So, the whole corporate greed storyline in Dumbo is really just one giant metaphor for the Disney/Fox merger, right? Only, in this movie, the giant corporations are the bad guys? Does Disney realize just how paradoxical all of this is or are they just messing with us at this point?
We want answers, Tim Burton!
Continuing Disney’s recent trend to remake just about every animated movie that they own into a live-action format, Dumbo is the latest film to join the likes of 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, 2014’s Maleficent, 2015’s Cinderella, 2016’s Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast and 2018’s Christopher Robin.
If that’s not enough for you, don’t worry, because we’ve got The Lion King, Aladdin and a Maleficent sequel (????) all still coming this year.
Based on the 1941 animated “classic” (I can’t seem to remember anything about the movie other than there was an elephant who flies and a bunch of racist crows that really don’t hold up when watching it in modern day), Dumbo is the story of a bunch of misfits in the circus who make an incredible discovery.
Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is one of those misfits who has just found his way back home after serving in the army overseas during World War I. He’s anxious to get home, too, not only to resume his career as a professional horse wrangler but also to see his two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), again.
Don’t worry, he’s not as bad of a parent as he sounds. He left them with their mother, who then tragically passed away from illness shortly after Holt left.
Now, he’s back, and is ready to work for ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) again — only to find that things aren’t exactly the same as he remembered them.
The circus has recently fallen on hard times due to loss of public interest and budget cuts. Medici is struggling to make ends meet which, as a result, means everyone in the circus is kind of just miserable all the time.
Luckily, though, he’s got a new star he’s certain will be a hit. That star, of course, is Dumbo the Flying Elephant.
Okay, Medici might not have been convinced that Dumbo was going to be a star at first. He took one look at the elephant with the giant, floppy ears (apparently that’s just the worst possible thing for an elephant to have as they all act like he has leprosy or something).
After Holt’s kids teach Dumbo to fly, though, he quickly changes his tune and realizes that this elephant could make them a fortune.
That’s where Walt Disney — I MEAN, V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) come into play. Vandevere is a billionaire who owns this giant, beloved theme park that sells ideas of ‘family’ and ‘individualism’ to the unknowing customers when, really, all the owners care about is money.
….I mean, you see it, right?
Vandevere hears about Dumbo, thinks he could be his park’s new attraction and takes a visit to Medici’s circus. That brings about a whole bunch of conflict, adventures and pink, flying elephants that are made of bubbles and are somehow still sentient.
Actually, that scene is pretty cool. Say what you will about some of this film’s clichéd plot or the dialogue that the actors are given (a lot of which is pretty cringe-worthy), but Burton directs the hell out of that moment.
It’s not just the pink elephant scene that stands out, either.
Burton has always been a director who, at least to some degree, values his style first and foremost. While that worked pretty early on in his career with Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice or the highly underrated Corpse Bride, it’s got him in trouble with some of his more recent outings like Alice in Wonderland or Dark Shadows, as it feels like style is the *only* thing he cares about.
There’s still a lot of style in Dumbo, make no mistake about that, but Burton has — at least to some degree — reigned himself in more this time and focused more on character with visuals that then accompany it. There’s this one, short-lived sequence that takes place on a place called ‘Nightmare Island’ and it feels like that classic Tim Burton we all know and love has finally found his way back into filmmaking.
Burton is also a filmmaker who’s been good at telling stories about outcasts and their struggles to fit in — which is essentially who Dumbo is. While also throwing in a few messages about animal rights (some parts can get pretty heavy-handed, but I won’t fault it too hard for that), the moments that focus on the elephants and their journey to fit into the cruel world their subjected to provide a solid emotional crutch for the film.
The problem with Dumbo, though, is that’s just one out of, like, five crutches this film tries to lean on.
While the elephants are great, none of the human characters really did it for me in Dumbo. Farrell, Parker and Hobbins are all fine in the movie, but their story is pretty dull and seems to be going through the motions for the majority of 112-minute runtime.
Danny DeVito is good, too, but falls into a similar trap. His character is kind of interesting at first where he’s playing this P.T. Barnum point, but then they try to give him a receptive arch and I quickly lost interest. Michael Keaton isn’t given an arch, meanwhile, but he just plays a pretty generic, mustache-twirling villain. Even Eva Green, who plays a trapeze artist and is almost always great in anything she appears in, doesn’t have a whole lot to do and is just kind of there for a lot of the film.
I’ve seen a lot of Tim Burton films that are worse than Dumbo (his Planet of the Apes is such trash), even though I’ve seen a lot that are better. Similarly, this also kind of falls right in the middle of Disney’s live-action film slate, too. It’s a fine, harmless movie that boasts a few moments that stand out from the rest. Granted, I don’t think I could come up with an argument for why this film absolutely needed to be made other than financial reasons (which, again, this movie actively speaks against in a way that leaves me with so man questions), but it is what it is.
Watch the trailer for Dumbo here and then let us know, in the comments below, what you thought of the film!