Dumbo was always one of the more forgettable Disney movies for me. I remember being deeply distressed by the sad scenes with his mom, and those crazy psychedelic bubble elephants — but the 1941 classic never held the same magic as say, The Lion King, which I saw seven times in theaters, Aladdin, or Beauty and the Beast. Nor did it hold the musical allure of older Disney films like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella.
Perhaps that lack of previous emotional attachment explains why I found Dumbo to be the most successful of Disney’s recent slew of live-action adaptations. Rather than a shot-for-shot remake, Tim Burton’s version, from a screenplay written by Ehren Kruger, expands on the original story to include human perspectives and new environments. That’s a lot easier to accept when there’s no nostalgic pull to the original, but it also allows Burton to let loose, and get creative in ways he hasn’t in a long while.
Former circus star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), returns wounded from World War I to find that his wife and riding partner has died from Spanish Flu, leaving him to care for their two kids Milly (Nico Parker, who looks so much like mom Thandie Newton it’s scary), and Joe (Finley Hobbins). The Medici Bros. Circus, led by only child and ringmaster Max Medici (Danny Devito), is floundering. Americans are no longer impressed by regular old clowns, mermaid and strongmen. They want bigger, bolder spectacles. To that end, Max has bought a heavily pregnant South-Asian elephant, in the hopes that a cute baby will sell tickets. One-armed Holt is demoted to caring for her, and her eventual offspring. But fate has other plans, and said bebe is born with absolutely humongous ears — yet another sideshow attraction.
As in the original, tragedy strikes during Dumbo’s first show. Angered by the taunting of the crowd, Mrs. Jumbo charges to protect her baby, causing a death, and forcing Max to sell her to try and recoup his losses. Luckily, Milly and Joe see Dumbo’s potential, and discover that this little weirdo can use his big ears to fly. To prompt him, they make a deal: if he makes money for the circus, they’ll convince Max to use it to buy his mom back. Eventually, Dumbo’s exploits catch the eye of Coney Island amusement park owner V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), and his star, trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green), who offer Max and the Farriers the chance to take Dumbo to the big leagues. But at what cost?
Burton leans in hard on the animal rights angle here, and though cheesy, it works. Even those who claim to love Dumbo have no problem setting him up on a very tall platform to display his aerial skills. The sight of this frightened pachyderm child — yes, even a fake one— cowering atop a burning building during a clown skit gone wrong drove me to tears. Humans, at least, choose circus life. Dumbo just happened to be born into it.
It’s weird to call a CGI elephant charismatic, but that’s precisely the case here. In fact, this Dumbo is so cute that it’s hard to buy the initial reactions from Max and his cohorte, who repeatedly act as if he’s an ugly monster. (“A face only a mother could love!”) He’s adorable! Look at that smooshy clown makeup! And that beautiful blue headgear! What a star.
Ironically enough, the animated protagonist is far more fleshed out than his human companions. Of all the Farriers, aspiring scientist Milly stands out as the most singular, and Parker’s performance hints at a promising future. Her burgeoning feminism feels a little forced, but she’ll be a refreshing new role model for kids who can brave the wrenching moment where Dumbo is separated from his mother. As Holt, Farrell is broody and awkward in the way only he could be, but he and the rest of the adult cast feel like they’re phoning it in. Keaton, in particular, takes on the persona of charmingly demented rogue that he’s honed in the last few years, and ramps it up — fun to watch, but nothing too out of his comfort zone.
Tonally, Dumbo feels very much like a classic Disney film of yore. Burton doesn’t venture into the kind of winky, meta jokes that have come to dominate the genre. This is a straightforward tale about family, love, and finding one’s inner child. The bad guys aren’t given backstories that explain why they do what they do — they’re just mean (sometimes to the point of absurdity). But then again, what could possibly justify the kind of vicious rancour that would prompt a man to willfully humiliate a small elephant?
Rich Heinrich’s production design is where this movie really gets its wings. In his more recent works (Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland, anything else involving Johnny Depp in too much white makeup) Burton’s instantly recognizable aesthetic has become a punchline, a parody of its former glory. It’s a little more subdued here, and tailored to the surroundings. The Medici Bros. Circus has the run-down look of a folksy circus gone to seed. Vandevere’s Dreamland, on the other hand, is vibrant and glossy, an early 20th century vision of the best the future has to offer. White makeup is reserved for the clowns.
Does Dumbo feel vitally necessary? Not really. But like its protagonist, the film is capable of true magic, of reaching soaring heights of creativity and imagination. Maybe just go with it.