It seems that every year now we’ll be treated to a live action of Disney’s animated movies. Now, I actually quite like Cinderella, Beauty & The Beast, Jungle Book, and I’m curiously anticipating Aladdin. As for Dumbo, I actually don’t remember much of the original. I only watched a scene of Dumbo and his mother in the Baby, Mine sequence. As for Tim Burton, I haven’t seen the last few films he’s done, including Alice in Wonderland which doesn’t appeal to me at all.
This movie doesn’t have talking animals nor musical numbers. The screenplay by Ehren Kruger is an expanded version of the 1941 animated version that’s now told from the human characters. The circus is intact of course, this time it’s called Medici Circus, owned by Max Medici (Danny DeVito). Soon we see Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) coming back from the war. Once a circus star, he’s now missing an arm and his wife (also a former circus star) has died of Spanish Flu, leaving him with his two kids Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). Holt gets demoted to caring for the upcoming baby elephant, which later becomes known as Dumbo.
One thing the movie gets right is the titular little elephant itself. Dumbo is utterly adorable – from the moment we saw him buried under a pile of hay, the large-eared CGI elephant immediately won my heart. A ‘face only a mother could love,’ Max Medici said, he couldn’t be more wrong. Milly and Joe were immediately taken by Dumbo as well, even more so when his mother was sold off to recoup a loss of a tragic incident. The devastating separation scene pierced my heart. I have similar experience when I was sent to a boarding school at the age of 7 and had to be separated from my own mother whom I didn’t see until two weeks later.
The villain of the movie comes in the form of Michael Keaton‘s Vandevere who buys Medici Circus upon learning of the flying elephant. His Disneyland-type, vas amusement park called Dreamland, with attractions like Nightmare Island, Wonders of Science, etc. It’s no surprise that the huge park is filled with dark secrets. Keaton is especially hammy here, but his character wasn’t given much to do. In fact, DeVito, Keaton and Alan Arkin‘s characters are basically just stock characters. They have no real arc at all, basically just caricatures of a circus owner, an opportunistic entrepreneur and a powerful banker, respectively. I have to say the timing for this movie is quite interesting. Its blatant message against corporate conglomeration/industry domination coming out just a week after the announcement of Disney buying out 20th Century Fox isn’t lost on me.
I feel like Colin Farrell‘s Holt is the only character resembling a real person and is someone actually worth rooting for. Eva Green is perfectly cast as trapeze artist Colette, offering her usual sexy mystique but this time with motherly touches. Nico Parker‘s young scientist aspiring to be Marie Curie message of feminism is quite on-the-nose, but she is pretty good role model for young girls. There’s also a fine message about not relying on certain ‘crutches’ to achieve big things, as Dumbo couldn’t fly initially without the prompting of a feather.
Burton’s visual flair and his imaginative mind seems perfect to helm this live-action adaptation. Aided by his longtime Burton-collaborators Danny Elfman (music) and Colleen Atwood (costume design), it’s indeed a gorgeous movie. I’d say the darker stuff is to be expected, but it’s nothing that would really scare off young children. Ultimately, in order for the movie to work, it has to convince us that an elephant can fly. The movie delivers in that regard. I enjoy all the flying sequences, especially towards the end when Dumbo flies over Cooney Island. I also love the scene where the little elephant was in a trance watching a circus act making giant balloon bubbles.
Just like its protagonist that keeps stumbling on its large ears, the movie doesn’t always get every step right either. The first half hour feels a bit sluggish, while the fiery finale seems too grandiose for its own good. I think Burton fans might complain that the movie isn’t weird or bizarre enough. I’d say for a Tim Burton movie about circuses that inherently celebrates eccentricities, this is a pretty safe one. But as a feel-good family film, I think it’s still pretty enjoyable. Is this movie necessary? Well no, but neither is any of the live action adaptations Disney’s been making. I personally would rather see more original stories being made, but judging this for what it is, I’d say it still merits a recommendation.
Have you seen DUMBO? I’d love to hear what you think!