The imagery from the opening sequence of Disney’s Dumbo (1941) commences an hour of ensuing commentary regarding crucial issues of the time period in which it was released: World War II, gender, and race. The first image is simply clouds in the sky, which represents the prominence of flight in World War II. This representation is pushed further with the accompanying voice of a male narrator, similar to narrators of various newsreels including American World War II propaganda films. Once the storks arrive, they are in a tight formation and they drop the baby animals down like paratroopers. Later in the film, when Dumbo has reached success by flight, there is even more imagery shown in a montage of newspapers with Dumbo literally depicted as part plane. Once again, the portrayal of flight contains a regimented formation. In the midst of World War II, this was very relevant imagery, especially since flight had so much prominence throughout the war. On top of that, Dumbo was released just two months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, which relied entirely on Japanese air power.
In Dumbo, the animals powerfully reflect societal conceptions of gender. First of all, only females are associated with reproduction. When the storks drop the babies, the mothers grab their new miracle babies that they seemed to order by mail and snuggle them aggressively. Females are also held entirely responsible for raising the children like good housewives. Even though there are multiple elephants, none of them are male except the new baby, Dumbo. Of course the female elephant crew reacts as “all” females would to a new baby, by fawning and cooing uncontrollably because females are supposed to be absolutely obsessed with babies and children. A more serious stereotype has to do with Dumbo’s mother, Jumbo. When her child is threatened, she is protective but then male circus leaders designate her as “mad”. This perfectly reflects the psychological patterns of the time, where women were considered crazy and also a source of insanity for their sons and husbands. Furthermore, their psychological problems all had to do with being too attached to their children, which was encouraged by almost every source of information and culture to begin with.
Race is another central part of Dumbo. The crows are infamous for their reflection of stereotypical Southern black Americans. They are the only characters in the whole movie with “jive” slang, conveying that the black figures cannot speak normally like the more “civilized” zoo animals, particularly the most proper speaking elephants and mouse. Racial stereotypes are also seen in the depiction of some of the only humans in the entire movie, the black laborers. Instead of being in charge like the white ring leader, observing like the white audiences, or even being goofy like the clowns, the black laborers toil in the night to set up the grand circus. While they set up, they also sing a song that is reminiscent of old slave songs to complete the racial typecast. So like many movies from the time, black people were either depicted as uneducated and silly or as low-class laborers with very little power.
One of the most central themes of the movie also has to do with the focus of American society on consensus, something that would further develop through the 1950’s. Dumbo’s unusual body causes him to be ridiculed and shunned, even from a circus. His abnormality doesn’t even let him be a clown because he is too clumsy. As the whole point of conflict in the movie, Disney set up an idea of normal and displayed how society reacts to outlandish features. The only way for Dumbo to escape such negative reactions by the masses was to learn a skill that, while extraordinary for a baby elephant, is associated with the Air Force, a source of extreme normalcy and strict behavior.