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There’s a sensitive political subtext to the new adaptation of Dumbo that didn’t register with me in the original animated classic I saw as a child. Watching it as a Disney revival, I was too young to think of anything other than the magic of a baby elephant with ears so big he could fly — even though upon Dumbo’s first release in 1941, the world was certainly as fraught with the tragedy of separated families as it is once again today.
In Tim Burton’s live-action retelling of the beloved tale of young Dumbo separated from his mother, all Dumbo wants is to be reunited with his mother. She’s been branded a “killer monster” while trying to protect her baby. As we watch Dumbo cruelly separated from his mother and taken to a freak animal exhibit, it’s hard not to think of the thousands of immigrant children taken away from their parents in our current political climate. It’s a news story that’s been pushed off the front pages to make way for reports on other travesties, so it hardly garners any coverage these days. But seeing this story retold so vividly resonated and reminded me of how relevant this decades-old Disney classic remains.
Burton takes on the task of re-introducing Dumbo to new generations with the sterling talents of Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Colin Farrell and Eva Green as his leads. As the Casey Jr. train travels across America, the Medici Brothers Circus is hardly bringing in the crowds. Max Medici (DeVito) invests in Jumbo, hoping the arrival of a new elephant will improve the attractions for his struggling big-tent show.
It’s the children, played by Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, who first discover that Jumbo has given birth to a baby elephant. Except the new baby doesn’t look any other they have ever seen. Sensing this strangeness might draw the wrong sort of attention, Max goes to great effort to hide Baby Jumbo with his big floppy ears.
When Baby Jumbo is brought out to entertain the crowds, things go recklessly awry during the performance, and soon mother and child are torn apart.
Milly (Parker) and Joe (Hobbins) soon discover the magic to Jumbo Jr and are soon teaching him how to fly. Their promise to him is that once he can fly they will buy his mother back. Except Max meets V.A Vandevere (Keaton) who has his own villainous plans.
Burton uses the foundations of the original animated feature and maintains the basic storyline while grounding it in realism. Gone are the talking animals who nicknamed Jumbo Jr as Dumbo in 1941. instead, now it’s only the humans who can speak talk, so this means all the animal emotion must be conveyed through the magic of CGI. And magical it is. We share what Dumbo is feeling through the subtlety of his eyes and his facial expressions that capture his fear and sense of loss when his mother is taken. We share his feelings when he warms to the children and Holt and even Green’s Colette. It’s hard not to fall in love with Dumbo as we watch him accept his differences, adapt to his special skills, and miraculously learn to fly. It’s so convincing that we truly believe that this baby elephant can fly, and you want to applaud his aerial talents each time he does. Kudos to Michael Kutsche’s commendable design of the flying pachyderm, in making such an impossible feat look so natural.
The anticipation of seeing DeVito and Keaton reunited with Burton 27 years after Batman Returns, is a small treat in itself, but compared to Dumbo’s soaring enchantment, the human performances often lack oomph. Even though we know Keaton’s villainous V. A. Vandevere is the epitome of corporate greed, out for his own selfish purposes, Keaton just isn’t despicable enough. Oddly enough, in the flesh, the human characters aren’t rounded out enough for us to really care about them. That quibble is quickly forgotten, since we’ve bought a ticket to see Dumbo — to follow his journey of heartbreak, to falter when he falters, to soar when he soars — and that’s what Burton and team deliver, tugging our hearts at all the right moments..
Aside from the political message that can be derived from Dumbo’s story, there’s also an important message about animal rights and the cruelty of big money greed — brought to horrifying life in the form of Vandevere and his theme park that at times reminded me of Disney’s Tomorrowland. All the corporate masters care about are raking in the big dollars, and what better way to make the park must-see destination than the spectacle of a flying elephant.
As we would expect from a literal tent-pole attraction, the visual effects here are indeed spectacular and incredible. From the trippy pink elephants to Dumbo himself. Rick Heinrich’s witty production design is a dream and his sets are gorgeous. Dreamland and the futuristic world is a colder one, much like its proprietor. The Medici Circus is awash in color. All very simple but gorgeous to look at and swoon over all the same. Colleen Attwood’s costumes are visually stunning from Medici’s red circus jacket to the circus glam of Green’s Colette. Danny Elfman’s score is jaunty music to one’s ears, and perfectly in keeping with the theme of the movie, simple and elegantly attuned to getting into Dumbo’s heart through his immensely expressive eyes.
If there was ever any doubt that Dumbo’s story is timeless., this new version proves it. Burton makes the wise choice not to over-complicate the purity of this simple fable, even as the style plays to Burton’s signature themes of a loner, ostracized by society for being different. There’s no Gothic darkness here; it’s not a return to Edward Scissorhands or Beetlejuice by any means. It’s been a while since Burton has done a film that checks those bleak boxes. However, the visual flair he deploys here is enormously satisfying — all in all, entertaining, impressive, and endearing. But prepare yourself to fall in love with this cute flying baby elephant named Dumbo, the film’s most valuable player. His adorable teary eyes will melt your heart — if you allow it too. If we let this enduring story lift us aloft, the inner child in all of us will believe that we saw an elephant fly.