It’s no secret that Walt Disney Studios has been systematically turning each of its animated classics into a live-action, yet mostly animated classic. It’s also no secret that Disney’s track record has been hit-or-miss. In general, the key to a good reboot is to take everything we loved and that worked in the original film, carry it into the reboot, and then build upon that. Or as in the case of Tim Burton’s Dumbo, just tell a completely different story.
I’ll start by saying, I liked Tim Burton’s Dumbo. I’ll also say, I was a huge fan of Walt Disney’s Dumbo. Walt Disney was a master storyteller, and he conveyed a great deal of emotion through a simple cartoon, that has not been successfully translated in these complicated, visually-detailed reboots starring Hollywood’s A-List. So fair warning, if you loved the original Dumbo and the idea of tinkering with a classic is offensive to you, don’t see this version. Save yourself the aggravation.
Dumbo starts familiarly as Casey Jr. pulls out of the train station hauling the Medici Brother’s Traveling Circus, run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito), to its next stop. As the tents are being set up, we meet young circus kids Milly and Joe Farrier (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) as they greet their father Holt (Colin Farrell), who just returned from duty during World War I, sans his left arm. The missing appendage is a huge shock to the kids and making matters worse, their mother died from influenza, while Holt was away.
“…it’s discovered that Dumbo’s large ears give him the ability to fly and the circus is saved.”
Did I mention things are bad? The Medici Brothers Circus in financially strained and needs a boost in ticket sales. So much so, that Max bought a pregnant Asian elephant in the hope that her cute baby draws a crowd. The problem is the newborn baby has enormous ears…in other words, ugly. Max has Holt try to fix the situation. The baby is dubbed Dumbo by a heckling audience, enraging Dumbo’s mother. The mother is declared mad and returned to her original owner, while the circus keeps the baby. Soon, it’s discovered that Dumbo’s large ears give him the ability to fly and the circus is saved. This is the end of Act I.
With the success of the new flying Dumbo act, Max Medici is approached by a benefactor, V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) who got wind of the flying elephant and purchases the circus, hires the troupe, and may or may not have more devious motives. Vandevere makes promises of a better future for the circus performers at his new amusement park, Dreamland. But to maintain the dream, Holt and young Milly will have to teach Dumbo to fly with Vandevere’s girlfriend, Colette (Eva Green) on his back.
Tim Burton’s Dumbo is a very different story. Walt’s version is a fable about using what makes us different from the norm to our advantage. Tim Burton’s story is about family. The Farriers are forced to reconnect after the passing of the mother and Holt’s left arm. Dumbo’s motivation for performing is the idea that he’ll one day be reunited with his mother. The point of view also switches from Dumbo in the original to now the Ferrier family. The addition of the Vandevere plot effectively turns the film from a cute animated story of talking animals into a thriller with corporate intrigue.
“…the Vandevere plot effectively turns the film from a cute animated story of talking animals into a thriller with corporate intrigue.”
In the end, I was OK with the final product, once I accepted the fact this is not going to be the Dumbo of my youth. The film’s biggest disappointment was the Baby Mine scene. It’s in the movie, but the emotional build-up was lacking, and the payoff was sad but hardly weepy. I sobbed like a baby at the original. This moment is sure to piss off fans of the classic.
I love seeing Danny DeVito have a meaty role once again. Colin Farrell has the role of tragic Disney protagonist down pat (see Saving Mr. Banks). As Milly, Nico Parker’s constant declaration that she loves science, while her brother wants to goof off, is a little heavy-handed in its feminist messaging. What Tim Burton brought to Dumbo, that I absolutely loved, was the overall visual style of the film. His 1920’s Midwest America is gorgeous, and the circus adds color and style to the Missouri plains. Then the trip to Dreamland brings a nice turn-of-the-century flair to amusement parks as only Tim Burton can produce. I want to believe this is Burton’s vision of Disneyland (arguably), right down to his take on the Carousel of Progress.
As I’m watching Dumbo, I was actually having a good time while knowing this is not even coming close to being as good as the original classic. In the back of my head though, I could hear the soft voice of the Film Threat publisher whispering, “This is a piece of shit.” Well, hopefully, this isn’t my last review at Film Threat.
Dumbo (2019) Directed by Tim Burton. Written by Ehren Kruger. Starring Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Eva Green.
7 out of 10 stars
Film Threat Team Reviews
The original Dumbo did not talk down to children. It acknowledged pain, loss, and prejudice; it portrayed unadulterated sorrow and earned its searing redemption. All that within a trim 64 minutes. At twice the length, Burton’s remake says half as much. 5 out of 10 stars