A major part of Disney’s ongoing movie plans have revolved around live action remakes of their vast catalogue of beloved animated classics. The biggest hits have stuck to a rather simple formula – hit the same beats as the original while adding very little. Most recently, that’s worked out quite well for Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Throughout his career, though, Tim Burton doesn’t want to do exactly what’s been done before, even though the stylish director has helmed his fair share of remakes. Earlier this year he took on the animated classic Dumbo, and Burton’s vision for the young flying elephant barely resembles the film which it takes its inspiration. Burton’s Dumbo completely rewrites the film, attempting to create something entirely new out of a story that has graced the screen for over 70 years.
The circus run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito) roams the American countryside in 1919. Returning to the circus since fighting in World War I is Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), the horseback-riding star of the show, where he’s reunited with his two children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). However, it’s a bittersweet family reunion as Holt’s wife died from an influenza outbreak and the war left him without an arm, robbing him of his chance to ride a horse in the center ring of the circus. But Medici has a plan to revitalize his circus with the addition of the elephant Mrs. Jumbo, but when unloading the elephant the handlers were cruel and the giant beast lashes out at her tormenters. Discovered in the dust was her young elephant, who will later be renamed Dumbo after an unfortunate debut in front of a boorish crowd.
Milly and Joe take a liking to the young elephant and are the ones to discover the elephant’s ability to fly thanks to its humungous ears. With Dumbo taking center stage as the flying elephant that is packing the circus tent, Medici’s circus gets the attention of V.A. Vandervere (Michael Keaton), an industrialist showman who wants to takes Dumbo and his circus cohorts to his expansive theme park Dreamland. The plan is for Dumbo to be ridden by beloved acrobat Colette Marchant (Eva Green), where the duo will enchant audiences for years to come. Vandervere’s cruel indifference towards the circus cast members and the animals pushes everyone towards the brink of an all-out revolt.
Whereas so many of these live action remakes are simple retreads of their animate predecessors, they’re able to achieve their modest ambitions so they’re technically successful in that regard. Dumbo, on the other hand, may not always achieve its ambitions but you have to credit Tim Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger for attempting something drastically different. Dumbo is a rather weird movie, one where a band of misfits get pulled into a world of corporate entertainment only to rebel against the crass commercialization. It’s a bold strategy for creating a Disney film, one that jabs at its corporate overlords, but also one that can only be made with the vast resources of Disney.
As can be expected with any Tim Burton film, Dumbo is a triumph of production design. The director has employed the circus aesthetic throughout his career, and he does feel at home under the big tent with an unusual cast of sideshow freaks. Another triumph of design comes from the retro futurism of V.A. Vandervere’s Dreamland, which has a look in the vein of the cityscapes in Burton’s own Batman Returns. Of course, the eponymous elephant is a delightful digital creation, with big blue eyes and a sad sack expression that makes your heart ache. However, as much as the film is a delight to look at it does struggle to carry the emotional wallop of the original, and nothing proves that more than in the scenes that Burton pulls from the original, most notably the tear-jerking scene of “Baby Mine.” It present an unfortunate trend that has plagued the recent efforts by Tim Burton – it’s visually stunning but emotionally lacking.
The Blu-ray for Dumbo has plenty of special features to supplement your viewing pleasure, including a handful of deleted scenes. There’s also an array of featurettes on the making of Burton’s film, covering everything from special effects to all the Easter eggs hidden throughout the film. Also included on the disc and HD digital versions of the film is a blooper reel of hilarious mishaps and a music video of the Arcade Fire’s version of the iconic song “Baby Mine.” All in all, it’s another robust home video edition from Disney, examining the film through all of the various aspects of its production.
With The Lion King just around the corner and likely to smash box office records, it’s no surprise that Disney will continue to churn out its reimagined versions of animated classics. That being said, I hope more attempt to do what Tim Burton did with Dumbo, flip the script and find new wrinkles in a time honored story. It may not always work as intended, but I respect Burton’s attempt to subvert audience expectations as it would’ve been much simpler and safer to just stick to the original. Disney’s business model today is built around its storied history and not taking too great of a risk with its robust roster of intellectual properties, but Disney didn’t become the beloved hub of children’s entertainment by playing it safe, and that’s one way Tim Burton keeps the Disney tradition alive in Dumbo.
A complete reimagining of the 1941 animated classic, Tim Burton’s Dumbo is a visual wonder that doesn’t hit its emotional beats, but you have to respect the creators of this film for not simply rehashing the animated original.