What Dumbo Taught Me About Love-Hate Relationships
The other day, I was watching the classic Disney animated film, Dumbo.
If you’re not familiar with the movie, it follows the story of a baby elephant with enormous ears. Amazingly, he’s able to fly with the help of a magic feather…but is it real or some kind of trick?
I’m a huge Disney fan, but Dumbo is one of those movies that I like and dislike equally. There are some really good parts, and there are some really bad parts.
It’s a classic love-hate relationship.
Here’s a rundown of the good and the bad in Dumbo:
The Good: A Mother’s Unconditional Love
Soon after the stork delivers a baby elephant to Mrs. Jumbo, it becomes clear that this baby is not like the other elephants because of his huge ears. One snobby female elephant calls the baby “Dumbo,” a cruel name that unfortunately sticks.
Dumbo’s mother doesn’t care what the other elephants say. She loves her baby no matter what and there’s a beautiful scene of them playing together.
Later, when Dumbo’s mother is unjustly locked away from the other elephants, she’s chained in such a way that she is only able to touch Dumbo with her trunk. As she rocks him with her trunk, the song “Baby Mine” plays, and it makes me cry. Every. Single. Time.
The Good: Anti-Cruelty Message
It’s not often that I find movies with positive animal-rights messages, and certainly not movies from the 1940s about circuses. But surprisingly, the scenes in Dumbo make the viewer feel sympathetic to the animals who are treated poorly.
When a mean human boy makes fun of Dumbo and yells in his ear, Dumbo’s mothers throws hay and spanks the boy in order to protect her child. The ringmaster and his crew show up and think she’s a “mad elephant” and lock her up with chains and rope.
The viewer understands that Dumbo’s mother was treated unfairly and should not have been harshly punished. As a vegan, I appreciate seeing a situation that is sympathetic to the animals.
Also, when Dumbo is forced to become a clown and jump from a very tall platform (more than 60 feet), the viewer understands that the jump will kill him, and we feel anger towards the ringmaster and clowns who make him do this.
The Bad: Racism
Oh boy, did I mention that this cartoon was released in 1941? Obviously, American culture was different back then, and the civil rights movement was decades away.
There’s a group of singing crows in Dumbo who embody stereotypical black mannerisms and slang. At least the crows are sympathetic to Dumbo’s situation, but the scene is still uncomfortable to watch and might be very confusing to younger viewers who don’t understand the context of the time period.
The Walt Disney Company has become more sensitive to today’s views on race. I have several box sets of Donald Duck cartoons where questionable short films are placed in a separate section called “From the Vault.” Each cartoon is prefaced with an explanation of the views from the time they were produced.
But some racist films are beyond explanation. Song of the South is a Disney film that the Walt Disney Company has repeated said they will never release again in any medium.
The Bad: Unrealistic Portrayal of Circuses
It’s upsetting to me to see stylized, fantasy versions of circuses, zoos, and farms when I know those places are nightmarish for the animals forced to live (and die) there.
People understand that animals don’t talk in real life, but they falsely believe that animals are happy and well cared for when they are used for entertainment purposes. I can assure you that they are not.
For a more realistic portrayal of life in captivity (despite the talking animals), please watch Happy Feet, Pocahontas II, or Finding Nemo.
The Deciding Factor
So, what’s the deciding factor for me? Why does this love-hate relationship lean more to the “love” side?
It was the moral of the story: if you believe in yourself, you can do great things even when no else believes in you.
Throughout the whole movie, Dumbo has been abused and tortured for having big ears. Finally, he finds a magic feather that allows him to fly when he holds it with his trunk. But he loses the magic feather at the worst possible time—as he’s plummeting to his doom after jumping off the high platform!
Spoiler alert! At the last possible second, Dumbo spreads his ears and flies through the air. It is the first time in his life when he feels good about himself.
Dumbo CAN really fly, and he proves to everyone that he has value and doesn’t need their approval.
He zooms around shooting peanuts at the mean elephants, clowns, and ringmaster. It’s really gratifying to see the little guy get his revenge. His mother is released, and Dumbo even gets his own fancy train car since he’s now the star of the show.
Whew! That was a long analysis of a cartoon.
If you’ve stayed with me this far, allow me to get to the point. All the relationships in our lives have good parts and bad parts. It’s up to you to decide whether you can take the good with the bad, or whether the bad overpowers the good.
Sometimes you can make compromises and agreements to save a relationship. And sometimes not. For me, I’ve had to cut off some love-hate relationships when the bad outweighs the good.
Take a good look at each of your relationships: with your partner, friends, boss and coworkers, family members, etc.
Is there a relationship that is more bad than good? What do you want to do about it?
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What an amazing analysis Sage!! It’s amazing how much clearer everything becomes the older you get. From what I understand there’s a lot of political and social undertones to Disney movies and this one is clearly no exception.
You are right about taking the time to analyze relationships. I’ve done so in the past and have made some cuts in my inner circle. Sounds pretty crappy but sometimes it’s better off to just let people go. It’s probably best for both parties involved.
Absolutely. Bad relationships aren’t helpful to either person. I’ve gotten much better about letting people go if they’re not positively affecting my life.
You’re right, Disney movies have all kinds of messages and agendas. Dumbo always made me feel funny. I liked it, but then I felt bad about liking it. I think a lot of things in life are like that–not so black and white.
Wow, Sage, this was a spectacular post! I loved your analysis of the entire film and agree with you 100% on everything. It really is a great movie overall, but does have some (pretty major) flaws.
As for relationships, I find myself weighing the good with the bad for several of them. A few times the bad have outweighed the good, so I’ve let those relationships go & never regretted it.
Thanks so much, Molly! I really enjoy movies and analyzing them. There are some old movies that really make me cringe, but Dumbo is one of those films that still has a good message.
I’ve stayed in some friendships that were a 50/50 split on being good and bad. Now that I’m older, I expect more from the people around me (and myself). Most of my relationships are around 80% good and 20% bad.
I’ve only seen Dumbo once, when I was really little. I don’t remember anything except being scared when the mom elephant gets chained up! It sounds like it does have a good message overall, maybe I should watch the whole thing!
It does have a good message, and that’s why I think Dumbo is good overall. We just have to remember it was a different time period with different values. I also remember being scared as a kid when they locked her up!