Dumbo: Choosing Heroism

This contains spoilers for Dumbo.

I have seen mixed reviews for Dumbo, which saddens me, because in my opinion Tim Burton has done something extraordinary. He’s given an animal “autonomy,” which in a literary sense means “the right to self-govern” and control his own story. Dumbo is not just at the mercy of events in this version, he’s given choices and, in true heroic fashion, makes the right ones. In a movie that is a direct condemnation for exploiting animals and that advocates for keeping them in the wild (a message I wholeheartedly agree with), allowing Dumbo to become the “hero of his own story” is a brilliant move, and in many ways, it makes the story much more powerful. 

As a little girl I watched the original so much my parents got sick of it. Knowing me, it was probably every day for several months. I was a melancholy, deep little soul even then, who did not shy away from sadness. I would watch it and cry. A lot. Over time, I stopped (watching it, not crying ;). I hadn’t seen it in twenty years until the other night, when I decided to revisit it before seeing the remake. For it’s time, it was revolutionary, because it advocated for kindness to animals in a time when that was rarely considered. And the new movie reflects an even more compassionate, modern mindset.

Most of you probably remember the original. Dumbo spends most of it crying over losing his mama, but at the end, when he’s learned to fly, he makes the circus so much money they give her a special train car, and they get to be together. It’s the 1930’s version of a “happy ending” for Dumbo. The 2019 version is an upgrade. But even more special than the new ending, in which the circus troupe smuggle Dumbo and his mother home so they can live wild and free (I cried), is the moment Dumbo becomes the hero.

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In the old version, his heroism was in overcoming bullying and learning to fly. In the new one, Dumbo flies because he thinks he can earn money to purchase back his mama. He not only overcomes his bullying and learns to fly (and overcome his fear of heights), he is on his way to the boat with his mother when he realizes his human family is in danger, surrounded by flames. After looking deep into his mama’s eyes, Dumbo flies away and scoops up water in his trunk. He took his trauma – the circus teaching him to “put out a fire” for the clown act (which was humiliating for him) – flew into an inferno and saved his friends. Because that’s what heroes do. And Dumbo is a hero.

I can’t explain to you why this moment meant so much to me. It touched my heart. Maybe because it shows us Dumbo’s goodness. He’s the sweetest, gentlest, kindest little elephant ever to get mocked for his oversized ears. Dumbo got everything he ever wanted then turned around and went back for his friends—the humans he loved. He risked his life to save them. He got his chance to save the day. And he’s just a BABY.

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I am a real sap for goodness. Heroism. Courage. The misunderstood, abused, maligned “freak” that manages to stay kind and gentle and good despite the lousy hand life has dealt them. (This is why I also love Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.) I have seen an awful lot of people claim they have a right to be horrible because of their upbringing and the miseries they suffered – but it doesn’t have to be that way. We all have choices every day, about the kind of person (or in this case, elephant) we want to be. We are not victims of circumstance, we get to choose to be a hero or a villain. The past is no excuse. Dumbo could have become bitter due to his experiences, but he chose another way.

Little Dumbo went through hell. Taken away from his mama, not allowed to see her, humiliated by being dressed up in clown makeup, forced to perform for the crowd, bombarded with peanuts and cruel insults, teased because of his ears, given no net during his performances in case he fell… yet, he was still a pure soul. And that’s beautiful.

6 thoughts on “Dumbo: Choosing Heroism

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  1. My daughter is a huge Burton fan, while I am NOT. I was a Barbie girl growing up so imagine my surprise when my own kid wants Monster High and writes fan fiction about them and The Avengers (Loki is her favorite) and most beloved Sherlock. We enjoy the PBS, CBS, printed, and every other version of him. Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey are our favorites.

    1. Yeah, my mother was a tomboy who got a little girl who loved frilly dresses. She loves Hallmark movies with their happy endings; I love Tim Burton movies that are dark and broody. Poor woman. 😉

  2. I haven’t really read reviews for this one, but what I’ve seen (on Twitter, headlines) seems to suggest it’s not being well received. People on Twitter seem to be belittling it (some based on their reaction to the original… which to be honest, I don’t even remember), and in some sense poking fun. Meanwhile I’m over here so excited about this one because Disney works magic with their live-action remakes, and because, apparently I’ve become a nostalgic sap and think Dumbo is THE cutest little elephant (or animated character) I’ve ever seen. Thanks for sharing this, and I’m glad to know the film is good. 🙂

    1. The reviews are all very vague and basically amount to “I wasn’t as moved as I was watching the original” — which makes me wonder how tuned in they were, because I was certainly moved! Does it have flaws? Yes. The characterization is weak, and there are predictable coincidences. Does it matter? Not for me. I loved it. It was funny and sad and touching and sweet and heroic and made me cry at least four times, and in my mind, that’s a good movie. Also the critics who hate this are the same ones who didn’t like The Greatest Showman, which tells me they have no soul. 😉

      Dumbo is indeed adorable. Which makes it all the harder to watch, when he’s separated from his mama. I think people forget he’s only about a week old. 😦

  3. I did not want to see this film because I didn’t want to cry but your review for the film so moved me, well I’m going to have to see it! Thanks for your thoughts!!

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