Dumbo, it came out in 1941 and was a huge success. It tapped into the unconditional love that a mother has for her children and it spoke to everyone who saw themselves as a freak and taught them to embrace what made them different and use it as their strength. At least that’s what I thought. It was one of my first Disney films, I adored it and there were many reasons.
The songs, the colourful cast of characters and the memorable imagery whether they be bright and shining sentient trains or nightmarish pink elephants that genuinely frightened me it has stuck with me since my childhood. Now 78 years later the story of Dumbo soars back onto the big screen with Tim Burton directing along with Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, and Michael Keaton starring.
Tim Burton’s Dumbo follows Holt Farrier (Farrell) as he returns to the family he left behind when he enlisted in WWI. Having left them in the care of their mother he returns to find that his son Joe (Finley Hobbins) and daughter Milly (Nico Parker) have been taken care of by their extended family the circus they are a part of due to their mother passing due to illness (because it wouldn’t be a Disney film if you didn’t have a dead parent).
The circus they are a part of is run by the Max Medici (DeVito) who is a bumbling fool of a man. He’s trying to hold on to the wonder of the circus desperately as it’s quite clear that the wonder is fading away. No one is running away to the circus in this world and so to try and inject new life into the circus Medici buys a new Eastern Asian elephant and puts Holt in charge of the elephant.
The reason for this is twofold – Holt lost his arm in the war and so can’t take up the same position he had when he left for the war. Not only that though the elephant needs extra tender loving care as she is pregnant. When Jumbo Jr. is born he makes quite the entrance with his unusually large ears.
Dumbo is a weird film. Almost none of the emotional purity from the original is within this story. Burton follows the Michael Bay roadmap of telling a story in that the titular character is not seen nearly as much as they should be. With Bay, it is the Transformers and with Burton it’s Dumbo. The pint-sized pachyderm doesn’t show up until the film hits the 20-minute mark and before he arrives there is a lot of painfully written character exposition.
The centre of all this comes from Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins. These two young actors can’t deliver any of their lines convincingly. It’s almost like the learned the lines right before the camera started rolling so they didn’t have time to play with the performances and make them their own.
On the other end of the spectrum are Farrell and Green. Holt connects with Dumbo as they are kindred spirits. Everyone is staring at them because of something out of control. It’s a subtle touch that I really liked (and when you see how Burton sets up his world subtly is a rare element). When Eva Green enters the film she injects that wonderful charm and mystique she is legendary for and the film is better for it. Another character who injects some much-needed character is Michael Keaton’s V. A. Vandevere. He’s eccentric and over the top and even though it can be grating at times it helps give Dumbo an identity.
Dumbo flies high with charm and a genuinely adorable elephant but is ultimately weighed down by poor acting, and misdirection by Burton.