Disney has become fully invested in making live-action remakes of its popular animated films. In the past few years we've seen Maleficent, The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast, and we're going to get three remakes this year alone with Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Many have questioned why many of these movies are even being remade in the first place, considering the fact that the original films are considered classics in their own right - but if there's one Disney movie that is certainly in worthy of being remade, it's Dumbo. The original is a movie with some serious issues that need to be fixed, and a modern update is a great way to execute those changes.
There are a couple of sequences in Dumbo that simply haven't aged well. The first, you may very well be familiar with, as it has become one of the more notorious sequences in the Disney canon. Near the end of the film, when Dumbo finds himself up a tree with no memory of how he got there (because Dumbo got drunk, you see), he meets a collection of crows. The crows speak jive, and modern audiences have widely labeled them as racist caricatures. The leader of the small gang is even named Jim Crow, which... isn't great. The crows don't represent the worst we've seen from Disney, as Dumbo isn't quite on the level of Song of the South, but they do lean heavily into African-American stereotypes. That sort of thing wasn't uncommon in the 1940s, but looking back on it we can see it's wrong.
However, the crows aren't the only problematic racial element in Dumbo. Earlier in the film, we see Dumbo's circus move to a new town and begin to be constructed. This is all done to a Disney tune called the "Song of the Roustabouts." The roustabouts are singing to, and about, themselves, while putting up the circus tents. We see a change in the animation from the previous scene, which shows Dumbo and the other elephants in perfectly clear detail, to a look where the roustabouts are mostly obscured. None of them have a clear face to distinguish them as independent characters. The only thing that's clear is that they're all not white.
Beyond that, the lyrics of the "Song of the Roustabouts" are also troubling. They sing about how they are all uneducated, and that they can't read or write. They also sing about how once they get paid they'll just throw their money away, implying they wouldn't know how to do anything else. Take a listen.
However, beyond simply making a new version of Dumbo that removes these elements, there are other reasons that the Walt Disney Animated classic is a film that deserves to be remade.
Dumbo was the fourth theatrical feature released by the animation studio back in 1941, however, calling Dumbo a feature is actually being more than a little generous. The film has an official run time of only 64 minutes. It's shorter than some episodes of Game of Thrones.
The length of the film is one symptom of larger issues that Disney was facing at the time. Specifically, there was an intentional move by the studio to make Dumbo on the cheap. Since, in the case of animation, making a longer movie is simply more expensive to produce, one of the ways Dumbo was kept inexpensive was by keeping it short.
In addition to making a shorter movie, the detail work of the animation that was done clearly suffered. If you compare Dumbo to something like Pinocchio, which came before it, or Bambi, which was released after, it's clear that less detail work was done on the backgrounds and the characters, and that they don't look quite as "real" as the other animals or people in the movies Disney created in the era.
The reasons for making Dumbo cheap were simple: Walt Disney Animation Studios was in trouble. In May of 1941, 200 members of the company went on strike in an attempt to get the animators to join the Screen Cartoonists Guild. The strike lasted for nine weeks, during what would have been a prime period of work on Dumbo.
Beyond that, there were other issues. The studio's previous theatrical release, Fantasia, had bombed. This was largely due to the fact that with the start of World War II Disney movies were not seeing wide release overseas. Europe was pretty much entirely closed off, and since countries like England had been a big part of Disney's success with other films, the end of that market hit the company hard.
As such, the Disney studio had begun to make a hard turn toward creating other types of films. Even before Dumbo hit theaters Disney had been commissioned to make short film to promote the sale of Canadian War Bonds and instructional videos on aircraft construction. A large part of what the studio produced in the early 1940s were training films for military use and propaganda shorts. The U.S. would enter the war officially only a couple of months after Dumbo hit theaters and from that point until the end of the war the studio was largely focused on the war effort. The studio itself was commandeered by the U.S. Army and soundstages were used to repair military equipment.
The simple fact is that Disney wasn't able to give Dumbo the attention it deserved during its creation. You can tell that the movie is far too short considering the movie ends at the point where most films would just be getting started. The resolution between "Dumbo learns he can fly" and "Dumbo becomes the star of the circus and everybody lives happily ever after" happens within only a couple of minutes.
And Dumbo is a story worth telling right. When I watched every animated Disney movie a couple years ago in chronological order, Dumbo was the first one to make me want to tear up. The "Baby Mine" sequence is beautiful, but it's one moment a story that otherwise feels like it was put together in much more haphazard fashion. It's clear from the trailers that there's a lot more going on in this new version and that, at least in theory, is a good call.
There's certainly an argument to be made that not every animated Disney movie needs a remake. Just what did the live-action Beauty and the Beast really add to the story? However, if there's a Disney movie that could truly benefit from a remake, it's Dumbo. Now I just hope it's actually good.
CinemaBlend’s resident theme park junkie and amateur Disney historian. Armchair Imagineer. Epcot Stan. Future Club 33 Member.
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