How do you reboot a much-loved classic for a new generation while respecting the 78-year-old original yet keeping it fresh and new? That seems to be the challenge that Disney has thrown down several times the past few years as the media giant has used its rich animation history as a source of inspiration by turning those cartoons into live-action motion pictures. Disney has had varying degrees of success in going down this path, and three animated classics are getting this treatment in 2019 alone. If Tim Burton’s Dumbo is any indication, however, then “the house that Mickey Mouse built” is primed for another monster year ahead.
Set in 1919, the Medici Bros. Circus is a vagabond troupe of freaks and performers that are moving from small town to small town via train. They’re led by Max Medici (Danny DeVito) who doubles as ringmaster and acts as surrogate father to them. When Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns to the circus after World War I, he hopes to get his job back as a cowboy despite losing his left arm. His children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) welcome Colt back though they lost their mother, his wife, while the war was going on. The circus has seen better days but Max is hopeful that his newly-purchased elephant, Jumbo, can draw crowds.
Feeling that Colt’s arm will not work for his old cowboy act, Max instead directs Colt to take care of the elephants. A very pregnant Jumbo gives birth, but Max is horrified to see that the baby elephant has giant ears, which makes him just another circus freak. During a performance, the baby’s ears are accidentally exposed and some members of the audience derisively call him “Dumbo” even as his mother, Mrs. Jumbo, accidentally goes wild trying to protect him.
Max labels Mrs. Jumbo as a mad elephant and sends the mother away. Meanwhile, the Farrier kids get close to Dumbo and discover that if he holds a feather in his trunk, he can flap his ears and fly. Milly shows off this skill during a performance and Max immediately turns Dumbo into his headliner. Soon, entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) hears about Dumbo and offers to make Max his partner in running the huge theme park “Dreamland” if Vandevere hires Max’s entire troupe. Vandevere wants his own trapeze artist, Colette Marchant (Eva Green) to ride Dumbo as he flies, convinced that the bank will finance his park if this act is successful.
Even as Colette befriends the Farriers and Dumbo, and even as Dumbo gains more confidence in flying, the little elephant still yearns to be reunited with his mother. Can these circus performers reunite the baby with his missing mother and escape the clutches of Vandevere?
When the original animated Dumbo was released in 1941, Walt Disney was facing financial ruin. With America about to enter World War II, Pinocchio and Fantasia were actually failures at the box office and the animation studio was facing hard times. Disney opted for a simpler story for his next studio release with a lower budget and adapted a children’s story written by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, with illustrations by Helen Durney. It would prove to be the most financially successful Disney film of the 1940s.
Let’s get this out of the way already: Timothy Q. Mouse does not speak in this film directed by Tim Burton. Aside from a few scenes showing a mouse with a red hat in a cage, the character is hardly there. No crows sing either, so you won’t hear “When I See an Elephant Fly.” Unlike the 2016 reimagining of The Jungle Book, not a single computer generated animal speaks. So, how does Burton move the story forward when all of these are taken out? He used a screenplay by Ehren Kruger and added a lot of character development for humans who were either in the background in the original or a whole slew of new characters are introduced.
While the love story between Mrs. Jumbo and Dumbo remain at the heart of the story, additional drama is created between Colt’s injured soldier coming home to his kids who miss their late mother. The depiction of Keaton’s Vandevere as a cruel businessman who uses everyone, including Green’s Colette to gain a bigger audience also creates a malevolent antagonist. Fans of the last time Burton teamed with both Keaton and DeVito 27 years ago in Batman Returns will undoubtedly enjoy “Batman” sharing significant screentime together as well.
As with any film by Burton, the visuals are rich and slightly askew, making Dumbo (as cute as he is) still stand out from the other freaks that surround him. And yes, Burton still found a way to scare future generations by dong his own take on the strange “Pink Elephants on Parade” that has haunted kids’ dreams for the past 78 years. Burton thus found a way to keep Dumbo’s story fresh and new while paying respect to the original animated version, and he deserves a lot of credit for that.
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