Dumbo. Dir. Sam Armstrong, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts and Ben Sharpsteen. Disney. 1941.

Walt Disney’s classic animation Dumbo (1941) was successfully released in order to uplift the war time atmosphere.  A collaboration of directors worked together in order to make the film such as: Sam Armstrong, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts (all sequence directors) and Ben Sharpsteen as supervising director. Dumboexplores the life of a baby elephant whose appearances do not fit in to the ‘normality’ of the circus world and is therefore exiled and made an outsider. The story of this baby elephant’s isolated life touches the hearts of the audience as Dumbo experiences a journey of hostility. Dumbo’s adorable big ears burden his life, yet with the help of friends like the circus mouse Timothy and the crows, Dumbo learns to embrace his unique talent to make him the infamous flying elephant.

The intriguing aspect about the Disney animation Dumbo, is the use of animalisation and anthropomorphism within animal presences. The predominant characters within the animation are animals, therefore it is interesting how and why the directors decided to depict certain characters through different techniques. In this case, the Madagascar problem may raise certain issues within the film, as at first it creates a blurring between particular functions of animals. To clarify; anthropomorphism portrays animals through human characteristics whereas; animalization is an emphasis of animal instincts and movements. For example the group of elephants, the majority are presented as anthropomorphic show girls, whereas Dumbo’s mother Jumbo is conveyed as a maternal mother through animalization. This raises the question of why the directors wanted to show this. Nevertheless, Dumbo also explores hyperrealism and the representation of animals. Hyperrealism is clearly demonstrated within Dumbo, as it enriches his characters emotions and feelings. As Dumbo is depicted through animalisation, I believe that hyperrealism enforces the animal function rather than depicting a human characteristic. Yet the debate is demonstrated through the contrasting representation of the anthropomorphic crows. It is arguable whether the representation is racist, or whether it is just a reflection of society. However, the debate adds depth to the films generic criticism of society.

The circus lifestyle is a reflection of human society, as the animal hierarchy critiques social attitudes. Anthropomorphism is clearly demonstrated in Dumbo in order to ‘simplify a narrative’[1], or in this case, a critique on society.

The ‘show girl’ elephants are given a shallow and judgemental persona, a good example of anthropomorphism. The elephants place themselves at the top of the social hierarchy through anthropomorphic techniques such as spelling out words ‘F-R-E-A-K’ and whispering to each other. The directors present them as more humanly developed then Dumbo and Jumbo and use them as a reflection of society[2]. The elephants physically turn their backs on Dumbo, representing the ignorance of society towards abnormalities or those who do not fit in to expectations of society. Their trunks are ultimately what make them more human as it embodies their emotions; they are used like a hand in order to contribute to their opinions. This enables the audience to question and rethink their views and judgments of the world.

In contrast, Jumbo’s clothing is conventionally maternal (a hat and scarf), as her character as a loving mother is emphasised. Jumbo has minimal dialogue and is depicted more successfully through animalization, as the love of a mother towards her child is based on instinct, thus a voice is not essential. Therefore, when Jumbo fights against those who mock Dumbo, the simple changing colour of her eyes to red symbolically enhances her emotion alongside the strength within her body[3]. Unfortunately, Jumbo is labelled as ‘dangerous’, which again can be a critique of the ignorance of society; the power of social hierarchy remains to be absolute power. As Jumbo is stylised through animalization, it unfortunately makes her a weaker character, she has no voice to speak out with, therefore results in using animal instinct and her strength.

Likewise, Dumbo’s character is animalized and he does not speak. His relationship with Timothy embodies a voice for Dumbo, allowing Dumbo to build courage within him and against the elephants, distancing from animalistic representations. However, Dumbo’s character is subverted through hyperrealism, it isn’t what Dumbo has to say but how he feels and portrays it which is the key to his character. Dumbo’s mood is determined by the music, for example, the song ‘Baby Mine’ is played whilst he visit’s his mother. It is evident that Dumbo is both happy to see his mother, and sad that they are separate by his facial expressions and the way he nurtures his mother’s trunk.

Finally, the crows are conveyed as African-American’s by their distinguished dialect and clothing. Phrases such as ‘brother’ and ‘folk’ identify the laid back attitudes of African-American society, which holds a strong contrast to the dialect of the elephants. At first they mock Dumbo through the song “If I see an elephant fly”, but they differentiate from the elephants through their ability to understand. Crows are not circus animals, thus comparing them to Dumbo as outsiders. The stylisations of the crows can be interpreted in two ways: one as a racist comment, placing African-Americans outside white society, or using the generic attitudes towards African-Americans in order to convey the changing attitudes of society. They embrace Dumbo’s abnormality and push forward his unique talent; they get behind and physically push him, as well as giving him a black feather as a lucky trinket to help him fly[4]. As the two outsiders unite, the directors combine an anthropomorphic representation of individuality in order to signify the importance to elevate your own characteristics to enhance your outlook to life.  Like previously stated, Dumbo was produced in order to uplift the atmosphere during the war; therefore, references to the war are subtly made through Dumbo flying to be like a fighter plane. For example, the end of the film presents the flight pattern of Dumbo with the crows in a V, a familiar image to the audience alongside a happy ending.

 Timothy is an anthropomorphic depiction of Dumbo’s character rather than his own character as he voices Dumbo’s thoughts. Indeed, Timothy is dressed in a red circus attire, as well as standing on its hind legs like a human, therefore physically embodies an anthropomorphic portrayal of Dumbo. Timothy represents Dumbo’s conscience, acting as a driving force for Dumbo’s self-esteem as he constantly speaks for him as well as making decisions or finding a resolution to Dumbo’s unhappiness. Therefore, Dumbo’s physical animation depicts animalization whereas Timothy adds depth to his character.

There is a strong sense of African-American representation through the crows and the faceless workers. The faceless workers are human figures, however they do not embody any form of human personality just sing the ‘Roustabouts’ song alongside the routine and ritual of setting up camp. The lyrics within ‘Roustabouts’ signifies the African-American divide in white society as it is placed in order to support the role of the crows. The leader of the crows is named ‘Jim Crow’ directly referencing the Jim Crow laws and segregation of African-Americans as a part of the civil rights movement[5]. The crows and faceless workers are both presented as outside beings to the circus, however, their input towards both the running of the circus and the plot of the film allows a positive portrayal of African-Americans, and maybe the beginning of acceptance into society?

As I have previously analysed anthropomorphism and animalisation in Dumbo, Tarzan is a good example of how they have developed. Although Tarzan is not an animal, it is important to note that like Dumbo, he does not fit into society and is influenced by animals. Tarzan is brought up by Gorillas, therefore portraying a clear example of animalisation. Tarzan has to prove his abilities to show that he is capable of living a Gorilla life, thus indicating a clear example of animalisation through his posture and movements. Anthropomorphism is developed within Tarzan by the invasion of humans in the jungle as they teach him about the world and how to be civilised. The connection with Dumbo is how Tarzan adapts civilised characteristics, like the show girl elephants, in order to portray a higher class of intelligence. The two films portray how anthropomorphism and animalisation are techniques which depict animals to have certain roles in society. For example, it can be argued that when Tarzan is portrayed through animalisation, he does not have the respect from his peers until he proves himself, through anthropomorphism to become a civilised human. I understand that Tarzan is a human and cannot be portrayed to be ‘like’ a human, but I think that the film wants the audience to look at Tarzan as an animal. For example, stripping his character down to original animal instincts and how they are explored, just like Dumbo.

Further reading references

Godsil, R,D. Race Nuisance: The Politics of Law in the Jim Crow Era. Michigan Law Review. Vol.105 (3) 2006. Pp..505-557

Thomas, F AND Johnston, O. The Illusion of Life. (Italy: Walt Disney Productions. 1981)

Atkinson, N. ‘What all animators should know’ The Use of Anthropomorphism in the Animation of Animals. n.d. (accessed 25.03.2013) <https://ncca.bournemouth.ac.uk/gallery/files/innovations/2006/Atkinson_Nicola_6/NAtkinsonInnovations.pdf>

Nelson, A. Disney’s Dumbo: racist or not? 13.08.2009. (accessed 22.03.2013) ,https://www.examiner.com/article/disney-s-dumbo-racist-or-not.

Nunez, V. Dumbo .April 2009. (Accessed 22.03.2013) <https://disneyandmovies.pbworks.com/w/page/17905679/5%20Dumbo>

Storyboard. Dumbo! The Ninth Wonder of the Universe! 04.05.2011 (accessed 22.03.2013) <https://www.waltdisney.org/content/dumbo-ninth-wonder-universe>

Storyboard. The Timely “Dumbo”: Almost a cover Boy.16.05.2011. (accessed 22.03.2013) <https://www.waltdisney.org/content/timely-dumbo-almost-cover-boy>

Trotman. From the Archives: African-American Crows. n.d( accessed 22.03.2013) <.https://cartoonoveranalyzations.com/2008/03/11/from-the-archives-african-american-crows/>

Wainer, A. Reversal of Roles: Subversion and Reaffirmation of Racial Stereotypes in ‘Dumbo’ and ‘The Jungle Book’. N.d. (accessed 22.03.2012) <https://www.ferris.edu/htmls/news/jimcrow/links/reversal.htm>


Dumbo. dir Sam Armstrong, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts, Ben Sharpsteen. Walt Disney. 1941. Film

Tarzan. Dir Chris Buck, Kevin Lima. Walt Disney. 1999. Film.


Godsil, R,D. Race Nuisance: The Politics of Law in the Jim Crow Era.Michigan Law Review. Vol.105 (3) 2006. Pp..505-557

Atkinson, N. ‘What all animators should know’ The Use of Anthropomorphism in the Animation of Animals. n.d. (accessed 25.03.2013)<https://ncca.bournemouth.ac.uk/gallery/files/innovations/2006/Atkinson_Nicola_6/NAtkinsonInnovations.pdf>

Storyboard. Dumbo! The Ninth Wonder of the Universe! 04.05.2011. (Accessed 22.03.2013) <https://www.waltdisney.org/content/dumbo-ninth-wonder-universe>

Storyboard. The Timely “Dumbo”: Almost a cover Boy.16.05.2011. (Accessed 22.03.2013) <https://www.waltdisney.org/content/timely-dumbo-almost-cover-boy>

Official Trailer : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hlowTTSyXo

[1] Atkinson, N. ‘What all animators should know’ The Use of Anthropomorphism in the Animation of Animals. n.d. accessed 25.03.2013<https://ncca.bournemouth.ac.uk/gallery/files/innovations/2006/Atkinson_Nicola_6/NAtkinsonInnovations.pdf>

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LULCaQcB_8w  00:00:52

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXRyak6N_sw 00:00:13 – 00:01:36

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_v2exWrsGOc 00:01:56 -00:02:54

[5] Godsil, R,D. Race Nuisance: The Politics of Law in the Jim Crow Era.Michigan Law Review. Vol.105 (3) 2006.p.505