Director: Tim Burton
Writer: Ehren Kruger
Cast: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Alan Arkin
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
Rated PG | Minutes: 112
Release Date: March 29, 2019
Walt Disney Animation Studio’s Dumbo (1941) is considered to be one of the greatest hand-drawn films ever to be released by the animation studio. And like most of the studio’s timeless animated features, it got the live-action adaptation treatment.
Tim Burton, who has worked under the Disney banner numerous times before, gets behind the lens once more to direct this new telling of the titular baby elephant who has all of his unique and whimsical signature touches but also still stays true to the tender, sweet, and warm spirit of the animated original. Though some of its bigger stars don’t add any depth to this reimagining, Dumbo himself and the debuts of Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins bring plenty of charm to the film that reminds us about why we love Disney’s favorite baby elephant and what makes outsiders so endearing. My full review blow.
The story centers on a small traveling circus family who is struggling to survive as society has grown out of parlor tricks and animal acts. In an attempt to survive, circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito), the owner of the struggling Medici Bros. Circus, purchases an expectant mother elephant in hopes that her adorable offspring will bring in the crowds. However, when he discovers that the baby elephant has giant ears, he tasks Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), who has returned from World War I a changed man, with finding a way to monetize the elephant with oversized ears who is also the laughingstock of the entire circus.
But with the help of Holt’s children Milly (Parker) and Joe (Hobbins), they soon discover that Dumbo’s oversized ears help him fly. Soon, word of a soaring pachyderm spreads across the country and catches the attention of persuasive entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who soon who agrees to take Dumbo and sign Medici and his circus troupe to a new contract to work at his Dreamland amusement park. Soon, Dumbo is quickly made out to be the newest star attraction to Dreamland, and with the help of aerial artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green), Dreamland becomes a more irresistible attraction. That is until Holt learns that beneath its shiny veneer, Dreamland is full of dark secrets.
Dumbo expands upon the animated original by turning its attention to the outsiders and individuals who might otherwise be overlooked. It’s a celebration of those outsiders and encourages them to embrace their individualities whenever they are bullied or discouraged. And with the number of characters, with so many unique talents and special skills to work with, that message does get a bit lost among all of the lusters of Dreamland. The amusement park has all the whimsical nuances typically seen in a Burton film, with a layout that bears a striking resemblance to Disneyland, and the prestige of the circus acts which move with beauty, elegance, and grace.
This beautifully created world that is colored by gorgeous costumes and wonderful production design is sadly filled with vapid characters who have very little chemistry with each other and have zero reasons to be liked. They do very little to connect to their audience and often times come to see the error of their ways without any organic segue. Although, it’s not necessarily the fault of the actors or screenwriter Ehren Kruger, who was tasked with expanding the story of the 64-minute animated original. That film didn’t have much of a script, to begin with, and was much more about the titular elephant than anything else.
Although, Kruger’s script was able to tap into the emotional core by hitting on some of the heavier themes of individuals and outsiders, making it a slightly entertaining watch while also paying respect to the film that it is inspired by. Here, we get to see the kids connect to Dumbo. They understand some of the pachyderm’s struggles to connect to others as he is simply being exploited by others. This aspect touches on some of the other themes like animal abuse, manipulation, and the embrace of your own talents even when there are those who put you down or discourage you.
This speaks to Burton’s strengths as a storyteller. Many of his films are about outsiders or those who are overlooked, and he uses these characters to tell that story to the audience and say that it’s okay to be different from others. We not only see that in the kids but Dumbo himself. While Dumbo may be a CG creation, it’s clear that the kids and Dumbo have a connection. They are kindred spirits, with both having to deal with the idea of being orphans. Dumbo is without his mother, and the kids are desperate to connect with their father.
Even the adults find themselves tied to the idea of being orphans with Holt being in the position of now being a former circus star due to losing an arm, and Colette being nothing more than just a gem in Vandevere’s crown. However, considering the film is short on time, and that there are too many other players to focus on, Holt and Colette’s story aren’t fleshed out enough. So their turns and developments can come rather quickly and unexpectedly.
Unfortunately, that’s where the film loses some of its magic. There are simply too many characters in the film and not enough screen time to go around. Again, a lot of the problems have to do with trying to expand on an hour-long animated film that didn’t have much of a script to begin with. Still, when the film does turn its attention to the kids and Dumbo, it really does come back to being a great piece of work. So credit to Kruger to for trying to expand on the story while staying true to the spirit of the 1941 animated feature.
Though flawed, Dumbo has plenty of heart, and Burton is the person who reminds us all that it’s okay to be different when there are those who tell you otherwise. That individuality and quirkiness shines through in the kids and the titular CG elephant, all three of whom yearn to be able to express themselves freely even though there are those who break them down or take advantage of their naivety. It’s a message that can get lost at times as the overcrowded cast jostles for time, but is still able to come through whenever Dumbo triumphantly soars across the screen.