***1/2 out of ****
(for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language)
Released: March 29, 2019
Runtime: 112 minutes
Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Joseph Gatt, Douglas Reith, Roshan Seth, Deobia Oparei, Sharon Rooney
There are right ways and wrong ways for Disney to transform classics from its animated catalogue into live action features. Dumbo does it right.
Some haven’t. When a remake is forced to virtually carbon copy the original – as Beauty and the Beast did – the result is a pale, lifeless mimicry. Recent trailers seem to suggest that Aladdin and The Lion King might follow the same course. A revisionist spin can also leave a sour taste; Maleficent did so when it turned every heroic character from Sleeping Beauty into a villain (thus misunderstanding what made Broadway’s Wicked work).
But when a visionary director is given free rein to infuse new life into an original concept, staying true to the heart and spirit of the source while also reimagining it (i.e. Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon), then something special and worthwhile can be born. It imbues the revisit of something so iconic with actual purpose and meaning.
Tim Burton is allowed to do just that with Dumbo, the post-WWI story of a newborn circus elephant whose enormous ears make him the target of teasing and ridicule…that is, of course, until those enormous flappy lobes help him to fly.
The result is a magical marriage between Burton’s sensibilities and Disney’s, a visually vibrant, playfully quirky, and deeply heartfelt emotional marvel, exactly the kind of family film you hope for with Disney’s imprimatur. It’s also Burton’s best movie in over a decade.
Both a remake and sequel all-in-one, Burton’s Dumbo takes the plot of the 1941 original, tells it from the humans’ perspective rather than the animals, and then explores where that story could go after its (literally) soaring finale.
Clever references are made in this update’s First Act Remake (the storks at Dumbo’s birth, to name one), others are ingeniously tweaked (like the Pink Elephants On Parade bubbles), and still others smartly sidelined (the “black” crow caricatures, although their best lines are nicely repurposed).
It’s a well-balanced ensemble, too. Colin Ferrell is the default lead as Holt, a single dad war veteran of two children, one of whom (the daughter) feels trapped by the gypsy circus life. Their fellow carnies are a motley-but-sweet clan of freak show outcasts, mainstream exiles who find affectionate solidarity with Dumbo against the crueler world, all led by the capitalistically brash circus master Max Medici, played by Danny DeVito in a comic tour de force.
Medici is sort of like DeVito’s Louie De Palma from Taxi but more brusque than abrasive, done with a subtle wink, and ultimately a softie. It’s the kind of screen-owning showcase that, had this been released during the holidays, might have garnered DeVito some Supporting Oscar buzz.
Then, in the film’s second-and-third act sequel, the narrative expands past Dumbo’s first flight (which, in itself, is so packed with feels that it slapped a big smile on my face) to explore the kind of opportunity that such a headline-grabbing phenomenon would lead to: a corporate buyout.
Wealthy showman magnate V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) gives Medici an offer he can’t refuse: a permanent home for his traveling circus, troupe, and flying pachyderm at the extravagant Dreamland, a palatial Shangri La utopia of roadshow entertainment, with Vandevere’s Taj Mahal styled mansion at the center (that proves an effective symbol, too, considering how that India landmark is both museum and tomb).
Indeed, it’s all a dream come true for everyone…until the inevitable post-takeover fallout kicks in, not the least of which is the threat of Dumbo being torn apart from his mother Jumbo.
Setting aside how this scenario ends up working as a shockingly ill-timed yet eerily on-point metaphor for the Disney-Fox studio merger, it becomes a truly transportive experience like only Tim Burton can deliver. The production and costume designs are particularly ravishing here (and also Oscar-buzz worthy), especially when blown-up to IMAX’s full-scale canvas, as they pop in a more colorful version of Burton’s signature gothic deco aesthetic, all beautifully shot. (I gasped a reflexive “wow” on more than a few occasions.)
Key to it all is that the story and characters are never drowned by the spectacle, perhaps directly because these outcasts are exactly the kind that Burton identifies with and can sincerely sentimentalize. Burton wisely keeps the Jumbo-Dumbo / Mother-Son relationship squarely at the film’s poignant heart, and thankfully, too, since Nico Parker – the young actress that plays Milly, Holt’s daughter, who cares and fights for Dumbo – is a bit stiff and emotionally flat.
Dumbo is a wonderful, rewarding example of why I still go to the movies, rather than waiting for them to be streamed to me at home. Granted, Dumbo is so good that it’ll resonate in any format, big screen or small, but you won’t get its full experience – which is also a shared, communal one – anywhere else other than a theater. In every respect, Dumbo is worthy to be seen under the multiplex Big Top.