When Disney first considered creating a live action remake of its own 1941 animated cartoon, Dumbo many people questioned the reasoning behind hiring Tim Burton to serve as the director. The elephant with big ears is one of mouse house’s gentlest characters of all time and it seemed strange that the man behind such odd movies as Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow and Dark Shadows would be the best choice for the task. In fact, knowing the director’s history of film has caused some filmgoers to sit this one out fearing the worst. No one wants to their childhood memories to be ruined. It doesn’t help that the last time that Michael Keaton and Danny Devito appeared on film together, they were play playing Batman and The Penguin in the creepy 1992 Batman Returns. Burton has an odd relationship with Disney as well where sometimes his projects have worked while others did not.
Burton began working as an animator for Walt Disney Studios in the early 1980’s. He created the rarely seen animated short film Vincent about a boy who fantasied that he was really Vincent Price followed by the live action short, Frankenweenie which was released in 1984. However, due to the film’s dark subject matter (a boy’s dog is brought back to life ala Dr. Frankenstein), Burton was fired. Then in the early 1990’s, Disney rehired Burton to serve as producer of his own story, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Although the film turned out to become a huge success, at the time it wasn’t released under the Disney name. Years later, Burton created a full-length stop-motion animated version of Frankenweekie in 2012 with Disney’s blessing!
Dumbo is by far Tim’s tamest movie yet and one that doesn’t feel remotely like a “Burton movie” until the second half where it features some of his signature creative touches. Nearly twice as long as the original film, this Dumbo is basically the same story with its own sequel built in. All of the basic elements of the first film are here including some of the music. While still a fantastical story, the latter version comes across more realistic (if you can get past a elephant flying and all) while the former sort of served as a fable. In the first version, the story is told from the animals’ point of view. In the second, it is (mostly) told from the human’s. Gone are the controversial crows and judgmental elephants. Timothy the mouse is barely seen and Dumbo no longer gets drunk and sees the scary “pink elephants on parade.” Okay, Dumbo still sees pink elephants, but it is in a different setting which is pretty magical this time around. But the classic elements that made the film resonate with viewers including Mrs. Jumbo comforting Dumbo while being locked up while the song “Baby Mine” is being sung in the background still remain.
Danny Devito plays the earnest Max Medici of the Medici Brothers Circus. (He doesn’t really have a brother, but it sounds better for marketing.) His circus has never been huge, but it has seen better days too. One of his star performers, horse trainer Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) has returned from the war and is eager to literally jump back on the horse and work. He and his wife had a routine, but a lot has changed since Holt left. He lost an arm in the war and his wife passed away after getting the flu. When Holt arrives at the train station, he finds that Max has sold off the horses and much of the family’s furniture. His children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) were taken in by other performers while Holt was gone. This sounds dreadful and all, but it all told in a fairly brief manner and serves as a background for a much happier story to come.
This circus family features a group of likable characters including snake charmer Pramesh Singh (Roshan Seth), Miss Atlantis the overweight mermaid (Sharon Rooney), the ringleader Baritone Bates (Michael Buffer) – “Let’s get ready for Dum-bo!” and Rongo the Strongo (Deobia Oparei) who in addition to showing off his muscles, also serves as Max’s secretary in a few funny bits.
Without his horse act to fall back on, Max gives Holt and his family to work with the elephants, something that Holt feels is a new low, but Max sees things differently. Mrs. Jumbo is pregnant and Max hopes to bring in the crowds with their new bundle of joy. However, when Dumbo arrives, Max is horrified to see his big ears and compares the baby elephant as damaged goods. Assuming the worst, Dumbo surprises everyone with his talent for flying. This is pretty much were the 1941 story ends, but here, the story is just beginning.
When receiving news of the flying elephant, V. A. Vandervere (Michael Keaton), sort of a larger-than-life Walt Disney who owns the Dreamland theme park “where the impossible is made possible,” it captures his attention. Vanderver has his own circus and offers to hire Max and his whole crew in order to acquire Dumbo. The plan is to have and work Dumbo into an aerial act with the lovely Colette Marchant (Eva Green). While Max is easily blindsided, we already know that Vandervere is just as crocked as his toupee. Keaton revels in this role.
While some will take issue we the various changes to the story, this new Dumbo is just as good if not better than the original. Not only is it bigger and grander but its message is also greater. This isn’t just a circus of talented acts. It’s a family of imperfect people and creatures who don’t seem to fit well together. Holt is cowboy without a horse. His daughter is interested in science instead of performing. Dumbo is a magnificent creature whose talents goes unappreciated. Max is a lovable if not irritating circus owner who gets sidelined by his own ambitions. Colette Marchant’s value is seen by most people as little more than Vandervere’s arm candy instead of what she can actually do, etc.
For the nitty gritty, this new Dumbo isn’t perfect. The kids are a bit dull and I’m not convinced that they were the best actors for the roles, but they do a sufficient job despite that they seem to lack a connection with their on-screen father. I would have liked to have seen a bit more of the other circus characters, especially Timothy the mouse whose animated version was my favorite when I was kid. In the end, Dumbo is just a good solid movie that knows when to pull your heartstrings and when to let them loosen up a bit and won’t scare even the youngest of viewers.
I write about arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.