When I was a kid, Dumbo was the bomb! His big floppy ears, goofy grin, and sweet mama made for many enjoyable afternoons. Much to my disappointment, watching the film as an adult is sad and disappointing. The happy and uplifting themes that came through to me as a child were vastly different than the disparaging messages that spoke to me as an adult. The cliché message that speaks to children is that of many Disney movies: anyone can do anything if they set their mind to it. The underlying theme that comes through to aged minds though is that of racism, prejudice, and stereotyping.
So let’s examine the cliché message first. This theme is clearly intended for young impressionable children. Children love to watch Dumbo, the underdog, push through barriers and learn how to fly. Disney appeals to their feelings. You feel so much sadness as the young elephant is ridiculed and chastised. The filmmakers definitely utilize pathos to get into the hearts of viewers, and they really make them root for Dumbo. Many children experience very similar situations in their own lives. In their book, Everything’s an Argument, Andrea Lunsford and John Ruszkiewicz describe the effect this has on an argument. They write about how to “use emotions to connect with readers to assure them that you understand their experiences or, to use President Bill Clinton’s famous line, “feel their pain”” (Lunsford and Ruszkiewicz 44). This is very true in this case. I remember being a young child and thinking, yeah, Dumbo gets it. They make it very relatable to youth. Additionally in terms of this particular cliché message, you don’t get a more credible source than Disney. Talk about the poster child for the “follow your dreams” bit. If anyone can deliver this argument its Disney—therefore, in this case, the ethos is strong. As far as logos, it is not as strong as the other two appeals, but it still has a place. It is logical in this particular message to use an underdog, and to have said underdog follow through and achieve their dreams. It is relatable to more people, and history proves that this is the type of character that people want to watch. In his book, Understanding Movies, Louis Giannetti writes, “Underdogs almost automatically win us over to their side. Emotionally vulnerable characters appeal to our protective instincts” (Giannetti 406). To conclude, the cliché message is very successful in its delivery, and is to this day a positive message for kids thanks in large part to the underdog element.
But on another note, it is the other messages that are not appropriate or acceptable for young children. It is important to remember that this film came out in 1941, and society was very different at that time. Segregation was still a part of everyday life, and earlier the same year Congress voted against a law that would outlaw lynching. Still, the racial statements made—even if subliminally—in this film are not okay for any viewer. To start, the film opens with the circus getting assembled and set up. The workers are depicted as black and faceless. What does this say to young viewers? That black people who do manual labor are not important enough to have a face? That they do not have their own identities? That they are all the same? But it is the crows that are introduced later in the film that really cross the line. First of all, the lead crow is named Jim. Seriously. That is the name that Disney thought, yeah that’s be good. Jim Crow. WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?? This decreases the ethos of this argument immediately seeing as the name Jim Crow is a huge red mark on our country’s history. Additionally, all of the crows (who are obviously all black) are depicted in torn and patchy clothing, and they speak broken English. So clearly they are intended to be seen as poor and uneducated. Young children might not be able to pick up stereotypes, but when I saw it as a college student it was as obvious as Dumbo’s big ears. They even appear to speak in Ebonics: calling each other brotha with a deep southern drawl. They miss the mark pathologically as well—trying to use humor to gain the emotional attention of the viewer. But in my opinion the filmmakers come off as ignorant as the crows in their film. In terms of logos, it is hard to find any logic in the hidden racial messages. Sure, back in the 40’s it may have made perfect sense to Walt and his boys to make the crows similar to black people as that is how they may have viewed them. But this still just comes across as ignorance in the current day. These hidden messages are at times not hidden at all, and are truly a scary example of how intolerant our society was at one time.
As you can see the beloved classic, Dumbo, has some pretty unlovable aspects. Though these might be hard for children to pick up on, they still shine through and are in no way vague or indefinite. Fortunately for Walt, I can accept that this was made for children and that they can watch it without these negatives making a huge impact on them. For this reason I will give it a ticket—only because I remember the impact it had on me as a child. But the discriminatory references that are made make it impossible for me to give it more than that.