The story of Dumbo is so ingrained into the culture of our childhood fantasy that any attempt to do a remake can’t help but provoke a series of questions. Upon hearing that Disney and director Tim Burton were going to make a live-action version of the 1941 animated classic, who among us didn’t ask, are new songs going to be added? Will the animals speak? Who’s going to voice Timothy Mouse? And exactly how are the Jim Crows going to be handled?
There are certain things you need to know before going in. It helps, in case you’ve already formed a few expectations. First, it’s not a musical. Composer Danny Elfman has incorporated several recognizable themes into his score. A few bars of Casey Junior play as the circus train races through Florida. Pink Elephants on Parade is heard during an act under the big tent, and Sharon Rooney as Miss Atlantis strums Baby Mine at night around a campfire, but that’s it.
Second, animals don’t speak. Other than Dumbo’s oversized ears and that cute, cuddly smile with the appealing eyes, that’s as far as any anthropomorphism goes. Which also takes care of the crows, who are all missing in action. And Dumbo’s closest friend of the original film, Timothy Mouse, is not a character. There is a glimpse of a white mouse in a teeny-tiny red Master of Ceremonies uniform playing with a couple of other mice in a cage, but, again, that’s it.
The term re-imagined has always felt like an unnecessary fanciful industry term invented for anyone who, for whatever reason, would rather not use remake. But with Dumbo, that’s exactly what has happened. The writers have taken the 1941 story and completely re-imagined it. Even though the animated classic was always about a baby elephant who could fly, the actual flying never occurred until the final act of a 63-minute film. In fact, the mouse and those crows only discovered Dumbo’s ability in the final few minutes before fade out. From there, the animal’s life changed, fame and fortune were his, and he lived happily ever after, with the crows wishing they’d snagged his autograph before he left with the circus for another town. In the new version, the elephant’s ability to fly occurs almost immediately, and that’s where his trouble starts.
After Mrs. Jumbo gives birth and those ears are immediately on display, circus owner and ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is not exactly thrilled. “I’ve already got fake freaks,” he declares. “The last thing I need is a real one.”
But news of a baby elephant that flies in the circus soon spreads. Enter Mr. V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a ruthless entrepreneur who hands an economic lifeline to Medici’s failing circus. He’s willing to ship the whole traveling enterprise, lock, stock, and barrel, including all the acts and the staff, to a permanent new home in his colorful theme park called Dreamland – it’s like a turn-of-the-last-century Disneyland as designed by Jules Verne – and make them and Dumbo the focus of attention in his Coliseum. Medici sells and goes into partnership. But when dealing with a man like Vandevere there’s always a caveat, as Medici, Dumbo, and all the circus folk will soon discover.
Parallels with Keaton’s Vandevere and DeVito’s Medici could be drawn with those who run the movie industry itself and how the business of show biz has changed. DeVito’s rambunctious circus ringmaster may be demanding – he’s a low rent Cecil B. DeMille – but he knows how to put on a show. Keaton’s entrepreneur is the new generation of industry bean counters; the money guy who when he sees an entertainment opportunity doesn’t think so much in terms of how to present it but how to exploit it.
Much of the film centers on the humans rather than the animals, which is a shame considering that the real-life characterizations aren’t particularly interesting. The two circus children who befriend Dumbo and look after him are pleasant in the spunky, Disney-kid mode, and their father who has just returned from WW1, played by Colin Farrell, along with Danny DeVito as the owner of the struggling circus help ground the film with somewhat rounded personalities, but everyone else, including Micheal Keaton and Eva Green, appear to be there as little more than service to the plot. There’s little to Keaton’s Vandevere other than to fake sincerity to get what he wants, then to be mean when he gets it.
Eva Green as the Parisian trapeze artist Collette doesn’t fare much better. Collette works with Vandevere and gives an early impression that she might be as conniving as her boss, but that’s not the case. “I’m one of the many gems he uses to shine the light back on him,” she explains in a revealing moment. Had there been an obvious, old-fashioned movie romance with Farrell’s war vet, maybe an extra layer to events could have developed, but as things remain, the character doesn’t really do anything, and we never get to know her, though admittedly, when she performs in the spotlight under the big top, there is a certain majesty to her act that becomes eminently appealing.
But despite these drawbacks, the film still succeeds in spite of itself. The flying sequences are great and the action, thrilling. Not wanting to use the obvious when talking about a Disney feature – how can you not? – there really is something magical happening when seeing the baby elephant gliding under the circus tent while enjoying the reaction shots of characters below looking up in wonder. Plus, heartstrings are definitely tugged when Dumbo is separated from his mother.
As for the conclusion, it’s as far removed from the original as it could get, but for animal lovers who want what is only right, it’s hugely satisfying, if unexpected. How odd to think that in the end, the most human character of all in a live-action remake remains the one that’s still animated, albeit generated from computer imagery.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 112 Minutes