Over the past four weeks, I’ve been dreading the release of Dumbo, the latest animated classic to receive the live-action treatment. To be honest, I have a lot of mixed emotions surrounding the original. Obviously the black crows and “When I See an Elephant Fly” have aged extremely poorly. Yet there was always something about Dumbo, Timothy J. Mouse, Pink Elephants, and Casey Jr. that has stuck with me. With Disney bringing Tim Burton on-board to direct, I was legitimately worried about the product we would get. After all, the director has been wildly inconsistent since Sleepy Hollow in 1999. Whether through low expectations or genuine delight, I can happily report that Dumbo surprised me in a big way. It also marks a return to form for Burton, as his most personal and visually engaging film in more than a decade.
Dumbo follows the Medici Brothers Circus as it travels across the American South. Starting in Sarasota, Florida in 1919, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns to his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) after World War I. While Holt lost his arm in the war, the family suffers a much greater loss. Farrier’s wife and mother to his children passes after growing ill, and ringmaster Medici (Danny DeVito) sold their horses to keep the Circus afloat. Medici asks Holt to take care of the elephants, especially newcomer Jumbo, who is set to give birth. However, when that baby is born with giant ears, all hope the baby elephant could save the Circus seems lost. Milly and Joe experiment with Jumbo Jr., who becomes known as Dumbo, and discover he can fly. When he takes flight, the circus draws the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) and the group is soon brought to Coney Island with Dumbo as the centerpiece attraction for the amusement park Dreamland.
Dumbo directly challenges most of the issues I’ve had with the live-action remakes, especially in terms of story. While the screenplay has some cringe-worthy lines (Farrell refers to Dumbo as “Big D” on multiple occasions), it is not a shot for shot remake. In fact, the entire plot of the original is left behind within the first forty to forty-five minutes. Considering the original was only sixty-four minutes, this means we’re actually exploring new territory.
Burton also brings his A-game as a visual director, eschewing his traditionally gothic and drab worlds for an extremely colorful and bright one. Unlike Alice in Wonderland, which looks like someone a cola on a watercolor painting, there’s a crispness to most of the images on the screen. DP Ben Davis gets some very cool shots over the course of the film, and while some of the background CGI struggles at times, there’s a lot to like here. The bright reds are juxtaposed nicely with the whites and yellows, and the production design Rick Heinrichs brings the Circus to life magically. Of course, Coleen Atwood delivers on the costume front, making the clowns, dancers, and performers to take on drastically different visual styles.
The visual effects can be hit and miss at times. Yet Burton wisely ensured the look of Dumbo hits home in most sequences. He’s never a visual liability, quickly creating an endearing bond when he first looks at you with his puppy dog eyes. The visual setpieces of Dumbo taking flight also work best when Dumbo is solo in the shot, but do struggle a little when characters need to ride on his back. Perhaps one of the most interesting choices from Davis occurs when we see POV shots from Dumbo, with a blurry fisheye lens creating an obscured visual for his vertigo effect. Dumbo will be one of the cutest things you’ve ever seen, and will likely hit you in the heart at least once.
The performances are mostly indistinguishable, but that seems to fall on the script. While there are at least a dozen circus performers shown in the film, only a handful are memorable. DeVito steals the whole movie, easily becoming the most entertaining and silly member of the ensemble. Farrell is his usual charming self, even when missing an arm. Eva Green phones in a standard performance and Keaton has been better. Yet there’s an unsettling ambition to Keaton that reminds me of executives of years gone by, but we’ll get to that later.
For the most part, Burton sold the cast on a campy performance style, and the others play up heightened reactions. However, Burton failed to get the kids, Parker and Hobbins, to showcase the excitement we need. We needed 20% more Spielberg-ian children. Instead, we got kids who show similar emotional range when their elephant takes flight or the circus tent crashes down around them. This is Dumbo’s weakest link by far. It falls on Burton for not getting the type of performance he needs out of the children.
While the script does not allow for much character development, it does provide us with one of Burton’s most personal stories to date. The director is known for being a weird guy, having Johnny Depp as a best friend, and his long relationship with Helena Bonham Carter. There are some literal reads on the story we watch unfold, with Farrell literally missing part of himself (Depp) as well as the person who helped raise his children (Carter) as he tries to find his footing in a world that doesn’t want him unless he’s shoveling elephant droppings.
You can look further into the psyche of Burton as the film struggles with parental relationships. There’s a gap between Farrier and his children, who seem to have little in common with each other. Dumbo also becomes a great wonder to behold when it becomes a way to reunite him with his parent. Burton has gone on record discussing his distant relationship with his parents, which then became textual with Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory immediately following his parent’s deaths. Burton was perceived as someone special and unique, not unlike our titular flying elephant.
Yet most obvious in Dumbo is an anti-mega corporation message. Disney just made a film that literally discusses a big circus collecting the acts of a little circus to use as it’s new attractions. I’m sure that the people of LucasFilm, Fox, and Marvel will understand that feeling. However, if you look into Disney past, Burton was fired by Disney in the 1980s. He was a creative who took chances and was only welcomed back after he became a commodity unto himself. After spending years as an animator and storyboard artist, he was kicked to the curb. Keaton’s showman Vandevere gives distinct Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg vibes as well (more Eisner though). There’s an interesting level of resentment coursing through Dumbo that makes this one of Burton’s most ambitious and subtextual stories he’s created in the last fifteen years. With his visual flare seemingly returned to his peak levels, it is hard to ignore some of his best work in that span.
When Dumbo really gets going, it works like a charm. However, there are parts that will leave you cold at times. It is a far sillier version of the story, with the crows sponged out of the picture. With Burton returning to form on a visual level, he certainly feels more engaged. However, the performances leave something to be desired, and this hurts the film as a whole. Regardless, Dumbo will hit home with audiences who wish to be transported, and with the adorable Dumbo leading the way, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be on board.