Dir: Tim Burton
Starring: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, etc.
Spoiler level: Light
When I first heard that Disney planned to put out a live-action version of the 1941 animated film Dumbo, I – and many others – had reservations. The original Dumbo is a classic, revered for the emotional impact it had on audiences, even though it tells a simple story. However, the addition of Tim Burton as director boosted my hopes, and when I saw the first trailer, featuring Aurora’s haunting rendition of “Baby Mine,” I knew I was going to see it.
In the 2019 remake of Disney’s classic, visionary director Tim Burton re-imagines the beloved big-eared flying pachyderm in his distinct, signature style while retaining the charm of the original and expanding upon powerful themes, though an occasionally wooden screenplay does diminish the film’s “mystique.”
Per usual for Burton’s work, a major strength of the film is the visuals. Brilliant color schemes and gorgeous, intricate sets help create an atmosphere of magic and awe for the circus scenes, and Dumbo himself – though he shares the spotlight with a variety of new characters created for the film – is adorable, with his massive ears and happy squeaks. Though he never speaks, his emotions are clear in his eyes and his expressions and he carries the heart of the film as he soars to the furthest reaches of a star-speckled tent. Frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman also offers up an incredible score that helps generate a sense of wonder and play homage to themes from the original.
If you’ve never seen the original Dumbo, you were spared the trauma of particularly heartbreaking scenes – which are recreated in this film, and are similarly wrenching. The inclusion of the classic “Baby Mine,” sung by Miss Atlantis (Sharon Rooney,) certainly tugs on the ol’ heartstrings, and Dumbo’s sorrow radiates off the screen in a way that will probably scar a whole new generation of children.
The cast is spectacular – Farrell as veteran Holt Farrier, a widowed, one-armed father of two bright children and Green’s acrobatic Colette, “Goddess of the Heavens”, are standouts, as are the supporting circus acts and DeVito’s Max Medici, owner of the circus. Keaton is excellent as the smarmy, deviously debonair villain, V.A. Vandemere, and the kids, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) shine as they support Dumbo, teaching him that his ears can be a blessing rather than a hindrance.
The narrative strives to expand upon the simplicity of the original by introducing new ideas into a basic and straightforward story – and, at times, it shines. Messages about being true to yourself, not letting fear stop you from flying after your dreams, accepting your flaws, etc, are conveyed in a meaningful manner that will hopefully resonate with young audiences. Milly is a logically-minded young heroine who provides a scientific approach to Dumbo’s abilities, and the supporting circus characters all band together to create a compelling idea of a family that is “made,” two ideas that were not present in the original. But, at the core, it’s still a film about an elephant that can fly, which doesn’t get lost in the flurry of new plot-lines. In fact, in the original, Dumbo doesn’t fly until near the end of the film – but viewers don’t have to wait that long this time around.
Also – for those wondering – Burton’s version (obviously) omits the controversial crow characters, “Song of the Roustabouts,” and takes a firmer stance on the treatment of circus animals – all elements of the original film that are, in retrospect, uncomfortable to watch. So, if nothing else, 2019’s Dumbo does offer some much-needed, modern updates.
Obviously, the original Dumbo, with a paltry run-time of 64 minutes, told a story without frills and superfluity. But the 2019 version manages to maintain the core message while introducing new characters and ideas, and Burton achieves a balance that, for the most part, is solid. It doesn’t try to outshine the original, and distances itself enough to avoid unflattering comparisons about which version did what better. However, the dialogue is occasionally clunky, with unnecessary explanations that bog down the film. Many obvious lines could have easily been removed, as they were inferred by a previous thought, or expressed clearly in the character’s visible emotions. With a cleaner, sharper script, the film would have run much smoother – but regardless, it’s still a charming and whimsical ride, and a pleasure to watch.
Of all the Disney films Tim Burton could have re-imagined, the tale of Dumbo, the flying elephant, was a perfect fit for his skills and his vision. It might not have the same simple magic of the 1941 classic, but instead creates it’s own spectacle, with a patchwork crew of misfit characters that all band together around an adorable, beloved, big-eared hero.
Overall rating: 8/10