That’s not to say the new “Dumbo” is perfect. The circus audience lacked diversity, as did the main cast, which has only two people of color.
Perhaps the most famously decried scene from the original arrives when Dumbo meets a group of crows. The black birds are depicted using African American stereotypes of the time, with jive-like speech patterns and jazzy-gospely songs sung in harmony. The main bird, named Jim Crow, was voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards, who engages in the vocal equivalent of blackface.
It might seem simple to just cut them out of the new film entirely, but they say the movie’s key lines: “Well, I’ve seen a horse fly . . . Ah, I’ve seen a dragon fly . . . I’ve seen a house fly . . . I be done seen about everything when I see an elephant fly.”
Burton’s version handles the conundrum by having a ringleader introduce the little elephant with a rousing speech (no singing!), nodding at the original words but avoiding the obvious pitfalls.
The movie also addresses another troublesome (or at least bizarre) scene in a similar manner. The original includes a sequence in which Dumbo accidentally drinks champagne. While drunk, he hallucinates a number of pink elephants marching and singing a psychedelic tune. The nearly five-minute bit is probably a reference to the phrase “seeing pink elephants” — hallucinations sometimes seen by alcoholics in the grip of delirium tremens.
Again, Burton’s film references the sequence without re-creating it. Dumbo, and the children who become his caretakers, don’t get accidentally sloshed this time around. Instead, performers create pink, dancing elephants with soap bubbles that gently drift through the air at one point in Dumbo’s circus act, a visual trick that prompts Colin Farrell’s character to murmur, “Pink elephants.”
Meanwhile, other problematic stretches were cut. These include the “Song of the Roustabouts,” considered the most racist part of the film. It depicts faceless black characters hammering railroad ties to put up circus tents and includes the line, “Grab that rope, you hairy ape.”
The lyrics from the first few verses speak for themselves:
We work all day, we work all nightWe never learned to read or writeWe’re happy-hearted roustaboutsWhen other folks have gone to bedWe slave until we're almost deadWe’re happy-hearted roustaboutsWe don’t know when we get our payAnd when we do, we throw our pay away
Last, PETA wasn’t happy with how the original ended. The organization’s senior vice president, Lisa Lange, wrote an open letter to Burton in 2015, saying, “We’re hopeful that in your adaptation of ‘Dumbo,’ the young elephant and his mother can have a truly happy ending by living out their lives at a sanctuary instead of continuing to be imprisoned and abused in the entertainment industry.”
This came right as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus decided to phase out the elephant routines.
Spoiler alert: Lange will probably be pretty pleased.