Reel Reviews | Dumbo

by Charles Kirkland, Jr.

The Disney behemoth flexes its muscle by providing a live-action reimagining of the Disney classic called Dumbo.

Once a star of the circus, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the war to the troupe and his children, missing an arm.  Hard times have befallen the Medici Brothers Circus including the death of his Farrier’s wife, the co-star of the act and mother of his children.  Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is excited to save his struggling circus with the birth of a new baby elephant.  Out of loyalty, Farrier and his children are kept with the circus by Max but given the charge of elephant care.  However, when Mrs. Jumbo, the pregnant pachyderm Medici purchased, provides a male elephant with oversized ears, he is quick to declare the elephant as a freak and dismisses it to the clown act.  Under the tender care of the Farrier children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), they discover that the baby elephant in their care is much more special than he appears.

Dumbo is the creative retelling of a classic story that first appeared in a novel from Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl and later in a Disney animated feature from 1941.  Ehren Kruger is responsible for the clever screenplay and visionary director Tim Burton brings the story to life.  Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) has built a legacy for creating dark stylish movies that feature outcasts and rejects.  Burton’s circus is a reflection of his work, full of freaks and sideshow acts that may be visually arresting but at the same time irresistibly lovable. 

Dumbo is the ultimate embodiment of that theme.  The CGI elephant is off-putting to start, nowhere near the cuteness seen in the animated movie.  As the movie progresses though, the baby elephant’s appearance seems to soften, not because he gets any cuter or drawn differently but because his given emotion.  The mission to fly to save the circus and his mother makes us cheer for the would-be hero and see him in a different light.

This Dumbo is a different light.  While the story is essentially the same from the original movie, the perspective has changed.  There are no talking animals (although there is a homage to Timothy the mouse).  The Farrier children are the vehicle for animal thought and communication.  The offensive tones of the original movie have been creatively scrubbed including a clever use of the famous Michael Buffer to create a stylish and smart movie that is aware of itself and the times in which it now resides. 

This is a movie for children and while Burton’s vision is certainly darker than the original movie.  Barring one implied death, which is more of a come-uppance, Dumbo is nowhere near as dark as any of Burton’s previous work and is suitable for children of young ages.  Adults may find the movie a tad boring and totally predictable though some may be interested in the reunion of DeVito and Michael Keaton, the first since Batman Returns (another Burton creation).  Keaton plays the charismatic but transparent foil, V.A. Vandervere in the movie and the lovely Eva Green plays a prissy acrobat who is the predictable love interest.   

Dumbo is rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements and brief mild language.  Visually interesting and creative, it is a nice submission for those who are being introduced to the story but overall the movie is plodding at best for those who are familiar with the animated original.

Grade: C