Synopsis – A young elephant, whose oversized ears enable him to fly, helps save a struggling circus, but when the circus plans a new venture, Dumbo and his friends discover dark secrets beneath its shiny veneer.
My Take – Following the massive financial success of Beauty and the Beast (2017) and The Jungle Book (2016), live action remakes of Disney‘s classic animated films have become quite a trend for the studio. As you can see, there are about four films releasing this year itself, in the form of Aladdin, The Lion King, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, and with this film being the first to hit the screens.
Honestly, sparing director Jon Favreau‘s delightful adaption, I have not been a fan of these unnecessary remakes, however, by hiring Tim Burton, arguably one of cinema’s most creative filmmakers, to helm this 78 year old re-imagining, piqued my interest.
The original film, released back in 1941 was Disney‘s fourth animated feature, and used a baby elephant who could fly thanks to the flapping of his enormous ears to tell a story of an outcast, while also delivering the strength to overcome your flaws. It was a sweet and simple message delivered in a brief 64 minutes.
Here, director Burton brings his usual quirky, occasionally gothic and charm to proceedings which also feature solid CGI effects and some rather touching moments. Although it’s rather sinister in places, like every Tim Burton film, the familiar sense of joy and wonder from the original remains at its core. To top it off we also have a whimsical Danny Elfman score.
Unfortunately, the film also misses the mark on more than a few occasions, hereby failing to leave an impact as the original. Running for almost an extra hour from the original, here, filmmaker Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger seize the original book by husband and wife writing team Harold Pearl and Helen Aberson and deliver a story that is anything but simple. Rather it’s complicated, convoluted and at times nonsensical with characters showed in and thrown out occasionally.
But that isn’t to say the film doesn’t have its moments, as it manages to be charming enough to engage the younger audience and throughout its run time stays pretty entertaining, that too mostly because the titular character is just so incredibly adorable and seems to be engineered just to make you smile.
Set in 1941, the story follows the members of the Medici Brothers traveling circus, led by Max Medici (Danny DeVito), who is also the boisterous ringmaster. Also living with the circus crew are two young children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), whose father, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a former star performer, who had left for The Great War is now back, but sans one arm. While Holt was away, his wife died, leaving the kids in the care of their surrogate circus family.
Traveling by train to who-knows-where, pitching big top, promoting the event, continuously training, and finally performing without incident over and over and over is a challenging life for anyone, particularly for children not inclined to the lifestyle. But things are about to change as Max has procured Jumbo, a pregnant elephant, whose baby he believes will be their latest star attraction and will draw in the family crowds. But when the baby is born with unnaturally large ears, Max dub the little one a freak and discards him from the main show.
Forced instead into a clown act, things go for the worse when a tragic accident leads to the separation of the mother and the baby elephant. Left to the be raised by the Farrier children, they soon discover that a simple feather can work as a kind of high flying magic, making the baby elephant, nick named, Dumbo into a Flying Elephant. As Dumbo’s talent begins to take flight, in steps V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a charismatic entrepreneur, who with his partner, Colette Marchant (Eva Green), a French trapeze artist, offers to bring Dumbo and the rest of the Medici crowd to new heights by adding them to his futuristic style theme park, Dreamland. However, as time goes on, his true colors are revealed and it’s a race against time to reunite Dumbo with his mother before it’s too late.
It likely won’t surprise you that director Burton delivers a film much darker than the original, and at least he avoided the temptation of talking animals. Anyone well versed with director Tim Burton‘s work knows how much he loves an outsider: a unique, distinctive individual (or individuals) who are distinctive individual (or individuals) out of place and out of touch with their surroundings. So, the story about a young elephant with abnormally large ears and the circus folk that surround him, would be right up his street. On the surface, this is a perfectly adequate family film about a circus, a flying elephant, and the kids who believe in him. But the subtext is startlingly subversive.
Director Burton’s films arguably took a nosedive once he started getting a larger budget to make them, all spectacle, little heart or soul, but this film instead feels eerily like an attempt to apologize for his later, passionless work. Unlike most of his recent films, this is a film that makes you feel things. In this case, the abandonment experienced by Dumbo is compounded in the story of the Farrier family. Emotional and physical abandonment lurks and lingers in their immediate pasts, and in their present lives.
This is also director Burton’s one and only truly earnest kids-centric picture. Lurking nowhere is his usual sinister edge or macabre sensibility. It allows the heart of the story to be elevated, and given real credence. And if that wasn’t a strange enough thing to inject into a lighthearted kids’ film, director Burton’s remake is unmistakably a critique of entertainers who sell out to greedy corporations for the cash.
Here also present are the mesmeric ally skewed visuals and here they are as transcendent as ever, as their all-encompassing gloriousness washes over you, colors sparkling and set-pieces enthralling, with the visuals on Dumbo and his animals counterparts as beautifully rendered as you would have hoped in a post-Jungle Book world. And here, while it has all the glossy colorfulness of a Disney animated feature, there’s also the essential sprinkle of Gothic that makes it unmistakably Burton‘s style.
Undoubtedly the star of the show is Jumbo Jr himself, and thanks to some exceptional CGI it’s impossible not to fall in love with the big little guy as he endears himself to those around him. His cuteness and playfulness are enough to warm even the coldest of hearts.
All of this wisely holds onto the persevering iconography of the original film, like the song “Baby Mine” is sung around a campfire by Sharon Rooney; “Pink Elephants on Parade” gets the orchestral treatment courtesy of Danny Elfman, albeit in an alcohol-free and considerably less hallucinatory realization, all allowing director Burton to make the best of the visuals, even while the story disappoints.
Yes, where the film suffers is with its unnecessarily complicated story and underdeveloped characters. There are many, many baffling things about the film. For example, why would a circus full of oddballs and outcasts make fun of the unarguably adorable little elephant, for instance? Why is the film at pains to clumsily shoehorn a love of “science” as Milly’s defining character trait, but for no reason, and with no consequence? Here, director Burton gives her no emotional range and writer Kruger gives her no arc. She goes from stoic girl who talks about science a lot to stoic girl who talks about science a lot and had an elephant adventure. Her character—who is maybe the protagonist of the film?—is as paper thin as the romantic subplot between Holt and Colette, which I won’t bother dedicating much time to because the film also certainly doesn’t.
A shared glance, a kind word, boom. Love. I know it’s easy to imagine falling for either Green or Farrell, but it’s still lazy. And that’s the overall problem with the film, it takes for granted that the audience is on board. And why did I get the distinct impression that Keaton, who positively chomps on the scenery throughout, is in an entirely different film.
But most shocking is how wasted the setting of a circus feels! A place of bold costumes, misfits, and marvels, this should have been the perfect setting for director Burton to recapture his magic! But the circus ensemble is a faintly colorful background to the flat Farriers. There are clowns, magicians, a strong man, a cowboy, an aerialist, and a flying elephant! Yet their set pieces that should be show-stopping cut up the anticipated action to check in repeatedly on the in-film audience. Behold the crowds gawp, marvel, cackle, and heckle! A shot or two to set the scene, I understand. But the wonder of the center ring is buried under reaction shots of background actors! Even in his climax, Dumbo can’t keep the spotlight.
The main cast is alright, with Colin Farrell being a likeable every man protagonist and Eva Green does bring a welcome element, but Alan Arkin‘s role as a banker seems tacked on as a favor. Danny DeVito getting some good laughs in most of his scenes. However, the usually reliable Michael Keaton never really kicks in as the greedy and evil amusement park owner.
The young Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, making their feature debuts, struggle to find their feet. Both are perfectly likeable, but their inexperience shows. In smaller roles, Roshan Seth, Sharon Rooney, Douglas Reith and DeObia Oparei do their best with the material given. On the whole, ‘Dumbo’ is an entertaining yet conservative remake which despite its shortcomings still manages fun show for the younger audience.
Directed – Tim Burton
Rated – PG
Run Time – 112 minutes