If I’m being honest, the last live-action version of an animated Walt Disney classic I saw was 101 Dalmatians (1996). It was enough to swear me off of them… and that was before the current trend that started 14 years later with Alice in Wonderland (2010) and continues to this day with the likes of Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), Beauty & the Beast (2017), and now Dumbo. (Lest you think I forgot a year, we got a sequel to Alice in Wonderland in 2018, Alice Through the Looking Glass.)
It’s a trend that shows no sign of slowing. After Dumbo, we get two more this year (Aladdin and The Lion King) and at least one in 2020 (Mulan). If you can’t tell, it’s also a trend that I don’t much like. Take that for what it’s worth; I just admitted I haven’t seen most of these movies. However, if Dumbo is any indication, I may have to reconsider. As much as I fought it, I thoroughly enjoyed it!
The original Dumbo (1941) runs only an hour and three minutes. The new Dumbo runs ten minutes shy of two hours. My first reaction was, “Oh my gosh; what in the world is director Tim Burton going to do to the beloved story?!?” What he ends up doing turns out to be pretty clever. He doesn’t stretch a 1-hour story to 3 hours. He creates a larger story into which the story of Dumbo can be placed. This equates roughly to the same movie we know and love, plus almost an hour of new… “stuff.”
Actually, I don’t know that we have Burton to credit for that. Ehren Kruger wrote a screenplay that feels fresh while hitting almost every beat from the original film. He’s had some winners and losers over the years, but does an exceptional job here taking elements of a movie with anthropomorphic animals and translating them to a “real-world” fantasy. No, in this Dumbo a stork doesn’t belatedly deliver her baby elephant to Mrs. Jumbo. However, a flock of the white birds flies across the sky and Mrs. Jumbo watches one from her train car before she gives birth.
The connections like this are subtle. Late into the movie, I was disappointed that it didn’t seem there were going to be any pink elephants on parade. Then later they appeared in an entirely different way than I expected. With moments like this, if the original holds a special place in your heart, you will like the new one. The only things missing are the crows, but that doesn’t mean there’s any shortage of “magic” feathers. In fact, they become integral to the story from nearly the beginning, as well as adding some comedic elements.
This leads to one point that I can’t decide whether is positive or negative. In the context of the movie, Dumbo flies relatively early. In the original, it was only near the end. In this Dumbo, there are actually three climaxes… three times when you think he’s going to crash, then at the last minute, he swoops and soars. That’s OK because we all know Dumbo can fly; that’s not going to be a spoiler for anyone. And his belief that he has to use a magic feather to fly is involved only in the third climax. On the other hand, it still lessens the pure thrill and excitement of him flying for real for the first time.
Back to Burton, this is actually the perfect movie for him. Within the circus setting, he’s able to create a cast of colorful characters. He’s also familiar with the outcast character; here, a flying elephant ridiculed because he’s different. While he’s blessedly restrained with these aspects, he’s able to let loose in the second part of the story when Max Medici (Danny DeVito) sells his circus to V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a tycoon who’s opening a giant theme park.
Intentional or not, I love the subversive notion that Burton is biting the hand that feeds him. You can’t ignore a connection between Vandevere’s fictional “Dreamland” and Disney’s factual “Disneyland.” If it’s intentional (which, it just has to be), it’s great that Disney is being a good sport about it. I don’t want to go off on a rant here, but in a day and age when Disney seems to want to own everything and have all the money, it’s reassuring to know they will give an artist like Burton creative freedom.
While Burton’s touch may be what prevents Dumbo from becoming overly sentimental, the cast is exceptional at selling it. Nearly all of them are perfect in their roles. I can’t remember the last time I actually liked Colin Farrell in a movie. Eva Green is lovely and amazing. DeVito is perfect, a Bizarro World version of Frank Reynolds who’s ultimately kind and compassionate. Alan Arkin is impactful in his brief appearances. Even the kids aren’t annoying stereotypes. Newcomers Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins as siblings Milly and Joe Farrier are smart and… well, don’t do stupid things.
I won’t say much else about the plot. You already know half of it, so enjoy the experience of discovering the other half for the first time. It’s not that it’s earth-shatteringly original, but it works and contributes to a cumulative effect of feeling like you’ve just seen a really good movie. And heard one, too. As with other plot elements, the songs of the original are updated and woven seamlessly into Dumbo. Burton regular, Danny Elfman, doesn’t necessarily provide a memorable new theme, but transforms the original songs into a special score… kind of like the movie itself. It’s not memorably new, but transforms the original into something unique.