Let’s get ready for Duuuumboooo!
We’re a long way away from 1941 and the days of pure frivolity in your animated films are over. That’s why Disney evolved their glorified sing-along The Jungle Book into a weighty dramatic adventure and why their sweet little flying elephant Dumbo can no longer sustain himself as a metaphorical hero teaching kids lessons about believing in themselves. There needs to be raised stakes and a bona fide antagonistic force to combat to hold our attention now. So screenwriter Ehren Kruger repurposes the original film’s trajectory as a prologue (minus the racist bits) wherein Max Medici’s (Danny DeVito) latest circus addition becomes a prop with which to lean a wholly different tale of post-war strife concerning a one-armed veteran (Colin Farrell‘s Holt Farrier) and his newly motherless children.
This means Dumbo can officially relinquish its long-held nostalgia so director Tim Burton can put his dark visual stamp upon yet another misfit’s quest to fit in amongst a judgmental world. As I said, however, the elephant is the least important misfit of the bunch. Yes, he’s still ridiculed for his large ears (by Medici and hostile crowds). Yes, his mother is taken away (this time sold rather than merely imprisoned out of sight). And yes, he can fly. But what these things mean for him pales in comparison to what they mean for Holt’s daughter (Nico Parker‘s Milly) and son (Finley Hobbins‘ Joe). They see their pachyderm friend’s distraught reaction to being left alone as a mirror upon their lives and don’t want him suffering their fate.
So say goodbye to Red the Robin (from Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl‘s book) and Timothy Q. Mouse (from Disney’s original adaptation). The animals in this iteration don’t speak and thus Dumbo’s latest guides on the road towards celebrity (and a reunion with Mom) must come in the form of humans instead. It’s Milly and Joe who figure out that the little guy’s fascination with feathers gets him excitable enough to inhale them and force a violent enough sneeze to propel him into the air before flapping his ears to stay afloat. And since Holt’s famed horse riding career was cut short (missing an arm is less important than Medici selling his steads), he’s saddled with the job of training the elephant to become a clown and later a star.
The latter occurs after the opportunistic Medici agrees to join forces with renowned showman V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) and his brick and mortar showcase of unbelievable wonders. The hope is that Dumbo can be his crown jewel to delight audiences alongside his previous showstopper Colette Marchant (Eva Green). If Holt and his kids can help her put together an act wherein she rides him around the tent, they’ll practically be printing money. So of course Vandevere dials up the charm only to eventually reveal his true merciless colors when things go awry. He’s actually a warped, grossly capitalistic version of Walt Disney himself through the studio’s current lens of media domination—a conglomerate purchasing mom-and-pop stores to separate the wheat from the chaff and bolster his own portfolio.
Obviously Disney itself doesn’t think this or they wouldn’t have green-lit the script, but you can’t help believing it true after they finalized the deal to absorb 20th Century Fox one week ago. We therefore have to hope that the kindhearted little people like Medici’s proud troupe that Vandevere would like to screw over will find a way to rise from the ashes in life regardless. If that means allowing the property to leave so it can flourish outside of this homogenized monopoly, so be it. When something proves as uniquely special as Dumbo, letting it go free to pursue its goals is more important than pigeonholing it into a set template for success that only ends up ruining what made it so great in the first place.
What’s unfortunate is that this film wasn’t able to do so itself. No, despite its deft ability to take what was most memorable from the original (the way “Pink Elephants on Parade” is integrated into the story is fantastic) and to let Burton expand upon it visually for a nightmarish “Dreamland” that could have come from Beetlejuice’s own warped mind of bat-winged carousels, the whole comes across as being weirdly in lockstep with a formula. This is most obvious with Milly and her robotic desire to tell the world of her scientific ambitions. Parker is very charismatic when interacting with Dumbo and yet it’s as though she’s put in a trance whenever her passion for STEM appears. It’s like Burton is sabotaging a plot point forced upon him.
Then there’s the obvious villainy of Vandevere arriving exactly when Dumbo reveals himself as a commodity worth stealing. Keaton is having a ton of fun, but the role lacks real drama. Between him and his cartoonish henchman Neils (Joseph Gatt), we find ourselves waiting impatiently for the others to finally wake up to their tragic circumstances. DeVito’s Medici tries to pick up the slack as a more complicated, unwitting antagonist, but the film sets up his love for the Farriers very early and thus makes it impossible to think he won’t eventually do the right thing. And I’m not sure what’s going on with Green’s Marchant. Her allegiance shift is so abruptly decisive that you wonder why she was initially shown on Vandevere’s side in the first place.
Like Mary Poppins before it, the end result props Holt up as the true target of attention, growth, and resonance. He’s the one everyone gravitates towards despite Milly and Joe doing the heavy lifting (that we see anyway) and he’s the one who needs to learn a lesson. With his wife gone, it’s up to him to foster the potential within their children and not simply push them onto a path they’ve rejected. But instead of letting Milly walk on her path towards science, Burton and Kruger turn her dialogue into stilted talking points for Holt to ignore until Vandevere of all people calls him out. It’s clunky, on a completely different trajectory than rectifying Dumbo’s fate, and ultimately paints the least interesting character the hero.
In the end it’s the Medici Brothers’ circus that must believe in itself. They need to rediscover the joy of what they do while allowing their outcasts’ unique strengths rise to the surface above solely what they bring to the stage. Dumbo’s journey to reunite with his mother is nothing more than a parallel metaphor for his human counterparts to reunite with their love of their craft and the camaraderie of their extended family. Do we need two hours to do this? No. Do we need Vandevere as the catalyst for no reason other than showing them what “true evil” looks like? No. It’s a whole lot of filler set to amaze audiences into thinking it has purpose beyond distraction. While pretty, that inherent hollowness still shines through.
courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures