Ever since the birth of my younger child recently, I’ve embraced the parenting method of entertaining my 3-year-old son with the help of various hi-def screens. Getting him to sit through an entire feature film is a challenge, so I’ve learned that choosing a cheerful, comforting, and memorable movie is the way to go -- something where, if we get interrupted, we won’t feel lost jumping back in or devastated by giving up completely.
This, along with my son’s love of elephants and my subscription to Netflix, is how we recently came to be screening Dumbo. Not counting the viewings of the “Baby Mine” clip during pregnancy when I needed to sob, I hadn’t watched the 1941 Disney classic in decades, and I was floored by how different the animated movie is now that I’m a parent. So is Dumbo worth letting back into your living room this holiday season? Here are my prevailing takeaways from a parental rewatch.
Its hand-drawn animation holds up
We all "ooh"ed and "aah"ed over the sweeping ballroom scene in 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, and have watched in awe as cinematic animation continues evolving. But even now, the vividness of Dumbo’s colors remains captivating, even by the opening credits’ circus-poster motif. The animals’ natural realism, the torrential sleet, and the coastal Floridian waves brought to life remind you that human hands can still create some pretty gorgeous moving pictures.
There’s a reason Dumbo is like a children’s book come to life
One of Dumbo’s storyboardists was Bill Peet, who went on to become a beloved children’s author. It makes sense that his sketches were heart-melting, but not overly cutesy, as they were inspired by the birth of his first son. Nor is it surprising that Peet went on to write kids’ books. Dumbo is rich with subtle aspects that could spin off into their own tales, like the anthropomorphic circus train and, of course, Mr. Stork. While there are definitely some scenes that go on a bit long for a small child’s attention span (like the raising of the circus tent), these little touches of wonder make it pretty ideal G-rated viewing.
Dumbo, like its intended audience, is short and sweet
Instead of there being an evil witch to defeat or a prince to marry, Dumbo’s an ugly-duckling tale where the goal is acceptance -- or even just lack of humiliation. In some ways, that’s a harder concept to explain than just, “Oh no! There’s Cruella de Vil! She’s mean!” On the other hand, the themes of inclusion and self-love never go out of style. Happily for parents, Dumbo is also a very short watch, apparently made quickly to try to recoup the money Disney lost on Fantasia. I kept thinking, as I looked at the time counter, that perhaps there was something wrong with the rental and it would be cut off, but no, it’s really only 64 minutes long, just the right length for repeated viewings.
However, Dumbo has complicated views of women
There are no male elephants in the movie, aside from Dumbo himself, even though all the other animals in the early stork scene have partners. Mrs. Jumbo and her son are tormented, not supported, by their fellow elephants, all snide, gossipy matrons. When the elephant with the green hat smiles, satisfied, after spreading malicious news about Mrs. Jumbo, I realized (depressingly) how accurately the writers grabbed on to some of women’s worst tendencies. On the other hand, Dumbo is one of few Disney flicks that features a loving, protective mother who survives the entire movie.