Tim Burton takes Disney’s beloved flying pachyderm on a new and somewhat dark journey in Walt Disney Studios’ latest live action+photo-realistic CGI remake Dumbo (2019).
This film merges the familiar narrative of the 1941 animated classic with a newly created circus-themed story. As in the original animated feature, the plot is set within a traveling troupe of circus and side show performers along with a menagerie of animals that travel from town to town by train (Casey Jr., of course). In this film, the year is 1919, the circus is the Medici Bros. Circus, and the ringleader is Max Medici (expertly played by Danny DeVito).
In addition to Max, we meet a slew of characters that are new to this story—most importantly the World War I veteran Holt Farrier (played by Colin Farrell) and his two children Milly (played by Nico Parker) and Joe (played by Finley Hobbins). Before the war, Holt and his wife had a successful circus act with horses. But when Holt goes away to fight in the war, he loses a lot—his wife dies, the horses get sold, and he loses one of his arms.
Although the circus is one big happy family, it is in financial straits; so much so, that Max bets the farm (or circus) on an exotic new elephant named Mrs. Jumbo. It also turns out that Mrs. Jumbo is pregnant. Since the horses are gone, Max puts Holt and his kids in charge of the precious elephants.
The first act of the film is basically the original Dumbo movie but with these additional characters. Once the original story is out of the way, it takes a wild turn into a brand new direction over the next two-thirds of the film. “Dumbo” (as the baby elephant gets nicknamed) the flying elephant is an instant hit and brings a much needed financial boost to the Medici Bros. Circus. The newfound success piques the interest of circus magnate V.A. Vandevere (played by Michael Keaton) who owns a destination circus attraction and amusement park called Dreamland. Vandevere offers to purchase Medici Bros. Circus and makes Max an offer too good to pass up. But once everyone arrives at Dreamland, things just might be a bit too good to be true.
Tim Burton is able to put his distinctive stylistic stamp on the film, which I mostly liked. His early 20th century circus aesthetic has just the right combination of nostalgia and charm along with his trademark quirkiness.
Other than Danny DeVito (and possibly Colin Farrell), I just didn’t feel like the acting was particularly strong from much of the cast. Also as previously mentioned, the two-thirds of the film that delve into this original new story take Dumbo the character into an unexpected and rather unpleasant place for my tastes. While a newly added animal rights subplot is a timely and important theme, and Dumbo himself still has the same motivations (he just wants to be with his mom), it just didn’t come together in a harmonious and cohesive fashion.
Ultimately, the film is less of a remake and more of a new story and adventure that Dumbo gets plopped into. I kept thinking during the film that it should have had a different title (maybe “Dumbo’s Adventure in Dreamland” or, jokingly, “Free Dumbo: A Dumbo Story”). I respect Tim Burton’s talent and creativity and you all know how much I love the Disney, but this latest “remake” is definitely one that makes you want to run away from the circus rather than to join it.
Dumbo is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language.”
My score: 3 out of 5 stars
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