I attended a press screening of the film as a guest of Walt Disney Studios. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
By Melanie Gable
“You have something very rare. You have wonder. You have mystique. You have magic.” - V.A. Vandervere (Michael Keaton) in “Dumbo”
Anyone with even a basic familiarity with American pop culture knows Dumbo, the little flying elephant with the very large ears who first captured hearts in Disney’s 1941 animated film. Despite some problematic sequences that indulge in racial stereotypes, the movie has become a beloved classic for multiple generations, and Dumbo remains one of Disney’s most iconic animated characters.
Walt Disney Studios has been producing a steady stream of live action adaptations of their animated films over the last decade, including “Alice in Wonderland,” “Cinderella,” “The Jungle Book,” and “Beauty and the Beast,” with “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” to be released later this year. But first up is “Dumbo,” directed by Tim Burton, who is himself a pop culture icon.
Known for making films about misfits and oddballs, such as “Edward Scissorhands,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Beetlejuice,” and “Frankenweenie,” Burton is a smart choice for Dumbo, perhaps the ultimate (and most endearing) movie misfit. Burton clearly has a soft spot for characters who don’t fit in or are rejected from society, and with “Dumbo” the audience will be able to see the world through the little elephant’s eyes, sometimes literally. But Burton is also a creator of nightmares, and Dumbo has to endure far too many before he can find his place in the world.
The film opens on a floundering traveling circus at the end of World War I. Led by ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito), who is barely holding on to his stable of eccentric performers, the Medici Bros. Circus is merely a shadow of its former glory. Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), once a star horseback performer, along with his wife, in Medici’s circus ring, returns from the war having lost an arm and much of his spirit. The children he left behind, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), have been in the care of their circus family since their mother passed away from a flu epidemic. Holt struggles to reconnect with both his children and his trick-riding skills, and he’s demoted from headliner to animal caretaker.
In an effort to bring new audiences to the circus, Medici purchases an expectant mother elephant who soon gives birth to the baby he hopes will win the adoration of the crowds. But with his abnormally large ears, the young elephant, called Baby Jumbo, is considered a flop before he even takes to the ring. Attempts to hide Baby Jumbo’s ears and market him as an adorable attraction backfire, and his public outing subjects him to mockery and the nickname “Dumbo,” which sticks.
With the help of Milly, Joe, and a feather that triggers a sneeze, Dumbo discovers his ability to fly. Dumbo’s skills are quickly exploited by Medici to draw in the crowds, a scheme that eventually works after some nail-biting misfires. When word of a flying circus elephant begins to spread, the news reaches V.A. Vandervere (Michael Keaton), a Coney Island entertainment tycoon, who visits Medici’s circus to see the spectacle for himself. Arriving in a fancy car with his star aerialist, Colette Marchant (Eva Green) on his arm, Vandervere is dazzled by Dumbo and makes a lavish financial offer Medici is unable to turn down.
Upon arriving at Vandervere’s Dreamland, an awe-inspiring theme park with a fantastical circus of its own, Medici and his circus family discover that there’s more nightmare than dream in their new surroundings.
I’ll admit that I’m not that into the original animated film, though I do love Dumbo himself. With his big blue eyes, sweetness, and innocence, he’s an utterly charming character, and it’s inspiring that he’s able to turn his perceived weaknesses into strengths. But the animated film (like “Bambi”) was too sad for me when I was a kid. Seeing baby animals lose their parents was not my idea of fun afternoon viewing, and now that I’m a mom, the idea of family separation is even more upsetting, even with fictional characters.
I am, however, an avid Tim Burton fan, so I was looking forward to seeing his interpretation of “Dumbo.” The film is pure eye candy, and strikes the visual balance between the grit and glamour of the circus, with both vivid dreamscapes and nightmarish settings taking up equal space on the screen. Dumbo himself is rendered beautifully, with wide, expressive eyes and an upturned mouth that endears him to the audience. Dumbo isn’t so much a photorealistic version of a baby elephant as an artistic interpretation of one, a move that’s essential when an entire movie is riding on his lovability. It’s easy to root for Dumbo, who often comes across as a much more empathetic character than his human counterparts.
There are nods to the original animated film, including an enjoyable Casey Jr. montage and a trippy “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence, but Burton, working from a script by Ehren Kruger, mostly flies a different path with his film, thrusting the audience from shadowy backstage scenes into the blinding spotlight of the circus ring, perhaps in an attempt to mirror Dumbo’s experiences. Personally, as a parent, performer, and animal lover, I was in a state of anxiety through most of the movie. In a way, that’s a good thing, since it means I was drawn into the action, but it wasn’t exactly the most relaxing moviegoing experience. Will this show be a disaster? Will Dumbo survive this stunt? Where is Dumbo’s mom? Will Miss Atlantis the Mermaid ever find true love???
I’m certain moviegoers with less anxiety will handle this film better than I did, and there’s plenty to enjoy, on top of the stunning visuals. Though the performances were sometimes uneven and could veer into cartoonish, the cast was mostly a delight. I adore Danny DeVito and think he should be declared a national treasure, so I was excited to see him as Medici, a smarmy showman with a soft side. DeVito is highly skilled at crafting repulsive villains (The Penguin, natch), but when he shows his sweetness and vulnerability on screen it absolutely wrecks me, and this movie was no exception.
Michael Keaton played the title roles in Burton’s “Beetlejuice” and his Batman films, so it was fun to see him take on another kooky character. Audiences may be divided on his performance, as it could be interpreted as either absurdly entertaining or too over-the-top, but I appreciated his scenery-chewing gusto.
Eva Green, with her feline smile, natural grace, and sharp edges, is perfectly cast as Colette Marchant, the ravishing trapeze artist in Vandervere’s Dreamland circus and jewel in his crown. Though she has a tough exterior and steely nerve that makes her seem untouchable, there’s a vulnerability that begins to reveal itself as she forms tentative friendships with the Farriers and her fate becomes more intertwined with Dumbo’s.
Farrell, Parker (the spitting image of her mom, actress Thandie Newton), and Hobbins all give solid performances as the Farrier family, but they aren’t able to have as much fun as the other leads since they’re saddled with a tragic backstory. (Parents of STEM-loving daughters will be happy to see that Parker’s character, Milly, has a keen interest in science and technology.) The family’s relationship with Dumbo is touching, though, and it was reassuring to have at least a few characters who were Dumbo’s allies from the beginning.
The film takes place in 1919, so costume designer extraordinaire Colleen Atwood had the challenge of creating both period-appropriate garments and the razzle-dazzle costumes of the circus world, all while meeting the demands of the heightened aesthetic of a fantastical Tim Burton movie. The Oscar winner pulled it off beautifully, of course, outfitting a myriad of sideshow performers, extras, dancers, and the lead actors in lush costumes that evoked the post-WWI era, with touches of whimsy, dreaminess, and the evocative stripes of the circus and past Burton films.
Composer Danny Elfman, another longtime Burton collaborator, scored “Dumbo” and perfectly supported the drama, pathos, sweetness, and soaring moments in the film. Though not quite as memorable as his past masterpieces, the music in “Dumbo” is gorgeous and Elfman fans like myself will be happy to add another haunting score to their music collections.
Filmgoers are likely to appreciate “Dumbo” for its heart, the endearing characters (especially Dumbo himself), the captivating visuals, and the tug-of-war between light and dark that is Burton’s signature style. The film could have used a bit more levity, but I’d still recommend it, especially to Disney and Burton fans, or to families looking for a moviegoing experience that will entertain both kids* and adults. “Dumbo” reminds us that our differences are often what make us special, and the ending (no spoilers) had the most sentimental among us wiping away a stray tear or two.
*Kids under 6, or those who are especially sensitive, might find the moments of peril and some of the imagery to be too intense, so bring the little ones with caution.
DUMBO is NOW PLAYING in theaters everywhere!
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