Dumbo – Review

Transfiguring Adoption’s Overview:

Dumbo (2019) flies into the hearts of another generation 78 years after the 1941 animated film of the same name. However, this movie is not merely a remake of the musical caregivers may remember from their own childhood. Tim Burton mans the helm of this more mature project to bring a new twist on the beloved story. The musical soundtrack also provides an update with musical scores by Danny Elfman.

In this film we see Dumbo’s story progress alongside his caretakers’ post-war reunification. Holt Farrier has been away from children, Milly and Joe, for a long time due to fighting in World War I. Upon his return, he discovers that his circus horses were sold to support the struggling circus after Holt’s wife (and costar) Annie passes away from Spanish Flu. The children find that not only is their father missing an arm, but experiences in the war have changed him. The film follows the father and children learning to connect again after significant loss as well as their coming together to care for Dumbo and eventually reunite him with his mother.

** Spoilers Could Be Ahead **

How Is This Relevant To Adoption & Foster Care?

Two of Dumbo (2019)’s biggest themes throughout the film are reunification and adjusting to significant,  dynamic changes in family systems. Holt returns from the war and struggles to connect with his children following a long absence and the death of his wife, the children’s mother. Dumbo is separated from his mother after she is sold to prevent a public relations disaster in the media and then eventually reunified with her. Holt must find gainful employment after losing his arm to provide for his family. Molly and Joe must be true to themselves while still helping what remains of their family to survive.

While a caregiver’s home may not be a literal circus, there are days it certainly feels like a caregiver is a Master of Ceremonies for a 3-ring stage for sure. Juggling the home functioning, the ever-changing emotions of foster/adoptive children, supporting biological children, maintaining self-care, tackling all the various appointments required for children in care, workers coming in and out of the home… and SO MUCH PAPERWORK. This is because each family member is not an isolated unit within the home. The triumphs and struggles of each family member affect the unit as a whole. For this reason, though the film does not directly address Foster Care, Dumbo (2019) can be used as a useful discussion tool to help foster children talk through the multi-faceted subject that is reunification as well as how one person’s struggle is actually the whole family’s challenge and can be tackled together.

Discussion Points:

  • Reunification
    One of the most heartbreaking moments of the film was watching Mrs. Jumbo be sold and Dumbo being left behind. The emotion can only be matched by the joy in seeing Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo reunited by the end of the film. For various reasons the children in our care are brought into the child welfare system, and upon reunification, it is up to the parents and children to work together and use their newfound resources and supports to learn to live together again and form a stronger bond than before removal. While reunification can be a joy (such as for Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo), as we see with Holt and the children, reunification can also be hard and require a lot of time and work to adjust successfully. This movie can help children talk through some of the unexpected challenges (along with the joy) “going home” can bring.
  • Family Systems Dynamics
    Often when we go through a struggle we feel alone, isolated in the pain and struggle. However, even though only the individual goes through a primary trauma, the rest of the family can experience the effects of secondary trauma exposure, meaning experiencing trauma from residing with a traumatized individual. Knowing that a family is affected by each individual can help a child feel less alone but also help a foster family wrap around as a support for the child without being pulled under by intense emotional swells. Annie Farrier’s death affected each member of the family intensely and uniquely, but Holt and the children were able to come together in the struggle to support one another and forge a stronger bond than before upon realizing they no longer had to suffer through the pain of loss alone.

Cautionary Points:

  • Overall Mature Tone
    Caregivers, at this point we all know that just because something is animated (or Disney), that does not mean that the story will automatically be happy and sunny. However, this film has much less whimsy to balance intense emotional plot compared to the 1941 film. The film also may be too mature for younger children to understand and enjoy, so it is advised to think about a child’s developmental level as well before viewing the movie with younger family members.
  • Traumatic Separation of Parent and Child
    Children in foster care have suffered immense loss unique to their cohorts. Every child in care experiences some level of trauma due to the removal from their family of origin, if not more loss from parents absent due to addiction, mental health challenges, incarceration, or even death. Caregivers should be sensitive to how a child may respond to seeing Dumbo forcibly separated from his mother for this reason.
  • Unrealistic Expectations of Reunification
    While Holt’s reunification with Milly and Joe does a fantastic job of showing how reunification, while absolutely a goal for families we should encourage, can have challenges unique to a family that must reforge bonds and learn to live together again, the reunification of Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo may portray a fantasy narrative for foster children.
  • Animal Handler Killed by Mrs. Jumbo
    The handler in question was a highly abusive character who was very cruel to the animals, especially the elephants. While Mrs. Jumbo rushes in to defend Dumbo from the mocking crowds, she accidentally kills the handler in the chaos. This may be traumatic for children who have witnessed accidents that have resulted in loss of human life.

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