Growing up, I liked two things more than anything: trains and elephants. So, an animated movie where elephants spend a lot of time on a train appealed to younger me, and as a result, Dumbo was my favorite Disney film.
Years later, it’s still high on my list, but with asterisks. Yes, it was originally a short that Disney decided to expand into a feature, leading to the film’s exceptionally short runtime (at 68 minutes, it’s one of the shortest of all the Disney features).
Yes, despite Pink Elephants being the best animated representation of surrealism ever put on the big screen, it adds nothing to the story and largely exists to pad said runtime. Yes, those crows are really hard to watch in retrospect. But despite all that, hearing the classic film was getting the live-action Disney remake treatment didn’t feel like a great idea.
And with Tim Burton attached, I was even more conflicted. Despite starting this whole remake trend with Alice in Wonderland, and having grown up on his earlier works to the point of it influencing my choice of career, I had a hard time reconciling the idea that he would be in charge of bringing Dumbo to the real world.
With that in mind, it’s a relief to say that the 2019 remake of Dumbo is a solid film that has the unique position as both a tribute to the original film and an extension to it.
The film opens with the Medici Bros. Circus, led by Burton alum Danny Devito, packing up in Florida to bring their show across the US South. When we first join with the circus, Milly and Joe Ferrier (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) are awaiting the return of their father from the Great War. While Joe is eager to find a way to join in with his adopted circus family, Milly is disinterested in being a part of the spectacle and would rather be known for her mind, like her idol Marie Curie.
When their father Holt Ferrier (Colin Farrell) joins up with them in Missouri, it’s a moment of revelation for both the children and their father. They learn he lost his arm in the war, and he learns that his wife died along with several other Medici performers during the 1918 Influenza outbreak.
The circus itself is undergoing hard times as well, a shadow of its former self, and in desperate need of something to turn their fortunes around. Unable to return to his original circus act, a husband and wife cowboy show, but still needing work, Medici charges him with caring for the elephants. And as it happens, he recently acquired a new female elephant named Jumbo, pregnant with a calf.
The unique position of a Dumbo remake that focuses on the human perspective is that you can tell the original story of Dumbo in the first act of the movie. Unlike other Disney remakes that take the original films as a roadmap and hit every plot point note for note, Dumbo hits the dramatic beats of the original early, and the struggling Medici Bros.
Circus makes headlines with their coup of a bona fide flying elephant. This attracts the attention of V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who drops everything to catch up with the circus. Vandevere owns Dreamland, a whimsical amalgamation of Coney Island and Disneyland, and offers Medici the opportunity to sell his entire operation to Dreamland in order to get Dumbo the Flying Elephant as a centerpiece attraction.
Tim Burton isn’t a stranger to taking a pile of studio money to do something absurd. Batman Returns, the last time Keaton and DeVito were pitted against one another, took Warner Brothers’ money to turn a superhero franchise into the most expensive expressionistic arthouse film ever made. In Dumbo, Burton takes Disney’s money to tell a story about a major entertainment company buying another in order to get the intellectual property (or, in this case, the incredible flying elephant) they want as a part of their empire. Say what you want about Burton, he clearly was given as much leeway as he wanted with this movie.
The move to Dreamland introduces Colette Marchant (Eva Green), who acts as both an acrobat in the Dreamland Coliseum and, bitterly, as arm candy for Vandevere. Forced to merge her act with Dumbo, she becomes close with the Ferriers and Dumbo and becomes envious of their misfit chosen family. A well-trodden Tim Burton trope, but I enjoyed it anyway.
Ultimately, Dumbo feels like three mini-movies. The first act is the original movie truncated, the second act is the circus becoming a part of Dreamland and the consequences of that merger, and the third is a rescue and escape heist involving Dumbo, Mrs. Jumbo, and the Medici troupe. While I thought it worked well, I feel like this might be a “your mileage may vary” sort of thing.
Dumbo himself is cute, and the emotional beats of the film hit as hard, if not harder, than the original. The themes of broken and chosen families, again, are well explored in Burton’s filmography, but they’re played so effectively here that it feels more like a strength than a weakness to have experience handling these themes.
Many of Burton’s usual collaborators behind the scenes are back, including composer Danny Elfman. While other Disney remakes felt compelled to shove the original musical numbers into the narrative regardless of whether it made sense (like The Jungle Book), Elfman instead elects to bring songs back through ideas and motifs in the score, with notable exceptions of tear-jerker Baby Mine and a brilliant reinterpretation of Pink Elephants.
Some of the narrative threads, like a romance between Holt and Colette, never get the screen time needed to feel earned. Despite being vital to the story, the performances from the kids in the film are disappointingly flat, and while I respect and appreciate the direction Milly’s science fascination and independence was going for, it came off very one-dimensional and shoehorned in execution. But I consider these asterisks, like with the original, that seldom take away from the overall enjoyable experience of the film.
I really enjoyed this version of Dumbo, giant ears and all. I’m happy Tim Burton got to apply his quirks in a way that sparked my imagination and delivered the emotional gut punch Dumbo has always been known for. Where the film falls short, it ultimately falls short in the attempt to do something different, which I vastly prefer to succeeding at copying something that already exists. Maybe this Dumbo doesn’t soar, but to borrow from another Disney film I hope doesn’t get a live-action remake, it’s certainly falling with style.
Like the titular character, Dumbo has flaws and isn’t a perfect specimen. But it goes new places and succeeds in hitting old emotional beats hard.