God’s timing is always surprising. Not in the sense that, oh no, the hamster has died, but rather the kind of surprise that leads you closer to the divine. It comes in big and small forms, and it happened as I was about to sit down to write this article. The last Disney film I reviewed was The Black Cauldron (1985). Just as I was grabbing my computer, the old man I live with chuckled at a part of that review where, in my own colorful way, I mentioned my distaste for that film. It is also somewhat remarkable that my sister should suggest Dumbo (1941). I figured she had meant the more recent live-action version. But no. It was the original. When I pressed her further for a why she had pulled that one from her thoughts, she came back with no reason. That one is the sort of out-of-the-ordinary moment that falls firmly in the random category. Not bad. Just not divinely inspired. Oh well.
The original Dumbo is a strange, emotional roller coaster. I had to chuckle at first because it opens with a bunch of wind and rain, and I muttered under my breath, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Next we see a bunch of animal babies being delivered to a circus at its winter quarters in Florida (and side note: when did it become part of stork lore that animal young arrived in this manner?). And then it swings to sad as we watch Mrs. Jumbo (voiced by Verna Felton) look on helplessly as all the other circus animals get little swaddled blessings except for her. But you cannot stay too downcast for long because eventually a stray bird, Mr. Stork (voiced by Sterling Holloway), gets Jumbo Jr. to his mother after the circus train has already gotten underway. And how cute is this little elephant, blue-eyed and flop-eared? Yet we cannot dwell on this happy scene for too long as the young pachyderm is bullied, and is tagged with the name “Dumbo” for his clumsiness . . . which sticks for some reason? Anyway, so enraged does Mrs. Jumbo become that she lashes out at circus attendees who poke fun at her on, which forces the Ringmaster (voiced by Herman Bing) to put the mother into, what, elephant jail? It is a separate rail car that is designed to be a prison, so I guess they have had other animals act up. No wonder these days the circus has basically gone the way of the dinosaur. Dumbo is not left alone for long, though, and while the other elephants begin picking on poor Dumbo, it is Timothy Q. Mouse (voiced by Edward Brophy) who comes to the rescue. I suppose Mickey was busy doing other things. I wonder if they are related? For whatever reason, the mouse takes a liking to the elephant and decides to try to help Dumbo become a star. He comes up with an act for Dumbo, which he whispers into the Ringmaster’s ear while he is sleeping. Does that make the Timothy Q. Mouse the real brains behind the circus? Who knows? I hope not as the first act ends in disaster and Dumbo is relegated to being a clown, which inexplicably is an effrontery to elephant pride. Dumbo happily (or maybe like a dope) goes along with it, but longs to be reunited with his mother. So now we are back to sad, particularly when he manages to have a brief exchange with her through the bars of her cell car. What does the movie do for us next? It gets Dumbo drunk. If you have never seen the original Dumbo, I will show some uncharacteristic restraint at this moment. Instead, I will just say that it is one of the strangest sequences in cinematic history. As such, it is probably no surprise that Dumbo and Timothy Q. Mouse (drinking buddies) ended up several feet high in a tree after sleeping it off. They are greeted there by a group of incredulous, ahem, black crows, who eventually agree to teach Dumbo how to fly (sober) because, you know, that is the only explanation for how he had gotten into the tree in the first place. And it actually works. Timothy Q. Mouse smells a sensation, and when next Dumbo performs the pachyderm soars along the roof of the big top. Dumbo’s new fame earns the circus new notoriety and his mother is given her freedom. Thus in the end, all’s well that flies well.
I have no idea how they handled some of the aspects of Dumbo in the live action remake, though I will take a moment here to guess by way of stating my criticisms of the film. For starters, I highly doubt they brought back the murder of crows (look it up, not the movie). When first they came on screen, I said out loud, “Oh no, I hope these are meant to be just uneducated sounding Southern folk.” Disney has not always had the most sterling record on race issues, though it has never portrayed anything in an explicitly degrading, racist manner. Much of the way we judge earlier Disney films that have African American characters in them is informed by a bit more modern enlightenment on the subject. Having said that, the crows behave in stereotypically silly ways that speak to an unfortunate notion that African Americans were carefree people. So yikes on that count. The other thing that I am fairly certain did not make it into the more recent Dumbo is the scene where the small elephant consumes alcohol. At least I hope they left it out. Underage alcohol consumption is one part of our culture I feel we are going backwards in, though Disney does seem to do better in this regard these days.
Speaking of the swirling emotions in Dumbo, I was a bit affected by the bullying that went on in it. I credit Timothy Q. Mouse for sticking up for Dumbo. In a sense, it reminds me of the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the Bible, there is a man who is waylaid by robbers and left to die on the side of the road. A couple people pass by the man in need, people that we are led to assume would be of his own kind, like the other elephants that do not help Dumbo. The one who eventually comes to the assistance of the man in need is a Samaritan, i.e. not an Israelite. Not only does the Samaritan care for the man’s wounds, but he leaves him in an inn with money and instructions to the innkeeper to bill the Samaritan for any extra expenses. In other words, the Good Samaritan goes above and beyond in helping someone in trouble. This fits Timothy Q. Mouse’s actions quite nicely. Not only does he look out for Dumbo at a crucial moment, but he helps bring the pachyderm fame and fortune.
To be honest, I would skip Dumbo, especially for little kids. If they are insistent, show them some of the clips on YouTube of Timothy Q. Mouse sticking up for Dumbo. This is a Disney classic, and I have no idea what the live-action version is like, but I feel this one can safely remain in the past.