Walt Disney Studios
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Helen Aberson, Ehren Kruger & Harold Pearl
Starring: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Nico Parker & Finley Hobbins
Tim Burton‘s live-action reimagining of Disney’s 1941 animated classic Dumbo, is the latest in a line of remakes from the House of Mouse, following on from 2017’s Beauty and the Beast and 2016’s The Jungle Book. Much like Bambi, the original Dumbo is one of the more emotionally impactful Disney films. When I first saw the trailer for this adaptation, it instantly brought back those mixed feelings of sadness and wonder from my childhood. Thankfully, 2019’s Dumbo is more of a magical and heart warming tale that focuses less on loss, in favour of bravery and determination. The film is also a beautiful and wondrous tale that features some elegant aesthetics and is one of Burton’s best films in a long time.
Set in the golden age of circuses, baby elephant Dumbo is billed as the latest attraction to help revive the struggling big top show at the travelling Medici Brothers Circus. But Dumbo isn’t your average elephant, the newborn has oversized and ungainly ears that make him, and owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito), a laughing stock. That’s until keepers Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe Farrier (Finley Hobbins) inadvertently discover Dumbo’s hidden gift, transforming the elephant from an unwanted side show to the main star, flying high above the crowds.
The unique difference that sets Dumbo apart from its other live-action predecessors is the fact that it isn’t just a ‘by the book’ retelling. There’s a surprising but very welcome pro-animal rights message, along with an equally important message of equality. In an effort to flesh out the story from the original film, (which was just over an hour long), Disney has added additional characters, including DeVito’s brilliant Max Medici, the central Farrier family and the eclectic rag tag bunch of circus performers. This gives the film a new, more human focus to the tale, which unfortunately at times, detracts from Dumbo and his vital connection with his mother. In result, the story doesn’t quite have the same emotional clout as the classic tale.
Danny DeVito is an absolute delight in this film, it’s clear that he and Michael Keaton had an absolute blast shooting this with their wonderfully zany, over the top performances. Keaton in particular seemed like he was channeling his inner Willy Wonka as entrepreneur V. A. Vandevere. It’s also quite amusing to see their roles reversed from the last time they worked together with director Tim Burton, back in Batman Returns! The wonderful Eva Green also shines as trapeze artist Colette Marchant, particularly when with newcomers Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins. However the family dynamics between Parker, Finley and Colin Farrell didn’t quite work for me, although Nico Parker’s character arc was particular empowering. The supporting cast of the circus performers were also wonderful, particularly Roshan Seth, Sharon Rooney and Deobia Oparei, who’s arcs celebrated uniqueness and embraced being different.
Visually, Dumbo was absolutely breathtaking and a whimsical delight, filled with gorgeous aesthetics, wonderful production design and impressive costumes from Oscar-winning designer Coleen Atwood, a regular collaborator with Burton. Dumbo himself is a beautifully rendered CGI elephant who managed to move me every single time he soared above the crowds around the big top. It’s in the lack of musical numbers where this film truly missed the mark though, particularly with the change of arguably one of the most moving pieces, “Baby Mine”. Burton is a director who has worked within the musical genre many a time and it’s arguably where some of his best work has occurred. So to only feature a couple of magical musical moments is surprising, particularly with the obvious link to The Greatest Showman. It’s here where the reimagined take on Beauty and the Beast particularly excelled for me, as the new additions to the iconic songs “Evermore” and “Days in the Sun” really added an extra layer to that film.
Overall, Dumbo is a charming and heartfelt film that features a ragtag bunch of misfits and outsiders coming together to celebrate uniqueness and embrace being different. Even though it doesn’t quite hit the mark as a whole, this reimagining is a magical experience and whimsical delight that will often make your heart soar. Next up, Aladdin and The Lion King!