Even before Robin Williams got involved in the business, Disney movies were not just for kids. In fact, anything made for children, unless it is also made by children, cannot possibly remain devoid of adult themes, undertones, or humour—call it the maker’s mark. Life experience always seeps into the creative process. To expect adults to wipe their experiential slates clean is not only impossible, but would also represent an evolutionary disadvantage. Children learn from adults; what to wear, what to think, what to say, how to feel. It is no accident that the media (an adult world) is often blamed for the actions of young and “impressionable” people. Some truth may lie in those accusations. Even in a movie as seemingly benign as “Dumbo”, the adult frame of reference overshadows the potential for the maintenance of childhood innocence.
To be sure, Disney intended to tell the endearing story of a deserted baby elephant who, with the help of his friend the circus mouse, ultimately learns to fly. And so he did; that story is obvious. What he could not refrain from doing while simultaneously telling the obvious and happy tale, was injecting the plot with mature social undertones. Dumbo’s mother goes insane because of a bunch of unruly boys jeering and taunting her son. The circus men lock her in a cage to keep her separated from all the “normal” animals, not at all unlike what happened to people, mostly women, who were deemed mentally ill for centuries, leading up the time of the movie’s release. The Freudian influence on the understanding of psychology, especially of “hysterical” women, is painfully evident. After his mother’s rampage, the other elephants socially ostracise Dumbo. Granted, children know very well who and what they do not like. But it is not until others teach them that they learn to shun those who are “different”, even if the difference has no negative consequence whatsoever.
But even more compelling, and especially more controversial, than themes of mental illness and social ostracism, is the notion of racism Disney has been accused of portraying. Near the end of the film, after Dumbo’s night of pink elephants, he finds himself up a tree he could neither have climbed nor jumped into. A flock of black crows, voiced almost entirely by African American choir members, sings “I be done seen ‘bout everything when I seen an elephant fly”. What many people opposed to the supposed racial discrimination portrayed in this portion of the film are quick to point out is that the crows are loud, obnoxious, and “stupid” and are meant to represent black culture. However, what is perhaps undermined by the racial discrimination argument is the fact that the crows are the only characters, besides the mouse or Dumbo’s mother, who show any kindness to Dumbo. In fact, they are the only other characters who cry, or say kind words to him, and they actually end up helping him find his proverbial wings. In essence, they are his saviours and social mentors. Usually, if an audience is to be convinced of a characters “badness”, a film will not portray him or her doing kind deeds or saying nice things. So, while there very well may be racial representation from a very narrow and stereotypical standpoint, given the actuality of who the characters are in relation to Dumbo, it is less than convincing to argue that the racial representation is, in fact, racial discrimination.
So, while the film is rife with adult content and themes, the debate over whether or not the crows characters are in fact poor representations of the African American community is the most controversial.