Thoughts on the Dumbo Remake Trailer
Consider Dumbo my problematic favorite. It’s, sadly, not hard to think of times that the Walt Disney Company produced incredibly racist content in its feature films. There’s Sunflower, the black centaur and handmaid to the white and blonde centaur in Fantasia, drawn with exaggerated Jim Crow caricature features and literally erased from the Disney Vaults for all future re-releases of the film. Then you have Peter Pan and the infamous song “What Makes the Red Man Red?,” indulging in horrible stereotypes about American Indians and First Nations people in similarly racist caricature. Songs of the South had Uncle Remus as the happy slave singing and dancing for the enjoyment of free white children. Disney also tripled down on the Siamese cat as racist Asian caricature conceit in Lady and the Tramp, The Aristocats, and Disney’s Rescue Rangers (not a film, but modern enough that Disney should have known better). This isn’t even getting into the racist WWII propaganda films that every animation studio produced to aid the war effort. It’s a slippery slope from “Der Fuhrer’s Face” to “Commando Duck.”
Dumbo shares more with Songs of the South than many of the other racist moments in Disney films. Shoot, it even shares an actor in James Baskett, Uncle Remus himself, playing one of the crows. If you had any doubt about the crows dressed in flashy clothes talking in slang and singing/scatting silly music being anything other than a racist stereotype lifted straight from the minstrel show, just look at the closing credits of the film. One of the five crows is named Jim Crow, and certain releases of the films refer to the group as the Jim Crows. It is a baffling and inexplicable moment of racism in what has, to that point, been a surprisingly emotional tale about a young elephant finding his way in the world after being mocked from his birth for looking different. The Crows appear for the 11th hour anthem to inspire Dumbo to actually take the leap, fly in the circus act, and free his mother Jumbo from her solitary confinement in a circus train car. They inspire him by making fun of him for a few minutes before giving him a feather and pushing him off a cliff.
This was an intentional choice on many levels. The composers had to write the song. The animators had to design the characters and draw thousands of cells to animate it. The screenwriters had to decide a group of Jim Crows mocking the protagonist was the way to motivate the leading character to achieve their destiny. The director had to convince the voice actors actors to perform the scenes and dialogue. And the studio had to agree that this was a great idea and release the film. Dumbo is a beautifully animated and scored film with a lovely message about self-empowerment forever marred by blatant racism. I cherish the good of it while acknowledging how awful this kind of scene actually is.
Cut to 2018. Disney has been threatening to bring back Dumbo in a variety of media for years. There’s a long-gestating stage musical adaptation that always gets brought up whenever there’s a major article about what Disney is working on (right alongside Hercules and Tangled). With the success of Maleficent, Dumbo became one of the titles thrown around for a reimagining to fix the problems of the original film. We now know that Tim Burton is the lucky director to take on Dumbo and hopefully transform it into not a basket of racist stereotypes.
The new trailer doesn’t look racist, no. I’m thinking of other descriptors now.
Here’s the good. The dreamy filter over the entire film makes the CGI animals look far more realistic than they should. Tim Burton’s love of shadows gives the footage a nostalgic quality rather than nightmare fuel as it usually (intentionally) is. The costuming and design of the circus is lovely.
Everything else feels wrong. I don’t mind using children as a surrogate for the message of the story. If there’s a time for self-insert “I can relate” characters, it’s children’s films with positive messages. I do mind that Dumbo feels more like a prop being used by everyone, the children included, to make the human characters feel better. A story about an abused elephant in a circus in 2018 is nowhere near as innocent as it was in 1941. Circuses around the world have moved away from using exotic animals in their acts because of abusive training methods and inhumane transport conditions. Now is not the time to slap greasepaint on a CGI baby elephant and have an arena full of actors laugh at its struggles. It was mean in the original; now, it’s just abuse, even if the elephant itself isn’t real.
I also think that the trailer is extremely manipulative while showcasing what might be a major flaw in the film. “Baby Mine,” the Academy Award-nominated song from the original film, scores the trailer in a new recording by Aurora. “Baby Mine,” in the original film, is a touching lullaby sung by Mrs. Jumbo to her darling baby Dumbo. Every other mother in the circus gets to comfort their child face to face, but Mrs. Jumbo is locked away from the rest of the circus animals, written off as a dangerous creature for defending her son from being bullied by the other animals. She sings this lullaby to her child, unable to see him, and gently reaches her trunk through the metal bars of her train car to offer him some small comfort.
There is nothing technically wrong with this new recording of “Baby Mine.” It’s a modern pop cover and it’s not intended to be anything else. However, with Dumbo’s story seemingly taken away from him and knowing what the song is actually meant to be to the story, it seems callous and uncaring to use that song to boost the sentimentality of the trailer. People who know Dumbo will be brought back to that scene, and people who don’t will hear a melancholy love song over a montage of people fighting against the circus? It’s a really odd choice that doesn’t sit well with me. Why even call the film Dumbo if it’s actually about humans abusing animals to overthrow a circus structure built on the backbone of abusing animals? What is the benefit of an even earlier period setting (judging by the human costuming) if the music is going to be reimagined in such a modern way?
None of this sits well with me. There’s room for reinvention in a remake. Dumbo, especially, could be told in a way that really resonates a positive message for young people in a world increasingly defined by bullying, cruelty, and hatred. Rework that Jim Crows scene into something not blatantly racist, maybe have it be another set of neglected creatures encouraging Dumbo to find himself rather than mocking him until he does the trick the world wants him to do, and you have a film about finding your own source of happiness in a cold world.
Dumbo is set to release in theaters on 29 March 2019.
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