Dumbo is the first flick in this year’s string of live-action Disney remakes, debuting in theaters last weekend from director Tim Burton. It’s the circus story we all know from childhood: A struggling circus tries to pull itself up by the bootstraps with a big showstopper, only to be let down by an elephant born with freakishly large ears.
The versatile Colin Farrell can do no wrong as Holt Farrier, a veteran returning from war after losing an arm, a wife, and a job as the circus’ star attraction. Holt has to learn how to navigate his new role as single father to two kids, played by Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins. Danny DeVito plays the no-nonsense circus owner Max Medici who does what he has to do to keep his dying circus afloat. He sold Holt’s horses that were once the circus’ big number and purchased a pregnant elephant named Jumbo, who he assigns Holt to watch over.
Jumbo gives birth to baby Jumbo, who circus-goers cruelly rename Dumbo due to his helpless nature and oversized ears. How anyone could be disgruntled by such an adorable and lovable floppy-eared baby elephant is unclear — but that’s how the story goes. Dumbo’s mother is banished after she accidentally kills one of the vicious animal trainers, further pushing the circus into a downward spiral, but everything changes once the kids discover that Dumbo can fly.
Michael Keaton plays V. A. Vandevere, the shady opportunist who swoops in to purchase Dumbo for his garish, over-the-top theme park called Dreamland. He does this under the pretense that he will employ Medici’s entire crew, which it turns out, is not the case. Eva Green plays Colette Marchant, Vandevere’s arm candy and a trapeze artist who performs alongside Dumbo in his new act at Dreamland. It’s unclear at first if she’s on the good side or bad side. She could’ve been a stronger character with a little more development.
Dumbo steals the show and is incredibly expressive without ever speaking a word. The best parts of the movie are the subtle nods to Disney theme parks and the cartoon Dumbo. For instance, the towers of stuffed elephants that are sold at the Dreamland concession stands are the exact plush Dumbo characters that fans can purchase from Disney IRL. The Wonders of Science section in the on-screen theme park is reminiscent of Tomorrowland, a section of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. One of my favorite parts is when the circus has a sequence featuring pink, elephant-shaped bubbles that mesmerize Dumbo. During this part, Medici says, “Pink elephants,” to which the man sitting next to him responds, “So?” Blink and you’ll miss it, but this is a salute to the song “Pink Elephants on Parade” from the animated film when Dumbo starts hallucinating (which coincidently, would’ve made a great Burton moment, so that’s a missed opportunity).
Burton does a good job of painting the film with the charmingly creepy touches that he’s known for, but it lacks the outrageous and zany characters that he usually delivers. The film has some morbid moments, like the character who wears elephant skin boots and the many implications of animal abuse, but it could’ve amped up the level of Burton wackiness. Like the selfish attempt of many circuses to keep wild animals captive, the film has a deep underlying message that begs the question: Who’s the real animal?
All in all, Dumbo puts on a heartwarming show with a dusting of Disney magic, and has a meaningful message at the end that’ll keep audiences thinking even after the lights go out.