goldberg say they wished the crows were more merchandised because they showed loving and caring to Dumbo when white people slash elephants only treated him with harm.
So, the question is, can characters be both a good and wholesome character and an offensive racist stereotype? Yes, yes they can.
Okay, back to the movie.
Timothy says, "Why didn't I think [that you could fly] before?" Because he's an elephant, and that's not the logical conclusion.
The Crows have the best song of the movie.
Timothy then defends Dumbo by calling him an orphan. He’s not an orphan. His mother’s in prison and he has an absentee father. That’s not what an orphan is. But it is a beautiful speech.
So Timothy decides Dumbo’s going to try flying by jumping off a cliff. He marches him off of what appears to be Pride Rock when he tries to fly the first time? But he does fly!
So, he flies from the burning building. Everyone loves him. The circus is a happy place. Timothy gets a movie contract? Mrs. Jumbo gets a private train. And....The End!
Disney really just stopped there.
This is...not a good movie. It’s when I read the reviews that call this nice and kind that I just wonder if the 1940s actually took place in a parallel universe where animal cruelty was fun and spunky.
Well, at least that’s my opinion, but you know who’s opinion really matters? Yours, dear listener. I’d love to know about your memories and current opinions of Dumbo, so if you’d like to tell me how this movie was part of your childhood, or even how you see it today, come talk to me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. You can find me under the show’s name or the handle oofmychildhood.
This episode’s cover art was provided by ShaSha. You can find more of her art on her Instagram. I link in the show’s notes and my website at oofmychildhood dot com. If you’d like to provide cover art for a future episode, head over to the website. We have a form to submit art as well as the details for what the requirements are. Just click “Submit your art” to have your piece considered for a future episode.
Our theme music was composed and played by Shawn Rudoph of Let Music Be. For more information on that studio, you can visit their website at Let Music dot be or visit my website for a easy link
You can find transcripts for each episode on my website, and if you check out my YouTube Channel, I have captioned video versions of each episode as they’re published. I do my best to provide YouTube videos and transcripts at the same time as each podcast episode is released, but if this one isn’t up yet, you can always check on my website for an update and a link to the appropriate video.
Thank you so much for joining me today. I hope you come back each to discuss Disney through modern eyes. And while you’re at it, if you’re enjoying yourself, please let your friends know about me. I’d also appreciate a rating and review wherever you’re listening to the show. This podcast is written, recorded, and edited by me. I release a new episode every Monday through Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and many, many other podcatchers.
So, until next time, keep the magic alive.