To refer to the original, animated Dumbo as the “flying elephant” movie would technically count as a spoiler; he doesn’t take flight until the final five minutes of a film that runs for little over an hour. But that triumphant image of him overcoming his previous status as a laughing stock to become the greatest act in the circus, taking flight and looping around the big top, remains one of the most resonant in the Disney back catalogue. Tim Burton’s live action take on the classic story removes all but the bare bones; there are no musical numbers or talking animals (he has mercifully decided not to include Jim Crow in this narrative), and instead of building up to Dumbo taking to the skies, he establishes the elephant’s talent roughly five minutes after we see him getting born.

In the rigid world of Disney live action remakes, where beloved animations are replicated shot for shot in live action, the fact Burton has been given the freedom to create a completely new take on the story makes for a refreshing change of pace. Equally refreshing is that Burton, a director whose gothic style has grown beyond parody and overtly tedious in recent years, has unexpectedly found a lease of life behind the camera once again. His Dumbo isn’t a CGI monstrosity like his Alice in Wonderland, and flying elephant aside, actually sees him utilise a fully practical, tactile production design for the first time in many years. 

I can’t remember the last time the heavily German Expressionism influenced visual style of Burton was this satisfyingly realised – you can feel his genuine passion for the story through the attention to detail in the design, something that has been sorely lacking for at least a decade. Burton has been phoning it in behind the camera recently, relying on his usual stylistic gimmicks to fill the creative void of his projects. Here, in the most unlikely of projects (a Disney cash grab remake), you can feel him getting passionate about the film he’s making again through the care given to every detail. It’s almost as impressive as seeing an elephant fly. 

Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is a circus owner who is falling on hard times, having to remove acts from his lineup to cut costs. When soldier Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the war to work for the circus, he’s cut from the act and forced to care for the elephants, who are the planned saving grace with a new baby on the way. New baby Dumbo quickly becomes part of the act, but his mother has been sold to make money – saddened and made the laughing stock of the act due to his ears, it’s discovered that Dumbo has an extraordinary talent of flying whenever a feather is placed near his nose. He becomes a sensation, and entrepreneur V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) spots an opportunity to make some money for himself, transporting the circus to his theme park.

Naturally, a modern take on Dumbo would need a plethora of plot additions to boost the running time – the 65 minute length of the animated classic was purely due to the hope of earning money back after Fantasia bombed, by accommodating for more screenings per day. Burton’s take effectively acts as a remake and a sequel, following the elephant’s exploits after his ability to fly becomes a media sensation, and as a result is closest in spirit to his much maligned Planet of the Apes remake, albeit the polar opposite in terms of quality. There, he handled another movie with a famous ending, moving the statue of liberty twist to the midway point and continuing to explore the world further, struggling to find anything of interest. By moving the world’s discovery that Dumbo can fly for the first act, he can economically get through this initial struggle without having to rely on the original narrative which, let’s just be clear, goes to some pretty hideously racist places that we don’t need to visit again. 

Tim Burton’s gradual descent into parody as a filmmaker began when he started experimenting with CGI. The erasure of the animal characters, leaving just Dumbo and his mother (as well as a monkey sidekick for Danny DeVito) ensures that he isn’t left to rely on his worst instincts as a filmmaker. The jarring design of Dumbo, a CG creation with expressive facial features that feel like digital replications of those an anime character might have, is surprisingly less of a problem than it should be due to how Burton grounds the story in a way that makes suspension of disbelief all too easy – a sentence I wasn’t expecting to write about a Tim Burton film in 2019. 

In the original, Dumbo’s mother was sent away for attacking kids, whereas here, it’s purely an economic decision as the circus is losing money. It’s not exactly realism, but it’s strange to see Burton fighting back against his kookiest, most twee instincts to make a story about a flying elephant somewhat palatable. The elephant is fake, but the world of the circus and Michael Keaton’s towering Dreamland theme park feel like living, breathing artefacts, as opposed to meticulously designed sound stages. In Burton’s hands, this trademark style is what gives the film substance.

Many people have joked that the second half of the film, where the circus acts are bought out by a larger company, is pretty ironic to be featured in a Disney film a week after merging with Fox – not to mention depicted with the level of cynicism here, where the clutches of an evil corporation are something that Dumbo needs to rescue his mother from. Of course, the satire here seems unintentional, and as a result feels like writers are reaching to find commentary in a project that was likely written years before the merger was given the green light. It can easily be viewed that way, but mostly, it’s just the same distrust of authority theme that’s a regular fixture of Burton’s work, aided by delightfully hammy performances from his former Batman Returns stars. 

Alistair Ryder

Updated: Mar 26, 2019

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