It’s been a long way through, this analysis of Dumbo. Now’s the time to put it together. First I use a psychoanalytic framework to look at how the film ends, with the Dumbombers and, before them, those strange pink elephants. Then I take a detour through evolutionary psychology and arrive at the nature/culture problem which the film transforms into the relationship between the infant-mother relationship (nature) and circus work (culture).
From there we have to go outside Circus World entirely, into Pink Elephant Land, and into the countryside where we meet the crows. It is only by going outside the circus that Disney solves a problem that arose within the circus: What do you do with an unnatural elephant? But then all of culture is unnatural as well. Solving Dumbo’s problem is thus a proxy for solving all those many problems.
That solution, though, is a fragile thing, as I suggest at the very end.
A Little Crude Psychoanalysis
Not psychoanalytic thinking in any deep and rigorous way, but some ideas inspired by psychoanalytic thought.
First, that the human life-world begins in the relationship between mother and child. For the infant the world consists of mother and the rest. Second, that one’s mind and personality are organized as “layers” where the deepest layers emerge earliest and subsequent layers are built upon the earlier one. This is also, of course, a Piagetian idea, though he was interested in cognition and reasoning, not feeling and desire.
Dumbo, of course, centers on the relationship between Dumbo and his mother. They’re physically separated as a consequence of her attempting to protect him from taunts by a human boy. We don’t actually see and thus experience their relationship being restored until the very end of the film. I emphasize what we see because we can easily infer, after the film is over, that their relationship was probably restored sometime shortly after Dumbo’s triumphant flying act. But we don’t SEE that in the movie. What we see is a quick cut from the triumphal act to a bunch of newspaper and magazine covers depicting events that must have taken weeks if not longer. I mean, seriously, how long would it take to design a new bomber, test it, get it into production, and get it into use? That’s a couple of years.
Now, I’m not saying this either to argue that a lot of time has in fact passed between triumph and the scene we’re actually shown or to suggest that Disney is playing fast and loose with the facts. Of course he is. That’s ground zero for this kind of movie-making. This is myth and such matters are irrelevant (my inner Groucho Marx just said you mean ‘irrelephant’ don’t you?). All that matters is what happens on the screen and what happens is this:
First we see Mrs. Jumbo sitting contentedly in that sleek, modern, high-tech caboose. Then we see aviator Dumbo, with an aviator’s cap and no Timothy Mouse, flying with his crow posse. And then, finally hooray! hooray! he lands happily in his mother’s arms. The pleasure and satisfaction we feel at that moment includes those accoutrements and they are not merely ornamental. They belong to the mythic fabric of this film.
It would have been easy enough and just as emotionally satisfying to have them reunited privately in a tent, or perhaps in scene where she’s released from her cage and Dumbo runs joyfully to her. Our emotional satisfaction comes from the fact of reunion, not from the specific circumstances. But that’s not what Disney did. What he did was quite different.
The effect, I’ve more or less been arguing, is to bond us to the high tech modern world at the most basic level of the psyche, the mother-child bond. Our pleasure in the reunion radiates outward to its circumstances: the sleek caboose, the bombers, and those crows. Though they’re left behind at the very end, they too are included in that bonding.
I’ll come back to this a bit later, where I can frame it a bit differently. For now, let’s stick with infancy.
* * * * *
One feature of infant life is that the infant is carried about from place to place. The infant doesn’t have to exert any muscles, nor any will. The infant may even be opposed to being moved. No matter. The infant is transported. Which means the visual scene changes without the infant doing anything. It’s almost as though the infant could fly, no? And Dumbo is a film about a flying elephant, though it takes awhile for Dumbo to make that discovery.
This involves something of a paradox. For, when Dumbo finally flies, that’s an act of growth, maturation, even of independence. But, through our identification with Dumbo, it also restores US, the viewers, to a more primitive mode of moving about in the world as we identify with him: Wheee, I can fly! Note that much of Dumbo’s flying in the act is gliding and soaring where Dumbo doesn’t move a muscle.
That’s one thing. And then there’s the actual experience of watching a movie. You don’t do anything, but the camera moves about and cuts from one scene to another. The film-maker in effect becomes a parent moving the infant about in the world.
With these two things in mind, camera motion and flying, let’s revisit Pink Elephants on Parade. It begins when Timothy Mouse and Dumbo drink water that’s been accidentally spiked with alcohol. Drinking, that’s oral, no? And orality is the earliest stage of psychological development in psychoanalytic reckoning; the neonate experiences the world through its mouth, especially, of course, its mother’s breast.
So Dumbo and his mouse companion drink something and find themselves in another world. Strange things happen. And they wake up high in a tree without any notion of what happened. We, the viewers, are in pretty much the same situation. We see them there in the tree and have no idea how that happened, for we didn’t see them get there, however that may have happened. Their situation is as much a surprise to us as it is to them.
Of course, Disney could have show them flying up into the tree so that we know what happened even though they don’t. But he didn’t do that. He staged the sequence so that our experience of them being up a tree is pretty much like their experience of it. How’d WE get here?
And during that lost interval we have this strange experience of a world populated by pink elephants in which, in the final act, those pink elephants become pink cars, trains, and boats. And then we learn to fly.
In short, at this pivotal point in the film, when Dumbo’s been humiliated as the stooge in a clown act, with the prospect of that act becoming more dangerous for him, when his only solace is a visit with a mother whom he can touch, her trunk at least, but not see, at this point Disney takes us on a proto-psychedelic trip to this strange world where everything is elephants. We see troops of elephants marching and making music, we see them in courtship, at play, skiing, dancing, and we see them transformed into machines.
And then, WHAM, we find ourselves up a tree. Physically, that vision is irrelevant. Metaphysically, mythically, it is not. Mythically it is the heart of the movie. When Dumbo finally learns to fly, he “drags” the pink elephant imagery with him and it’s still with him, and us, when he flies into his mother’s arms at the very end of the film.
Evolutionary Psych, Crude as Well
Now let’s pretend we’re evolutionary psychologists. As such we believe that we’ve got Stone Age minds but we’re living in a modern world that is full of things that didn’t exist in the Stone Age and that requires us to do things that weren’t done in the Stone Age.
How does the Stone Age mind manage it? Well, it learns, it learns.
But that’s not quite the point. The Stone Age mind was adapted to operate in a world that had a certain range of objects and requires a certain range of actions and responses. Like a Swiss Army knife—a standard evpsych metaphor—the Stone Age mind has ‘appliances’ built for that world. How do you adapt those appliances to a new world?
The Stone Age world didn’t contain airplanes. So how does the Stone Age mind learn to deal with airplanes, to fly them and to travel in them with comfort and ease? The problem isn’t so much one of knowing which knobs to turn, which gauges to read, and so forth. The problem is getting airplanes and railroads and telephones and work gangs and so forth linked into the deeper brain systems organizing motivation and emotion.
That’s done by expressive culture: ritual and art. Like Dumbo. The core story, the one I described above in loosely psychoanalytic terms, is about infant-mother attachment, to use the word John Bowlby used when he recast the psychoanalytic account of the infant-mother relationship in more contemporary terms, terms consistent with primate ethology and the emerging disciplines of cognitive science. The infant strives to maintain proximity to mother, not to satisfy physical needs such as thirst, hunger, or warmth, but simply for the satisfaction of social interaction. Correlatively, mother strives to maintain proximity to the infant for the same reason.
And that’s what drives Dumbo forward, Dumbo’s desire to regain his relationship with his mother. That much the evolutionary psychologist can understand. But when Dumbo finally restores that relationship, it is because he succeeds at work, as a performer. But work, in this sense, is meaningless in evolutionary psychology. Animals must do various things to survive, some of them are often physically taxing; but they don’t have to punch a time clock nor do they collect wages. They don’t work.
Work in this sense is a creature of culture. The plot of Dumbo thus pits nature, if you will, in the form of mother-infant attachment against culture, in the form of work. Work is unnatural, but then Dumbo’s large ears are unnatural as well.
Nature and Culture
At this point we’re deep in the territory of myth logic. We’re also deep in one of the thorniest thickets of modern thought, the discourse of nature and culture. What about human life ways is natural and what is cultural? How do you draw the line?
In Dumbo Disney has displaced that question to the interior of human society by setting it in a story about thoroughly acculturated animals. These animals are born and bred to the circus; they do not live in a state of nature. Yet they have natures, as it were, though Dumbo’s exceptionally large ears are not part of his elephant nature, that is, his animal nature.
Those ears are not themselves deeply problematic. The matrons ridicule him when Dumbo’s ears pop out, but that’s all. It’s annoying, but no more. Dumbo marches proudly in the circus parade and plays happily with his mother.
The trouble starts when, after the opening parade (and after Dumbo’s had his bath) members of the public are invited to view the menagerie;, the animals are put on display, they’re put to work. One obnoxious boy, whose own ears aren’t too shabby, not to mention his buck teeth, decides to taunt Dumbo:
Not only does he make faces, but he blows in Dumbo’s ear and, when Mrs. Jumbo moves him away from the kids, that is, moves him out of the line of work, the kid goes after him and attempts to drag him back. Mrs. Jumbo has had enough of this and spanks the kid:
And then CHAOS and CONFUSION! The next thing we see is the crowd running wild and the ringmasters intervening. What we don’t see is Mrs. Jumbo doing anything to the kid that would result in permanent physical damage, much less death. Nor does she approach anyone else BEFORE the panic. It’s only after the crowd has panicked and the ringmaster has come on the scene with his whip that she becomes violent and out of control. Her violence is clearly a reaction against actions taken against her.
Now, if the boy’s own mother or father had been with him and had decided to punish him for his treatment of Dumbo, little would have happened. He was clearly being cruel to Dumbo and deserved punishment. There might have been some comment about punishing him on the spot and publicly, but no one would have questioned the punishment itself. It was merited and just.
But Mrs. Jumbo was NOT the boy’s parent. If she’d been human she only would have crossed one line, the one that says you can’t punish a child who isn’t your own unless you have express or implied permission (e.g. the institutional authority of a school). As she’s an animal she’s crossed another, and far more consequential line, that between animals and humans.
Note that, as Disney has staged it, this line IS NOT one between nature (animals) and culture (humans). It is entirely within culture, as I mentioned above. These animals have been assimilated to human culture in the circus. We’ve seen the elephants work alongside humans in erecting the tent and we’ve seen the animals treat the opening day parade as a rather boring bit of work. This line between animals and humans is thus one drawn within culture.
That’s not the only line Mrs. Jumbo crossed. As Mrs. Jumbo begins removing Dumbo from view we hear kids saying (script online here)
- Aw, let me see! - Boo! - You can't hide him from us.- Yeah, his ears are still stickin' out. - Come on! - We wanna see him! - We wanna laugh. - Sure, that's what we came for.
Indeed, that’s what they came for. They want their laughs. They want their money’s worth. In effect, as far as they’re concerned, they’ve paid for the privilege of taunting the animals.
Mrs. Jumbo “forgot” that she and Dumbo were at work, where their job is to entertain humans, even at the cost of their dignity. Perhaps that’s why the elephants are so disdainful of clowns, a disdain on full display when, later in the film, they learn that Dumbo has been made into a clown.
They fixed him good.- What do you mean? - Wh-What did they do?- Did they beat him? - What is it, darling?- Tell us. - Come, come. I demand to know.Oh. Well, they've gone and made him--- Oh, dear, I just can't say it. - Out with it!Made him a clown.A clown?- No! - Yes.Oh, the shame of it.Let us take the solemn vow.From now on, he is no longer...an elephant.
And so poor Dumbo no longer has a role in elephant society. His only attachment is to the circus itself, a place of work.
Well, not quite. There’s his new buddy and mentor, Timothy Mouse who joined him some time before this disgrace. In a sense Timothy is responsible for that disgrace, at least partially. For he plays a crucial role in the chain of events that brought it about.
Timothy Mouse to the Rescue, Sorta’
Timothy Mouse enters the story, conveniently enough, just after Dumbo’s mother has been imprisoned, separating him from her. He overhears their conversation:
Well, I heard today that they have put her in solitary confinement.- No! - You don't mean it!Oh, how awful for her!Well, l-I must say, l-I don't blame her for anything.You're absolutely right. It's all the fault of that little--F-R-E-A-K.Yes, him with those ears that only a mother could love.What's the matter with his ears?I don't see nothin' wrong with 'em. I think they're cute.Ladies, ladies! It's no laughing matter at all.Oh. Oh, she's right, girls.Don't forget that we elephants have always walked with dignity.His disgrace is our own shame.- Yes, that's true. That's very true. - Oh, indeed it is.Well, frankly, I wouldn't eat at the same bale of hay with him.- No. Right. - Me either, dearie.-I should say. -Nor I. That's just how I feel about it.Here he comes now.Hmm. Pretend you don't see him.
He upbraids them:
So ya like to pick on little guys, huh?Well, why don't you pick on me?A proud race.Overstuffed hay bags!
And they, of course, are terrified of him. Disney is playing on the traditional enmity between elephants and mice. Not only is this a cross-species friendship, but it is between traditional enemies.
Disney’s also playing on the disparity in size between the elephant and the mouse. Though baby Dumbo is considerably larger than his mouse companion, that little mouse is now his caretaker, as befits an adult. For we must assume that Timothy is an adult. He acts autonomously and doesn’t seem to depend on any other creature. He’s his own man, as the saying goes.
This interspecies friendship is, of course, unnatural. But it IS within the bounds of circus society. For Timothy is one of those animals that wears clothes, in fact, a rather nice circus uniform with a feather in his high hat:
But just what Timothy do in the circus? What’s his line of work? All we see him do is befriend Dumbo. If he has any ‘ordinary’ role to play, this film knows nothing of it. I conclude that, though he’s a circus creature, he’s a very marginal one.
This relationship, however important it is to Dumbo, and it is VERY important, is thus socially marginal. They’re of two different species and both are marginal to the circus where they live.
The first thing Timothy does, after befriending Dumbo, is implant an idea in the mind of the sleeping ringmaster, that Dumbo should top the pyramid of pachyderms. THAT ends in the disaster that gets Dumbo ejected from elephantdom. Timothy didn’t intend that, of course. He had nothing be the best intentions. Things just didn’t work out the way he’d planned, nor, for that matter, how the ringmaster had planned.
And so Dumbo becomes a clown and the matrons feel so vicariously humiliated that they divorce themselves from himn: “His disgrace is our own shame.
The act goes well, very well. For the clowns, the crowd, and the ringmaster. But not for Dumbo. He’s humiliated, playing the role of a human infant as a clown. Now Dumbo has nothing left but the circus, Timothy Mouse, and his mother. They may be separated, but she still loves him, and he her.
Outside of Circus World: Pink Elephants and Crows
It’s at this point that we leave the circus world entirely. But not before Dumbo visits his mother, a visit arranged by Timothy. Revivified by maternal contact—literally contact, she rocks him in her trunk—Dumbo walks back toward his quarters, wherever they are, with Timothy. And they get drunk.
And we have the Pink Elephants sequence. I’ve said so much about this pivotal sequence that I won’t repeat myself. Much. But I will recall the psychoanalytic remarks I made at the beginning of this essay. First, the earliest and deepest layer of the psyche is associated with mother and orality, both of which are in play at this point in the film. Dumbo’s just visited mother and he’s just gotten drunk.
Second, an infant’s life involves being transported from one place to another without having to do anything and whether or not the infant wants to. That’s what happens to the audience of a film, where the camera is, in effect, the mother surrogate moving the infant around. This is particularly important in the Pink Elephants sequence as it is so contextually strange. One moment we’re down on the ground, watching Dumbo and Timothy get drunk. A few minutes later we, along with them, are up in a tree, with no idea how we got there, and listening to crows chatter away about us.
At this point the circus world is but a memory, albeit an important one. But that world has no direct power over Dumbo or Timothy.
Nor do the crows. At first they’re bemused and dismissive, but after a little singing and dancing, they become sympathetic and lend a little sympathetic magic to the cause, the ‘magic feather.’ It’s not magic at all, just an ordinary crow’s feather. But it does the trick. Dumbo flies, deliberately this time. Then again in the circus, that time without the feather. It’s all Dumbo all the way.
Success. Dumbo’s found his way back to the circus. That is, he’s found his way back to the workplace. And then, at the very end, he’s reunited with his mother. Everyone’s happy.
But the crows do not join up with the circus. Nor is there any indication that they wished to do so. They seem quite content to wave goodbye to Dumbo and continue their lives out in the boondocks somewhere anywhere.
Those crows, of course, are stylistically black, and Disney’s audience would have recognized that, as would a contemporary audience. While blacks are not outsiders to the circus Disney has depicted in the film—remember the roustabouts and some of the animal handlers—this particular crew IS outside circus society. The problem that arose within that society—what to do with this big-eared elephant?—could only be solved by going outside it.
Finally, I note that the crows, unlike the storks at the very beginning, are clothed and, of course, they speak. They are not ‘natural’ crows. They’re acculturated, though their culture is not that of the circus world.
What, then, do we make of this whole film, all 68 minutes of it? When Disney introduced Dumbo on his TV program he said it was his favorite of all they pictures they made: “From the very start Dumbo was a happy picture. It really started from a simple idea and, like Topsy, it just grew. We weren’t restricted by any set story line, so we could give our imaginations full play.”
Well, yes, it is a happy film. But only in the ending. The separation between Dumbo and his mother is often quite distressing to young children who see the film; the Pink Elephants sequence is, at least, very strange; and there’s quite a bit of physical and psychological cruelty in the film.
As we’ve seen, it’s a wide-ranging film, one that in the end is an attempt to make sense of the modern world, a world that had plunged into war as Disney was making the film. As I suggested in my post on The Bear That Wasn’t, Disney uses this story of the separation between an infant elephant and his mother as a vehicle bonding his audience to the high technology of the day, and by implication, the social order implied by it. Those Dumbombers for Defense make only the briefest of appearances in the film, but they come at a critical moment, just before Dumbo is reunited with his mother. Not too long before they appeared we had this strange pink elephants interlude in which we see a world entirely populated by and constituted of pink elephants. In particular, it ends with pink elephants being transformed into pink cars, trains, and speedboats. Very shortly after the Dumbomber headline we see Dumbo himself, this time wearing an aviator’s cap, and without Timothy Mouse. He then lands in his mother’s arms as she sits at the rear of a streamlined caboose, that is, a railroad car styled after an airplane.
In the 1950s Disney would become one of the nation’s most prominent prophets and propagandists of high technology, which he celebrated in TV programs about atomic energy (Our Friend the Atom) and several programs about man in space. His last major project, EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) was to be another celebration of technology, though it didn’t work out that way once it was built (after his death). In fact, EPCOT as Disney conceived it seems to have been an attempt to reconcile technology with his somewhat sentimental attachment to traditional small-town life.
And that, of course, is what Disney had in the circus setting that dominates the film. The circus is a small town. Everyone knows everyone. Except that this small town is rootless. It travels from place to place putting on a show. In fact, that traditional small town has all but been destroyed by the modern industrial world, the very world Disney wants to celebrate. The best he can manage is to put the town on a train in a circus headlined by a high-tech flying elephant.
And the problem that arose within that town, the big-eared elephant, could not in the end be solved within that town. It required the benevolent intervention of those jive-talking high-stepping crows, most stylish. As myth it’s convincing. As social analysis, diagnosis, and prescription, it falls apart.
Which is where we are today.