I write the following as someone who did once own a stuffed animal version of Dumbo, the adorable elephant with ears so big they flap like wings.
To fully appreciate Tim Burton’s live-action Dumbo, it is helpful to know the following:
Barely qualifies as “feature-length”
The original 1941 Dumbo is barely over an hour long and was created as a streamlined, low-budget affair meant to stop the bleeding at Disney after several years of box office bombs. The gambit worked: Dumbo became just the second Disney film to turn a profit, with the first being Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
It didn’t, however, come without a fight. First of all, Disney’s employees went on strike during the production of the film. Then, once Dumbo was delivered to Disney’s distributor, RKO Pictures, it was almost denied a release. The executives preferred to either cut the 64-minute film down into a short, add more footage to expand it into a true full-length feature or release it as a B-movie packaged with something longer. Walt stood his ground, rightfully so.
Audiences of the era, desperate for an escape from the onslaught of WWII, ate it up. In the ensuing decades, grandparents and parents everywhere learned Dumbo – though a perfectly lovely movie – is maybe not the best Disney classic to pick if the larger goal is to simply find something that will distract the kids for at least 80-90 minutes.
That means Tim Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger inherited a project so inherently short on story even the film executives of 1941 objected. The RKO people eventually relented, of course, but Burton and Kruger – faced with updating the material to 2019 audiences and adapting it to a live-action setting – don’t have that luxury.
Barely qualifies as “remake”
As a result, this is a very different Dumbo movie than the ones some might have grown up on. The basic story of a young, malformed circus elephant turning his abnormality into a superpower is here, but it has now been condensed into the first half of the story. The rest is almost entirely a pure Burton/Kruger creation and their section of the film gets surprisingly thinkpiecy, with Dumbo and his human friends ending up in a funhouse Disneyland lorded over by an outwardly genial, secretly ruthless taskmaster (Michael Keaton). The pink elephants parade, alright, but this time to the tune of cash registers popping for every Dumbo doll sold.
Keaton=Bog Iger. Dumbo=Fox’s IP
This tweet is a shockingly accurate summary of what happens in this movie:
As I said at the start, I am someone who once had a stuffed Dumbo. Leave it to Tim Burton to make me feel kind of weird about that. Because not only does this new Dumbo shine a critical light on the dog-eat-dog nature of capitalism and inevitable commodification of entertainment – it also goes full Blackfish and swerves into a commentary on the ethics of keeping captive animals for our amusement.
Damn. Dumbo is so woke now. Didn’t see that coming. And I have yet to even mention Dumbo’s new friend Milly (Nico Parker, Thandie Newton’s daughter making her film debut), a mixed race little girl with STEM job aspirations.
Yeah, but where are the emotions?
All of that makes the new Dumbo an easily more thoughtful film than its 1941 predecessor, but with all of these added layers of commentary is there room left over for any real heart? We are meant to applaud when Dumbo flies for the first time and cry for him to eventually rejoin his mother, who is sold away after a disastrous circus performance results in her stampeding to protect her baby boy.
With the help of new human friends the Farrier family – newly returned WWI vet dad Holt (Colin Farrell), still-trying-to-find-his-niche son Joe (Finley Hobbins), and daughter Milly – as well as empathetic fellow circus performers (led by ringmaster Danny DeVito), surely Dumbo will prevail, but when he does will we actually feel the emotion of it?
Most critics say no. Among Disney’s recent live-action remakes or “reimaginings”, the new Dumbo currently has the lowest RottenTomatoes score (51%) since…well, Tim Burton’s 2010 3D acid trip take on Alice in Wonderland. That film prospered at the box office regardless of quality. Early signs indicate Dumbo won’t be nearly as fortunate, and the consistent criticism among all the detractors is the film’s lack of an authentic core.
Something. Something. Tim Burton’s overrated.
Tim Burton, the argument goes, has made so many odes to outsiders at this point that he doesn’t even seem to feel the emotions of it anymore. He’s just going through the motions, a painter who lost his motivation years ago.
Normally, I would agree with that argument, yet this Dumbo strikes me as Burton’s most genuinely heartfelt work since 2012’s Frankenweenie. Visually, this is him in his slightly more restrained Big Fish/Big Eyes mode, meaning not everything has to be so gothic or draped in blacks, reds, and whites. It’s still Burton, of course, and his knack for the fantastical is on full display during the circus sequences, especially the aforementioned pink elephants on parade, but he doesn’t overwhelm the story with visuals.
That’s a bit of an ironic statement to make, however, about a movie whose title character is entirely CGI. Yet, the animal CGI work – so perfected on Jungle Book and further refined here – turns Dumbo in an easily believable character with surprisingly soulful, big eyes.
Moreover, even with all its baked-in layers of social commentary, the script still ultimately tells a simple story about an elephant trying to reunite with his mother and the friends, a group that eventually includes Eva Green’s French trapeze artist, who help him on that journey. By the time the grand finale arrives, there are probably one too many narrative plates still spinning in the air, but I was happy to go on the journey.
Afterward, I kind of wanted to buy a new Dumbo doll. Then I felt utterly conflicted. Then I wondered if any highers-up at Disney even watched this movie. If so, did they see themselves more in DeVito’s ringmaster instead of Keaton’s? And did they just completely miss the parallels between the film’s plot and what Disney is currently doing to Fox?
That’s certainly a more complex set of reactions than I expected to have from Dumbo. What I expected was to feel sympathy for an outsider. On that point, mission accomplished. Everything else is a delightful bonus.
THE BOTTOM LINE
To make a film about the downside of Disney, you used to have to use guerrilla filmmaking techniques and secretly shoot a horror story inside Disneyland, like Escape from Tomorrow. Tim Burton – either inadvertently or intentionally – did it from inside the beast, presenting a version of Dumbo in which the villain sure seems like a Disney stand-in. That sets this Dumbo up as the type of family film an entire generation will re-watch a decade from now and suddenly realize, “Wow, there was way more going on there!”
For now, however, it’s a perfectly pleasant update on a franchise Walt once streamlined as a low-budget, save-the-studio hit. As was true then, the same applies now – if that cute little elephant can turn his abnormality into a superpower, why can’t we too…except, ya know, metaphorically.