In recent weeks, my son Leo, soon to turn 4, has discovered the movies. He's a regular and devoted TV viewer, natch, but until very recently, hadn't seen many feature films. He's seen just one in a theater (Ratatouille), and had watched pieces of one (Finding Nemo) on DVD. His only repeated movie on DVD until recent weeks had been Cars. With a holiday break from day care, however, we decided to show him a few more animated features as a way to pass the time. Most he seemed to enjoy, but none seemed to truly resonate with him the way that Dora, or Blue's Clues, or Max & Ruby does. That is, until he watched the 1941 Disney film, Dumbo, this past weekend. His intense response to the movie has both increased my already prodigious admiration of and fondness for the little guy and made me fret about the impact on media content upon him, an issue on which I have previously written.
Dumbo is the story of a baby elephant with extremely large ears. When his mama, Jumbo, tries to protect baby Dumbo (she names him Jumbo, Jr., but others dub him Dumbo to mock his unusual appearance) from some bullies who pick on him, the circus-runners lock her up, labeling her a "Mad Elephant." Dumbo is left to fend for himself, until an entrepreneurial mouse named Timothy befriends him and, eventually, helps him learn how to fly, using the prodigious ears as wings. Once Dumbo can fly, he becomes the star of the circus, is universally beloved, and is reunited with Mama Jumbo, who now gets the royal treatment as mother of the circus star.
Leo was initially devastated by this story. He sobbed at Dumbo's torment, at Jumbo being chained up, at mama and baby being separated. I repeatedly offered to turn the movie off and kept assuring him all would be well in the end, but he insisted on continuing to watch. Eventually, I managed to fast-forward a bit to get to the happy ending and Leo calmed down. Michael and I were amazed at the depths of Leo's emotion and his comprehension of the story, but also rather upset at Leo's distress.
The next day, Leo asked to watch the movie again. We talked about how it made him feel and he assured me that he still wanted to watch it, that he knew he would feel sad for some of it, but that he knew all would end happily. So we watched it again. Still emotional, not as dramatically so, but we watched the whole thing this time and Leo has told us ever since how much he likes the movie.
Was my little boy enjoying the intense emotional ride that a powerful narrative can offer? Or was he having to deal with a story beyond his ability to cope? I worried, as well, about the racist representations throughout the film, from the blank-faced, black-skinned workers singing about their submission to the hard work of putting up the circus tent to the minstrel performance of the black crows (including one named J. Crow) who help Dumbo learn to fly. Leo seemed to have no awareness of the racial dimension; in general, he seems to notice differences in skin color interchangeably with differences in eye color or hair color and seems to find little relevance in any of it, but I worried about the extent to which the film's representations of blackness would participate in shaping his future awareness of race.
Still, the more pressing question for me (as a white person, no doubt) was the emotional impact of Leo's experience. I think of my consumption of all kinds of narratives as being primarily about the emotional experience they offer me. I want to experience the emotional highs and lows of characters; this is the source of much of my narrative pleasure. Leo seemed to be saying he was getting the same thing from Dumbo. Had I just introduced my son to the profound pleasures of narrative, then, or had I given him a traumatic experience beyond his years?
I know how Mama Jumbo felt; protecting your baby ain't easy as he discovers the pains and pleasures of the world.