Heartwarming Fun with a Dollop of Racism
Dumbo is one of the few old timey Disney flicks (1941) that still packs emotional punch while delivering solid entertainment and a strong message. Ostracized by everyone (except mom) because of his big ears, young Dumbo the elephant founders until he befriends Timothy the mouse. With Timothy’s help, Dumbo discovers that his big ears make him the world’s only flying elephant. Dumbo flies his way to acceptance and stardom.
This movie is like Steel Magnolias for kids. If you can get through the Baby Mine lullaby scene (the one where Dumbo visits his mother in jail) without crying, you are made of stronger stuff than me, maybe an advanced polymer. With a low that low, your kids will be cheering when Dumbo finally takes flight. He wows the circus crowd and pummels the lady elephants who tormented him (they get off too easy for my taste, but I’m petty). The story’s message of turning difference into strength will resonate with most kids, especially outsiders.
But Racism alerts!! Wonderful as it is, Dumbo – – the movie, not the character – – is chocked full of racism. As black workmen put up circus tents, they sing lustily about how they “drink their pay away” because they’re “happy, hearty roustabouts.” Later, a group of crows up the ante. With thick African American accents, the crows sing about how they “be done seen ‘bout everythin’ when I seen an elephant fly!” Are they wearing KKK uniforms? No, this is a cuddlier form of racism. But still . . . yikes. The movie is still worth watching, but you might want to skip over these scenes. Or better yet, talk them through with your kids. They need to know what the world was like less than a century before President Obama came along.