Believing an elephant can fly may turn out to be easier than believing Walt Disney Studios needed to make a live action adaptation of its 1941 animated classic film of the same name.
The original film — produced by Walt Disney Productions and released by RKO Radio Pictures — has its own significant problems when viewed through the lens of a post-Civil Rights Movement era. Thankfully, there is no chorus of racially insensitive crows in director Tim Burton’s new take on the titular baby elephant with oversized ears.
In fact, Burton’s version strays far from the original storyline as he weaves in darker themes about the seamier side of show business and the loss of innocence. It’s clear from the very beginning that the director — working from a screenplay written by Ehren Kruger, best known for his work on the Transformers film franchise — intends to populate his film with a cast of sullen, pessimistic outcasts with bleak prospects.
Set in 1919, former star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns to the Medici Brothers' Circus after losing his arm in World War 1. His wife died during his absence, a victim of the 1918 influenza pandemic. The outbreak also claimed other performers in the circus, leaving Max Medici (Danny DeVito) in dire financial straits. Max has placed any hope of resurrecting the circus on a soon-to-be-born baby elephant. When the baby arrives, his oversized ears make the circus owner think he’s been swindled by the man who sold him the pregnant elephant.
Holt and his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) are assigned the task of caring for the newborn. The kids discover that Jumbo Jr. — soon to be cruelly renamed Dumbo — has an unusual gift.
Once Dumbo starts flying under the big top, the star performer of Medici Brothers' Circus attracts the attention of show business entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton). Max soon accepts an offer that will make Dumbo a centerpiece of Vandevere’s Dreamland amusement park.
Burton’s eccentricity and visual panache are completely missing in “Dumbo.” Instead of fun, quirky characters, the film’s primary players are flat and detached. The acting is tragically mechanical, with Farrell droning his lines with what barely passes as chronic grief. DeVito delivers the best performance, but his character is so morally ambiguous that he never endears himself to the audience.
It may be that Burton wanted to keep his cast distant and indifferent to focus the audience’s empathy on Dumbo and his mother. If so, it didn’t work: CGI elephants — particularly ones that don’t talk — simply can’t charm an audience.
On the other hand, Burton may be giving us a palette full of varying shades of gray. Max is only slightly less corrupt than Vandevere. Holt is ineffective and trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green) seems to have a moral compass that is governed mainly by self-preservation. In Burton’s “Dumbo,” the protagonists only do the right thing when apathy and indecision are no longer an option.
Vandevere often mentions “the mystique” that draws crowds and drives revenue. He thinks it can be captured and caged and prodded into performing whenever the spotlight shines, show after show, day after day, season after season. That “mystique” is no different from the fairy-tale charm of old Disney classic animated films. It’s foolish to think that every Walt Disney Studios film can recapture that old magic. Burton’s film certainly does not.
By the way, it’s hard not to see similarities between the film’s greedy, dream-crushing Vandevere and a real-life 20th century theme park entrepreneur. If so, the film can be viewed as a critique of corporations that buy up rival enterprises, exploit their resources and lay off their employees. Was Burton taking aim at the very company for which he has directed a number of films? I’ll let audiences debate that possibility.
Assistant reviewer B.C. Zumpe, a 12-year-old, shares her thoughts on the film:
This movie is based on the first “Dumbo,” but it’s not just a remake.
The story changes, because the ending of the initial film is in the middle of the new one. It goes on further and shows what happens after Dumbo reveals that he can fly, and there are also new characters.
I liked the movie because of the way it portrayed the child characters. I also liked how it continues the story from the previous movie. I thought the special effects were very good.
Since Dumbo is an animal who doesn’t talk, he can’t really express himself in the film. CGI allows Dumbo to reveal facial expressions that show his feelings. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. In the 1941 film, the story is conveyed from the point of view of the animals. I think this film might have been more interesting if the animals had speaking parts.
I think the movie is told from the children’s perspective because they discover that Dumbo can fly and help him throughout the film. The basic argument of the film is that you shouldn’t try to capture something special and use it for money. Some people in the film care more about money than Dumbo’s feelings. Most people believe that Dumbo is special, and they care about him.
Another theme is that it is OK to be different.
Mrs. Jumbo is important because Dumbo misses her when she gets sold away and the children have to figure out how to get her back. Milly and Joe Farrier help Dumbo because they also lost their mother.
Dumbo wants to be reunited with his mother, so Milly and Joey tell him that if he makes enough money with his flying, they could buy her back. He elicits a lot of empathy.
V.A. Vandervere, the owner of Dreamland, hires Dumbo and the rest of the troupe for his circus. He is fascinated by Dumbo’s flight. When he was introduced, I had mixed feelings about him.
The film addresses some social issues. Milly doesn’t want to be in a circus act because she says she wants people to recognize her for her mind. She is interested in science and does many experiments in the movie.
The previous film featured characters that appear to promote racial stereotypes. It has caused controversy and debate. In the new film, Burton addressed that problem by including African-American circus performer Rongo the Strongo (DeObia Oparei) — a strongman as well as an accountant and one-man band. On the other hand, the circus also features Roshan Seth as Pramesh Singh, an Indian snake charmer — which is itself a stereotype, though circuses from that time period often included such acts in the midway.
Dreamland looked a lot like Walt Disney World. I think Tim Burton might be suggesting that even “the most magical place on earth” might not be perfect.