In November 2019, I started this essay by with the following opening paragraph:
“Reviews are in for Tim Burton’s 2019 version of Dumbo and I am so glad that I ignored them and saw the film anyway. After viewing more than once, and going back to review the original 1941 movie, I am that much more enchanted by the message and story of this cultural icon. Both the original and the current renditions of this story tell us so much about American culture; whether or not the latest version makes you cry (spoiler: it made me cry), it is worth your time to go see it. It’s not only very sweet and cute. Tim Burton’s Dumbo will make you think and reflect.
What’s there not to love here?”
It is now May of 2020, and after watching Burton’s Dumbo again before returning to this article, it is even more a poignant and thought-provoking film. Do you recollect, if you did see it, that the Colin Farrell character, Holt Farrier, comes back to his children and to his Medici Brothers Circus family in 1919? His wife has died of the so-called Spanish flu. His children are bereft and he, just back from fighting in World War I, is missing an arm. I didn’t really register the part about his wife dying from a pandemic flu when I watched this movie last year. When I wrote to Disney and asked permission to use some of their images for this essay, I was thinking I’d write something for Mother’s Day or, maybe, for a meditation on national trauma and how it filters through literature and art (as those who follow my blog know, this was my specialty area during my first career as a Spanish professor). I knew that anything I wrote about this film would pertain to either the theme of motherhood or to trauma. But I hadn’t really taken note of the pandemic flu detail that opens the narrative.
And now here we are, in May 2020.
The original movie version of Dumbo arrived in American theaters in October of 1941. Less than eight weeks later, the United States would officially enter into World War II after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. China, at that time, was considered an ally. By then, of course, the Spanish Civil War–widely recognized as a dress rehearsal for the larger conflict that was the Second World War–had been deemed over by dictator Francisco Franco on April 1st of 1939; in September of that same year, France and Britain responded to the invasion of Poland with their declarations of war. Joe DiMaggio made record plays in baseball, thrilling sports fans everywhere. Italian and German assets in the United States were frozen and indeed, unless one was a famous Italian American sports figure, it wasn’t so easy to be a new American from the old country, as you can see here. The comic hero Captain America burst onto the public consciousness in March of 1941 and the lyrics of “Baby Mine” were written by Ned Washington that same year
As I watched and rewatched the original Dumbo, going back and forth between the movie’s first iteration and then its second, I wondered what people saw when they viewed it, given its place in the then-current cultural imaginary. I think that Burton’s Dumbo speaks for ours, now, in ways that maybe nobody saw when it originally was released on March 29th, 2019. The sweet baby elephant as a central focus of each film captured hearts, both the 20th and the 21st century versions. But each audience, the old and the new, will have fallen in love with little Dumbo for different reasons. Then and now, the star character’s presentation and supporting storylines differ as much in audience reception as it did in its production. A recap of each movie shows quite a variance in framework aside from the central tale of a circus and a baby elephant with big ears who finds triumph in flight.
And yet, in both, we have mothers who lose children and children who lose mothers. We see, in both, the effects of cultural upheaval and loss. But like the children in Tim Burton’s Dumbo, we are all now–to one degree or another–orphans, metaphoric or otherwise, that have been created by a pandemic virus.
And yet…then and now, we can watch the movie and share triumph and joy and love along with the lovable baby Dumbo. There is hope in Burton’s movie.
I think there is still hope for us all now too.
In the first version, the baby is delivered to Mrs. Jumbo, his mama, via a stork. The other elephants are cruel to both mother and infant when they see his ears; ultimately, the little newcomer is helped by a mouse named Timothy. In the end, a pack of crows led by a now-controversial character, one Jim Crow, help him by sharing a feather and their encouragement. This scene, which did not make it into the current iteration, brings the film to its denouement, wherein Dumbo is acclaimed and, reunited with Mrs. Jumbo, he rides happily on the circus train, ostensibly to his next gig.
Tim Burton’s Dumbo expands to include human characters and begins, in fact, with the introduction of Max Medici’s struggling Medici Brothers Circus. Neither version of Dumbo shows the elephant with a father and this lack is especially telling in Burton’s movie. We see, in this retelling, a lack of connection in the figure of the Michael Keaton’s wicked V. A. Vandevere who was abandoned as a child by his own father. Danny DeVito’s Max yearns for siblings and the name of his circus reflects this deeply-held desire. It’s a scar that Vandervere exploits by pointing out that there are no Medici brothers and handing Max a contract to sign; in selling the circus to Vandevere, Max is promised a home for his circus. He signs, though of course Vandevere’s Dreamland will soon become a nightmare for all of them. The overall narrative is driven by male characters who ache for meaningful ties. Holt Farrier wants to be a loving father but, broken, he struggles and falls short. His darling son, Joe (Finley Hobbins), would happily be a performer under the big top but he’s a bit hapless and not entirely circus-worthy. Others, like the Rongo the Strongo (DeObia Oparei) and Pramesh Singh, the snake charmer (played by the wonderful Roshan Seth), and Puck, the Organ Grinder (Frank Bourke), are like characters from the Island of Misfit Toys. They are cast adrift, to a certain extent, and broken. Ivan the Wonderful (Miguel Muñoz) is paired up with Catherine the Greater (Zenaida Alcalde); though bonded, they each seem worried and even sad.
A theme of male loss and pain is a cornerstone of the story. And yet, it is always, always the loss of a mother that holds attention and keeps the space for magic to bloom in this film.
The female characters in this film reflect the zeitgeist of loss, each and every one. Mrs. Jumbo is a beautiful creature and her love for her baby is legend. Milly Farrier, played by Nico Parker, is a solemn but very sweet young girl who in no way wishes to be a circus performer. Instead, she wants to be a scientist. This motherless daughter further has her opposite in the figure of Colette Marchant, Vandervere’s girlfriend, who was once a Parisian street performer and who, by film’s denouement, is her implied step-mother. The name Colette alludes to the French author, mime, actress, and journalist; her life, for its part, brings to mind, however briefly, Camille. Marchant as a surname most certainly alludes to ballerina Colette Marchand. And Miss Atlantis, the mermaid played by Sharon Rooney, is lonely and sad; when she sings “Baby Mine” in the iconic scene of Mrs. Jumbo trying to hold her baby from behind the bars of her cage, we listen, somehow understanding that this circus performer is singing a message not just to the elephants but also to herself, and to us, her audience on the other side of the screen.
(An aside: Nothing, but nothing, can make me cry harder than the multilingual version of “Baby Mine” that I embedded at the end of this essay, though. Nothing. How can it be otherwise? Three of its languages I speak; namely, English, Spanish, and Italian. One, of course, is a new language for me, but it is treasured nonetheless. That would be the Chinese part.)
Don’t we all want to be held close, and loved for exactly who we are?
Truly, I was surprised by the poor reviews this film garnered. Granted, I wrote my 300-page doctoral dissertation on the subject of fantasy, fantastic, and magical realism in short fiction. My critical analysis of Spanish and Italian stories focused on ways these modes were used to reflect and filter the pain of the Spanish Civil War and of World War II. In chapters on Latin American short fiction and Chicano/a narrative, I considered how these were employed in an effort to construct a self-narrative and a barrier against imperialism and hegemony. Fairy tales, like the fantastic, the fantasy, and, as in magical realism, also played a part in my doctoral dissertation and, to this day, remain a love of mine. This interest ultimately led me to my signature scholarly focus as my career progressed. This would be, as mentioned earlier, national trauma and how it filters through short fiction and art. When we are happy, we turn to story; when we are sad, we do the same.
My post-dissertation work with national, or big picture, trauma (namely, that wrought by civil war, dictatorship, genocide, and torture) never quite lost its connection to my earliest study. There is so much that can be said with fairy stories and fantasy that may be too painful to express otherwise. In my estimation, Burton’s Dumbo is a film that warrants considerable review in light of the current pandemic. It’s a beautiful movie, and it speaks to our time.
Of course, I am not the only one who sees the beauty and the sorrow in traditional tales, fantastic narrative, and magical stories. Fantasy is the foundation of everything, if you ponder it, and the word itself is protean.
Tim Burton’s Dumbo is a treasure trove of inspiration and thought. It is protean. It’s also beautiful. The colors and textures make the viewer feel like they are within a fantasy-like circus. It seems that all things are deliberately not-quite-real. And the details are enchanting, if you remember to look. The movie begins with the Medici Brothers Circus and Baby Dumbo, when he’s introduced to the public is dressed up in baby clothes and pulled in a little cart that says “Dear Baby Jumbo.” When chaos ensues and the little elephant is unmasked, a letter falls and another drops, leaving him sitting under the label “Dumbo.” The letters above the gate of wicked Mr. Vandevere’s fantasy land theme park read Dreamland. And yet, when the chaos therein ensues, a letter once again falls, leaving only the ironic reamland. There is a lot of chaos in this movie and labels do not stick.
But the movie ends with a happy designation. Finally, as the movie nears its denouement, the new sign rising triumphantly above the Medici Family Circus reflects not the lie that Max had brothers. Instead, we see that this is a real family (and one that performs successfully and to much acclaim, including in Milly’s science tent). It also looks like Colette, who had no children of her own, has found love with Holt and motherhood with his kids, or at least with his son, who takes part in an uplifting performance with his dad and the beautiful, now happy, aerialist. Milly, for her part, remains behind the movie projector in her tent, seemingly quite content. Things are stable. Catherine the Greater and Ivan the Wonderful now smile happily and all of the performers exude joy and a sense of security. Everyone has a home now. And when baby Dumbo and his mama are reunited with their herd in Asia as the final music soars, who isn’t going to cry at such an ending?
This movie was before its time, I think. I think it is worth watching again, especially now. You don’t need to have written a doctoral dissertation on the subject to go back, watch again, and see it with new eyes. For younger people, there is the escapism and sweetness, certainly, to make it worth an hour or so of viewing. For anyone, it is a visual feast, from the costumes to the sets, to the lead human characters (Eva Green is so pretty, and–let’s be real here- Colin Farrell is a hottie). But for all of us who long for that sense of unconditional love and for a joyful ending, Dumbo is cathartic movie that ends on such a genuinely happy note. I thought it was a perfect movie to inspire a Mother’s Day blog post, and in a way, it still is. But in May of 2020? In watching it again, I think something different. Watching, I think that a viewer might pretend, if only for a moment, that they can be reunited with their herd too, or even–such a thought!–that a person can trust in the magic of science and steadiness of family, be it biological family or be it a self-made community based on the ties of love.
If I were still a Spanish professor, I would ask my students to read this essay. We would watch the multilingual version of “Baby Mine” that I’ve linked here as a group. We would talk about the losses and the joys. I’d ask them to draw connections between the pandemic we are experiencing now and what they see in a film set back then, in 1919. It’s a complicated topic, especially if you need to think about it and speak about it in a language not your own. But aren’t we all learning a new language, of sorts, as we reconstruct our current notions of what is normal and how-things-might-be? And don’t we all need a little encouragement that it is possible to triumph, and that things will get better by and by? I think my students would be comforted by such a conversation. I do.
What touched my heart in Burton’s Dumbo, especially, were the reminders that compassion and hope can be rewarded. Chaos can be tamed, if only on the screen. And it may be an ephemeral fantasy that lasts only as long as the final credits, but watching this movie loosened a knot of pain that’s been in my chest for a good eight weeks now.
In the complicated simplicity of this beautiful story, we can, if only for a moment, feel like we have come home.
What, dear reader, do you think?
Paula Bruno, Ph.D., L.Ac., is a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, an AOBTA-CP traditional Chinese bodywork therapist, and a wellness educator.
In her first career, she was a Spanish professor.
Dr. Bruno continues to blog prolifically on a range of topics relating to: holistic health, her voracious reading list, current events, intercultural competence, and other fascinating subjects of this nature.
Two Hearts Wellness is an Austin, TX based holistic health and wellness resource that reflects Dr. Bruno’s passion for all things nourishing, including but not limited to: joyful living, great food, art, literature, and–of course–traditional Chinese medicine.
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