Released in 1941, Dumbo was the little movie that could at the Disney studio. Marred by two previous releases that were box office flops (but both would eventually go on to become Classics in their own right), the Disney Studio was in desperate need of a box office success story. Dumbo was originally intended to be a short. However, Walt himself realized the only way to do the story justice was to release it as a full length feature.
Not only was the studio experiencing financial setbacks, but also social in that Dumbo was birthed during the infamous Animators Strike and released a mere month before the attack on Pearl Harbor. However Dumbo soared at the box office and received the distinction of being the number one hit for the Disney Studio in the entire decade of the 40s. And to this I wonder why? What was it about Dumbo, who never utters a single word by the way, that made audiences fall in love?
Dumbo to this day remains one of the most popular stories and characters in the Disney vault. In fact if you ask quite a few visitors to the Magic Kingdom parks what their first ride of the day will be, many will respond “Dumbo’s Flight!” In the New Fantasyland expansion, Dumbo recently received an upgrade and can service even more guests as well has an interactive queue for young children. All thanks to his immense popularity as both character and theme park attraction.
The title itself is not one that many of us would gravitate towards in our modern PC society. Is it? The environment in the 1940s towards children with disabilities, developmental or otherwise, was to put them in the care of medical professionals and move on. I have heard countless stories since our own son was diagnosed of how things have changed in the 60-70 years since the war of how we as a society cope. And yes, Jumbo Jr. was an outsider, he is an outcast almost from the very beginning once his fellow elephants (A Proud Race) get a full look at his ears. Openly mocked, he is shunned, along with his mother who stands up for her young son. And this element I feel is what attracts us all to this story. We’ve all been children, we’ve all felt powerless. We’ve also all felt rejection from those we seek to gain acceptance. This is why Dumbo is accessible, even to those of us who are not considered special needs
We’ve come pretty far, and still have further to go. But, Dumbo to me is a compassionate film. It’s one of several tear jerking moments, triumphant scenes, and yes, eye grabbing animation and beautiful watercolors that make the film even 70 plus years after it’s release date still grab you with their vibrancy. It’s overall a beautiful tale, woven on the simple story of taking what life has dealt you and standing on top triumphantly through perseverance.
Eventually in this story comes the scene that I have hated since I was a child, the separation of child and mother because she stands up for her son to the wrong person. Thought to be mad, she is locked away. (This scene was the first time I openly became angry during a movie. My grandmother has told me of how I used to stamp out of the room after this scene, irate.)
Dumbo is alone, in a cruel and cold world. Or is he? Dumbo keeps being supplied in the story by those who would help him. Guide him, believe in him or otherwise look out for him. His mother, Timothy Mouse, and eventually the Crows on the Hill. And so to in our society today, even from first diagnosis, I feel we find guiding hands. Divinely supplied or otherwise, I feel our lives have similarly been blessed by so many who take the time to educate our family and help advocate for our son and the many with disabilities.
Dumbo eventually takes the very thing that was the cause of his segregation and what does he do? He uses it to literally soar above all others. And this is the lesson, the core root of my position. Dumbo is the first Disney Special Needs Character. Temple Grandin recently stated that if she could change her Autism, she wouldn’t. It’s a part of her, it’s helped her think differently, and that it’s these different thinkers who should be sought out by employers now and in the future. Those diagnosed with Autism are natural problem solvers, analytical thinkers, designers and are blessed with many talents.
I watched Dumbo often as we were going through the diagnosis of my youngest son. It was a comfort to over and over see this character whom every one shortchanged take that disability and make it into a talent. In those days I didn’t truly know where to turn, who to ask for guidance or what future I could help my son achieve. And on hard days now, Thomas and I will sit and watch Dumbo together. His story helps us deal with a world that sometimes isn’t quite the nicest environment. It’s also an inspiration. You are only limited by yourself.
Dumbo remains an inspiration to us, and to so many. His story obviously struck a nerve in a war torn world 70 years ago. And now his story resonates even further to those of us who always see the potential in every diagnosis. Who strive every day to make better futures for our children on the spectrum, and also know that the very things that are seen to hold our children down are going to carry them up and up and up!