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Disney's Dumbos: Diversity and Disability

By Antares Leask

 
A caricature of Walt Disney in a brown suit holding an elephant and a mouse
Fig. 1: Walt Disney, Dumbo, and Timothy Mouse in Funko Pop form

I try to avoid the Funko Pop aisle at Target. I really do. But maybe I’ll just…take a little peek. I see a Disney 100 Funko Pop. It’s…Walt Disney himself! And he’s holding Dumbo and Timothy Mouse.


Aside from the Funko Pop of Uncle Walt with a drawing of Mickey Mouse, this is the first time Disney has been posed with a character. Why Dumbo?


 

Disney's Dumbo (1941) and Disclaimers

Elephant with large ears flying in the sky with a mouse in a band conductor uniform holding a sparkling black feather
Fig. 2: Dumbo (1941) Movie Poster

The original Dumbo was released on October 23, 1941. Walt Disney was facing financial troubles from the disappointing box offices of Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940), there was an animators’ strike during the film’s production, and war was looming. Disney animator Ward Kimball called Dumbo, all 64 minutes of it, the moment when “the Disney cartoon reached its zenith” (Korkis 2019).


Yet the connotation of Dumbo (1941) is now that of a product of racist and ableist times. In 2019 a disclaimer began running before the film: “This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions,” which was replaced in 2020 with more specific language:


This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together. Disney is committed to creating stories with inspirational and aspirational themes that reflect the rich diversity of the human experience around the globe.

The new disclaimer also directs consumers to Disney’s diversity and inclusion page. The page itself says of Dumbo:


The crows and musical number pay homage to racist minstrel shows, where white performers with blackened faces and tattered clothing imitated and ridiculed enslaved Africans on Southern plantations. The leader of the group in Dumbo is Jim Crow, which shares the name of laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. In “The Song of the Roustabouts,” faceless Black workers toil away to offensive lyrics like “When we get our pay, we throw our money all away” (“Stories Matter” 2023).

Disney could easily have kept their brief, vague disclaimer, but instead more directly faced their historical shortcomings and created a page outlining the company’s past diversity, equity, and inclusion difficulties with Dumbo and several other films in plain language and great detail.


(For more on racism in Dumbo, see Kathe Geist’s “Walt Disney’s Dumbo as a Reflection of American Culture and American Values” and Travis M. Andrews’ “The Original Dumbo Was Decried as Racist; Here’s How Tim Burton’s Version Addresses That”).


 

Burton's Dumbo (2019)

A realistically animated elephant flying in the sky
Fig. 3: Dumbo (2019) Move Poster

Along with the stronger disclaimer language, Tim Burton’s 2019 Dumbo re-imagining made a strong, but not perfect, effort to fix past wrongs. Instead of the crows singing about seeing an elephant fly, the circus ringmaster at Dreamland delivers the line just before crying “let’s get ready for Dumbo” in the unmistakable style of “let’s get ready to rumble.” The “Song of the Roustabouts” has been cut.


Rongo the Strongo (Deobia Oparei), the featured Black character in the remake, still serves the circus as the Strong Man, a symbol of Black male physicality. In addition to this stereotypical performing role, however, Rongo departs from expectations by also being in charge of camp management (budgets, accounting, inventory/animal whereabouts). He is even the percussionist in the main ring – clearly an indispensable and integral part of Max Medici (Danny DeVito)’s circus, Dumbo’s first home. By the end of the film Rongo is referred to as the “world’s strongest and most versatile man,” a decidedly different understanding of Black male agency than the first film’s roundabouts are ever afforded.


While Burton’s film strives to be more inclusive, a main plot point involves Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returning from World War I as an amputee.

Fig. 4: Holt Farrier returns to the circus with a war injury

Holt, and the audience, are never allowed to forget that he is no longer the trick rider and star of the circus he once was. Even the other circus performers, themselves outsiders to “normal” society, first look at his disability with visible shock and disgust. Holt plays the role of Timothy Q. Mouse (although a mouse in a ringmaster suit is seen, it is never heard) and becomes a surrogate father to Dumbo – while struggling to be a true father to his own children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). The children have lost their mother, which causes a strong bond between the human children and baby elephant also alone in the world, but, unlike Dumbo, they will not be reunited with their mother at the end. Nevertheless, the film finds a happy ending as Dumbo reunites with his mother, Mrs. Jumbo, and they are sent to live with other elephants in India, while the Farrier family, with the addition of Holt’s new love-interest, Colette, help reclaim their circus home.


Dumbo, as a circus performer, and as a mute disfigured elephant, represents the American ideal of the underdog, but is also a member of marginalized communities. When the film’s narrative focus is shifted from Dumbo’s point of view in the original to Holt Farrier’s in the retelling (Rowe 2022, 104), it fundamentally changes the story from acceptance of the diversity represented in the elephant – a blank-slate representation of those with any kind of difference – and puts the spotlight back on a white man. Although Holt is also disabled, at the end of the film the white nuclear family has been restored and those who have been marginalized are sent back to where they belong – with their own kind.

A boy and a girl hug an animated elephant.
Fig. 5: The Farrier children say goodbye to Dumbo

There is also the implied understanding that these elephants will be kinder than Mrs. Jumbo’s peers in the original film. This is the ending PETA campaigned for, with senior vice president Lisa Lange praising Burton: “We’re very glad to know that everything works out for Dumbo and his mom. They end up free from abusive handlers and with space to roam and enjoy the companionship of others” (Alexander 2019). While it is fairly unlike Disney to force the audience to watch children get re-traumatized, this is presented as a teachable moment, as star Colin Farrell explains, “The kids understand that sometimes you have to say goodbye to things you love. Sometimes you have to let life take its course, even if it doesn’t always suit us in the moment” (Alexander 2019). Somehow, though, the Farriers even having a suggested opportunity to visit Dumbo, who has become part of their family unit, could have eased this stark separation.


 

Enter the Villain: A Commentary on the Businessman


The strangest aspect of Burton’s film, however, is the villain. V.A. Vandervere (Michael Keaton) is an entertainment giant who purchases Dumbo along with the rest of the Medici Brothers circus, although he summarily fires the performers who do not have direct contact with the flying elephant. Vandervere, possibly the most confusingly self-referential character Disney has ever produced, makes statements like: “The future of the entertainment business is to bring the audience to you. And I’ve built that destination.” For Vandervere, that destination is a park called Dreamland.

Fig. 6: Tim Burton directs Michael Keaton as V.A. Vandervere

Not only does Dreamland have touches reminiscent of Disney’s Carousel of Progress and even the Disney Store’s Plush Mountain, there are inequities as to who is granted access to this entertainment venue. Crowds outside the gates create a clear delineation between the haves and have-nots, highlighting the very real-world comparison that many in our own society can’t afford to go to the Disney parks and experience the Dumbo ride. Dumbo’s audience at Dreamland is white and upper class, which reflects the time in which the film is set (1919), but still excludes the diverse audience Disney is reaching for. The restored and renamed Medici Family circus has learned the error of their ways and no longer uses animals for entertainment – a clear moral victory over their time at Dreamland – and, while the audience is only slightly more racially diverse than Dreamland, there is more visible variety in the crowd’s socio-economic class.


Separating character, man, and company from the villainous V.A. Vandervere, Max Medici echoes Walt Disney’s sentiments and goals for his theme parks:


“Disneyland is your land” with the words “Friends young and old, you have a home at our circus, where anything is possible and miracles happen. Believe me, they do.”

The audience has found their home within the diversity of the Medici Family Circus, which includes remembrances of Dumbo in their human-only acts, and, it probably comes as no surprise that the Funko Pop version of Walt Disney, Dumbo, and Timothy Mouse has found a home with me.


 

Author Bio:


Antares Russell Leask, Ph.D. teaches English Literature and Foundations of Education for Northern Virginia Community College and is a National Board Certified Teacher. Her dissertation focused on the impact of white privilege on paranormal reality television, and other research interests include Disney, popular culture, horror, and cryptozoology.


She presents at several pop culture conferences each year and is the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association co-chair for the newly created Disney Studies area.



 

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References:


Alexander, Bryan. "Tim Burton gives 'Dumbo' a PETA-pleasing ending." USA Today, April 1, 2019, 02D. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints. https://link-gale-com.eznvcc.vccs.edu/apps/doc/A580812292/OVIC?u=viva2_nvcc&sid=bookmark-OVIC&xid=bb095c85. Accessed May 23 2023


Korkis, Jim. "The Original Dumbo." MousePlanet. March 6 2019. https://www.mouseplanet.com/12316/The_Original_Dumbo.


Rowe, Rebecca. “Disney Does Disney: Re-Releasing, Remaking, and Retelling Animated Films for a New Generation.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 50, no. 3 (2022): 98–111. https://doi.org/10.1080/01956051.2022.2094868.


“Stories Matter - the Walt Disney Company.” Stories Matter - The Walt Disney Company. Accessed May 22, 2023. https://storiesmatter.thewaltdisneycompany.com/.


“To All Who...” D23, January 23, 2018. https://d23.com/walt-disney-quote/to-all-who/.


 

Images:


Fig. 1: “Buy Pop! Walt Disney with Dumbo and Timothy at Funko.” Funko US. Accessed May 22, 2023. https://funko.com/pop-walt-disney-with-dumbo-and-timothy/67996.html.


Fig. 2: Disney. "Dumbo." https://movies.disney.com/dumbo. Accessed on 19 Oct. 2023.


Fig. 3: Disney. "Dumbo." https://movies.disney.com/dumbo-2019. Accessed on 19 Oct. 2023.


Fig. 4: Brooks, Mike. “Dumbo (2019) – Review: Mana Po.” Manpop, Jan. 1 2023. https://manapop.com/film/dumbo-2019-review/.


Fig 5: “Live-Action ‘Dumbo’ 2019 Lands Well in Ultra 4k.” High, Aug. 14 2019. https://www.highdefwatch.com/post/live-action-dumbo-2019-lands-well-in-ultra-4k.


Fig. 6: “The Cast of Dumbo Reveals What It Was like to Work with Tim Burton.” Disney News, Jan. 29 2019. https://news.disney.com/dumbo-colin-farrell-danny-devito-joseph-gatt-tim-burton.

 




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