I’ll have to level with you Disney animation fans out there: I never cared much about the 1941 animated Dumbo film. All I remember is the following:
- Casey Jr.
- Flying elephant.
- Psychedelic drug sequence featuring pink elephants.
- Talking crows that remind me of a time Disney went all out with racial stereotyping.
It’s just a bunch of interesting moments that do not tie into a cohesive story to give a damn about; nothing more. If you liked it and its animation, more power to you. But even with rose-tinted nostalgia glasses, there are way better and meatier Disney fares.
Which is why I’m glad to announce that the 2019 live-action remake of Dumbo is a decent adaptation that tells its decent story about the perils of ostracization and standing out so that you’re not alone. Except without the talking ringleader mice and jive-talking birds: you now have Danny DeVito, an American accent-faking Colin Farrell, and two kid actors who provide the heart and soul to complement the CGI going-ons of the titular flying elephant.
Oh, and framing this new vision of Dumbo is Tim Burton, the director who did Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood to make sure we pay attention to his stylized way of framing the 40s time period the film is set in. Unfortunately, we have to settle for the version who wrapped up the godawful Alice in Wonderland live adaptation, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
I Saw A Peanut Stand, Heard A Rubber Band…
The premise for this version of Dumbo is about the circus troupe family led by Max Medici (Danny DeVito) trying to make ends meet. Colin Farrell plays war veteran and former horse-riding act Holt Farrier who ended up with one arm after being drafted for the war, returning to his kids Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins respectively). Max bought an elephant that eventually gave birth to the big-eared Dumbo; everyone calls it a freak until they see its special ability to fly by flapping its giant ears.
The whole of East America’s enamoured by this high-flying act, that billionaire and Dreamland owner V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) wants in on the attraction. This other half of the film is entirely new, going so far as to add in a romance subplot involving acrobat Colette (Eva Green), and the perils of joining a corporate theme park. It all ends up finishing in the most cartoonish of ways; V.A. Vandevere gets more and more villainous to the point where he might as well be the dressed-up equivalent of Stromboli from Pinnochio.
Thankfully, the admirable performances from the circus troupe help ground this fantastical story together and tying a bow on its proverbial package. Colin Farrell adeptly plays the lost father who doesn’t know how to handle his kids post-war.
The two kids complement the CGI Dumbo well with their positive outlook and science obsession. At first I wasn’t a fan of Nico Parker’s zombie stares when the film started, but she ended up cracking some emotion by its climax. It’s probably the elephant.
Danny DeVito’s bumbling but well-meaning ringleader persona is a joy to watch, with Rongo (Deobia Oparei) and a monkey acting as his foils of sorts. Speaking of side acts, Colette, snake charmer Pramesh (Roshan Seth), Ivan the Wonderful (Miguel Muñoz Segura), and the circus troupe are endearing enough while not wearing out their welcome.
Much like the warmth of the film’s palette, Dumbo 2019 has a soul and some semblance of heart, capped off with an adorable-looking CGI baby elephant mutant. Some may find it a bit off, but I personally dug how it moved, how it interacted with the children, and how it used the trademark feathers to “gain” its propensity to fly.
I Heard A Fireside Chat, I Saw A Baseball Bat…
Does Tim Burton bring anything amazing into this Dumbo retelling? Not really, but it’s not without its standout moments. From the circus atmosphere to the upgrade the troupe get in a form of the movie’s version of Tomorrowland, the film’s bright and star-eyed atmosphere and aesthetic is a callback to a Tim Burton style in the mid-2000s.
However, it lacks the creativity of his earlier works that wowed me back then. Methinks he need to take a step back and try out a more esoteric project instead of relegating towards retreads and obligatory studio work like this one. Even with the new additions in the second half and the aforementioned pretty-as-heck theme park, everything here is by-the-books “be yourself, and believe in them” storytelling checklist.
And the less said about the shoved-in nod to the pink elephant scene, the better. There are so many ways this bit can be worked into the film naturally, so I’m pretty shocked that Tim Burton greenlit the end result.
I’ve Seen A Front Porch Swing, Heard A Diamond Ring
Still, I won’t discount the positives and noteworthy additions in this adaptation of a mediocre Disney oldie. I shouldn’t really expect crazy levels of storytelling and twists from what is essentially a churned-out cashgrab remake of a really, really old Disney property. There’s clearly a lot of effort being put in this remake; about on-par with The Jungle Book adaptation by Jon Favreau and definitely leagues above the Beauty & The Beast remake.
What Dumbo 2019 does well is telling its story in a cohesive and straightforward manner that will be a hit with the young ones, with some sparks of enchanting and vertigo-inducing imagery. The film also proves that you can successfully update your source material if it’s old and not really noteworthy.
Just don’t go in expecting Tim Burton’s mighty return to form. Or anything as groundbreaking as, say, an actual pachyderm flying before your very eyes.