On this day in 1941, Walt Disney Productions released its animated film Dumbo into theaters. In celebration of the film’s 75th anniversary, here are my top five reasons the tale of a big-eared elephant is a standout Disney classic.
5.) The Recreation of Relationships between Elephants and Mice
The idea of elephants being afraid of mice is stressed in various movies, television shows, and folk tales. Though this idea is initially true when Dumbo meets Timothy Mouse, an eager-minded rodent trying to become a part of circus history, Timothy is able to win Dumbo with kindness and peanuts; he soon becomes Dumbo’s closest friend and support system outside Dumbo’s mom, Mrs. Jumbo.
Throughout the film, Timothy’s passionate pursuit to help Dumbo and others recognize the baby elephant’s enormous ears as beautifully wondrous bonds the unlikely pair’s friendship. More importantly, their adventures together show that supposed enemies and what someone fears most can actually be sources of strength and assistance in times of need.
4.) Its Mute Main Character
Dumbo is the only main character in the self-titled film to be speechless. While all the other characters voice their opinions, the animators chose to have Dumbo’s facial expressions and body language depict his state-of-mind and emotions. In a way, Dumbo’s lack of voice adds to every terrible hardship he has in the film. His inability to call out for help or verbally defend himself adds to the severity and intensity of situations and audience’s ability to gain a sympathetic connection to the character.
3.) Its Praise of Mother-Child Relationships
Disney is infamous for its treatment of mothers. While many characters like Bambi’s Bambi, The Fox and the Hound’s Todd, and Frozen’s Anna and Elsa have their mothers introduced only to be killed off in the movie, the mothers of characters like Aladdin’s Aladdin and Princess Jasmine and Beauty and the Beast’s Belle are absent and are given little to no mention at all.
Dumbo is one of the few Disney films to go against that trend. Dumbo’s mother Mrs. Jumbo plays a major role in the film. Aside from being the only parent in his life, she is the ultimate protector of Dumbo whenever he suffers from other characters’ ridicule. Even when the circus business’s negative reaction to her overprotectiveness separates them, she does her best to provide comfort to her son. Proof of this notion is highlighted in the heartbreaking imagery of Mrs. Jumbo rocking her son with her trunk through the bars of her cage while the lullaby “Baby Mine” plays in the background.
It is the powerful impact of Mrs. Jumbo’s motherly affection that shapes and strengthens Dumbo’s determination and hope for happiness while facing the unjust, cruel world.
2.) Its Realistic Portrayal of Circus Elephant Cruelty
There are various animated films that use the neglect and abuse of animals as a major theme. In the case of Dumbo, the film showcases the mistreatment of the circus elephants. From the ringmaster’s dangerous routine called the Pyramid of Pachyderms placing the animals in a life-threatening situation to the circus workers’ mishandling of the elephants with brute force such as roughly tugging and whipping them, the film is a graphic depiction of how circuses often believe entertaining the crowd is a higher priority than the animals’ livelihood.
It was the bold move to unveil this reality that helped fuel the outcry of animal activist groups such as PETA to ban the inclusion of elephants and other wild animals in circuses. This outcry has led to stricter legislations protecting circus animals’ rights and even the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus’s 2015 decision to cease its famous usage of elephant routines as reported by The New York Times.
1.) Its Empowering Message of Self-Acceptance and Self-Love
What good is a Disney film without a moral? Dumbo doesn’t fail to deliver that detail. Though Dumbo is a newborn baby, he is immediately introduced to how agonizing life can be. Along with the ailments he faces thanks to the circus environment, Dumbo is constantly criticized for his abnormally-sized ears. The mockery greatly affects him, causing him to have emotional breakdowns and even try to hide his ears away in hopes of being seen as a normal elephant. It’s not until he fully trusts the encouraging words of Mrs. Jumbo and Timothy Mouse that Dumbo is able to find his literal wings and view himself as worthy of love and acceptance. With his newfound confidence, he is able to soar above his problem and discover his own happy ending.
Dumbo is all about embracing one’s self and understanding that a society-declared disability could actually unlock one’s amazing possibility. In short, the movie’s moral is best described by Timothy Mouse’s following quote: “The very things that hold you down are going to lift you up!”