From Disney and celebrated director Tim Burton (Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) comes the live-action version of Dumbo. Less a remake of the original 1941 animated classic and more a complete re-imagining from head to toe (or should that be ears to trunk?) with an entirely new story and characters audiences can identify with. Unlike most Disney remakes we’ve seen in recent times, this new version of Dumbo takes the heart of the original content and lifts it to new heights. You will believe an elephant can fly.
The film opens just as the Medici Brothers Circus Train chugs into town with the iconic scene of children running through the field trying to catch up to it. Two of them, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), however, race past the circus tents to the train station to meet their father, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a soldier returning from the horrors of war, with a missing left arm to prove it.
With the recent passing of their mother, the family of three attempts to adjust to their new life together, while Holt pleads with his old employer, Max Medicini (Danny DeVito), the rowdy ringmaster of Medici Brothers Circus, for his old job back working with horses. Business is slow and Max is initially hesitant to put Holt back to work, though he eventually gives in, just not in the stables Holt was expecting; much to his dismay, Max puts the single father in charge of the elephants.
Meanwhile, Milly cares for more for science than circus tricks, keeping herself busy with harmless experiments – until the circus’ newest elephant gives birth to a baby elephant that, much to everyone’s shock, has the biggest, longest, floppiest ears ever! Max is aghast by them as he was hoping for a cute baby elephant to show off to the crowds to help bring in some extra cash to his dying business. Things take a turn for the worse when the baby elephant’s mother causes a major disturbance and is quickly sent away.
Despite their father’s insistence that they stay away, Milly and Joe take a quick liking to the pint-sized pachyderm and start spending more and more time with him. But as they try to show baby Dumbo how to blow his ears away from his eyes, they get taken by surprise when the elephant actually takes flight. Amazed, they urge him to keep on practicing until he’s able to control his flying, to the amazement of everyone – especially Max. This is when V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), an outsider hoping to exploit the flying elephant for his own gain, gives the film a real antagonist the animated original never quite had.
Our floppy-eared elephant may be the real star of Dumbo, but the human actors aren’t exactly slouches either. Danny DeVito and Colin Farrell are absolutely amazing in this film, each giving what could be their career-best performances. Both had depth and story arcs that flowed perfectly with the rhythms we see unfold on screen, enhancing the overarching story of Dumbo.
Michael Keaton’s V.A. Vandevere makes for a great villain in this live-action Dumbo, though his storyline fell flat compared to the others. Eva Green, debuting as French trapeze artist Colette Merchant halfway through the film, was given a beautiful and believable character arc. Despite her obvious attraction to Holt, I was slightly disappointed the two were never officially allowed even so much as an onscreen kiss. Despite this glaring omission, longtime Tim Burton fans should be interested to learn this is the first reunion of DeVito and Keaton, along with composer Danny Elfman, in one of his films since 1992’s Batman Returns.
The special effects and CGI were simply stunning, but my absolute favorite were Dumbo’s crystal-clear blue eyes that I felt were so vivid and showed so much character and emotion. The stages and props were also breathtaking and gave the film a kind of grandeur the original version lacked. However, while the human talent within the circus was entertaining, they came across more like cheap knock-offs from The Greatest Showmen. Whether this was intentional so as not to take away from the main story is unclear, but it’s a rare misstep in an otherwise flawless production.
The film’s nostalgia for the 1941 original Dumbo was hard to overcome, but Disney clearly learned from their Mary Poppins’ mistake and left the original songs in, honoring the memory of Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace’s classic compositions. Without going into spoilers, I’ll just say that many of the original’s more ‘controversial’ elements have been smoothed over as well, making this updated Dumbo a bit more culturally sensitive in the areas it needs to be.
Having a new set of human characters with their own storylines also gave the audience more to hold on to than just a sad (but adorable) baby elephant forced to perform and live without his mother. It’s a story we’ve seen countless times before – especially from Disney. This theme of characters losing their mother at an early age recurs often in at least 27 times in Disney movies, including Bambi, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Jungle Book.
Admittedly, it was hard watching Dumbo being ripped away from his mother just days after his birth, and felt just as devastating as it ever has. My anger grew toward Disney for wanting to make this movie again, almost as if promoting the idea of wild animals being held in captivity and forced to do unnatural stunts while being poked and prodded for our amusement. However it’s precisely here the film suddenly took an unexpected turn that left the audience and myself in tears.
And that’s why I loved this new version of Dumbo. Tim Burton and his talented team were able to take one of Disney’s most beloved classics and, with the right sensibility and care, transformed it into the kind of movie that it should have been all along. Without spoiling anything, what could have been the saddest of endings somehow becomes inspirational, almost as if we’re watching this heartfelt story unfold for the first time all over again. Dumbo is a tearjerker, with moments of great humor and wonderful acting that’s destined to become a new classic for kids and adults of all ages.