Disney’s foray into live-action remakes of its previous animated material is just getting warmed up, after over $3 billion world-wide with the likes of Maleficent, The Jungle Book, and Beauty and the Beast being big hits. 2019 alone will bring us three more live-action remakes (with Aladdin and The Lion King coming later in the year), with the first one being Tim Burton’s adaptation of Dumbo.
Dumbo is loosely based on the 1941 animated film. The film is set in 1919 with the back-drop of post-WWI. Veteran one-armed Holt (Colin Farrell), returns to his job in the circus (and his two kids) to find it down-trodden and falling apart. Holt’s boss Max Medici (Danny DeVito) tasks him with training the elephants for an act, it is only then that they witness the birth of an elephant with abnormally large ears that allow him to fly. Thus begins the foray of the young elephant finding his confidence, and the businessmen hungry to exploit him.
The film should hardly be considered a remake, with the 1941 film being more of an inspiration. The titular elephant in this film is only a supporting character, making way for the dramas of the circus folk to become the center of the story. Dumbo does retain some emotional scenes from its “source material” with the heart-wrenching mother-son separation brought about to great effect by Burton, but the rest of the film becomes too caught up in the politics of the show the humans are trying to put up. For much of the first half of the film, the story is bogged down by mechanical acting from the child actors (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) and a rather uninspired Colin Farrell. It is only when Michael Keaton as a Walt Disney-like businessman and Eva Green as a trapeze artist enter that some life is jolted back into the story, but it is hardly enough to erase the other misgivings.
The titular character’s storyline, meanwhile, is handled with little care as the baby elephant is forced to go about the same redundant tasks: practice flying, nearly fall to death, and fly above the crowds at the last minute to the swell of Danny Elfman music. His actions are so repetitive that I found myself questioning whether they had recycled exact shots from previous scenes. The lack of Timothy the mouse, who was a prominent character in the animated film, adds to the loss of the childhood magic that had enchanted audiences decades ago, giving the trajectory of this Dumbo a much staler feeling.
Burton is able to bring his distinct style to Dumbo, and the story fits perfectly with his signature themes; it follows a marginalized character who is discriminated based on physical appearance who ends up triumphing over the rich bullies thanks to his supposed abnormality. With a large budget ($170 million), Burton was able to create a truly impressive world, with the video-effects wowing us yet again at their ability to produce a realistic yet emotionally-expressive animal.
Dumbo seems to fall into more politicized territory for Burton, however, with his emphasis on shaming the capitalistic aspects of those exploiting Dumbo taking over the film’s finale. Burton has always been one to let the emotions in his work speak for him, but there seemed to be a bit more envelope pushing with this film. The finale itself, was a bit too perfect so that the whites were painted extremely white, and the blacks were darkened intensely.
Nevertheless, Dumbo is a visually pleasing and thematically entertaining film. It is a fresh take on the story with certain revisionist aspects to bring it to today’s standards (no drinking scene, no racist depictions, a happy animal-rights-approved finale). The most powerful scene for me was certainly when Dumbo is visiting his mother who is locked away in a cage. It becomes difficult not to think how this child-separation-in-cages doesn’t mirror what actually happened at the U.S-Mexico border mere months ago. The emotional immersion of that scene providing context to American children of how others their own age were/are being treated, should be enough to motivate parents to show this film to their young ones.