A young elephant, whose oversized ears enable him to fly, helps save a struggling circus, but when the circus plans a new venture, Dumbo and his friends discover dark secrets beneath its shiny veneer. (via IMDb)
Dumbo, Walt Disney’s fourth animated feature, is a beloved film. It tells the story of a baby elephant who is ridiculed for is enlarged ears but learns to embrace his differences and gains the confidence to be himself. When it was announced that this cherished classic was going to be remade with Tim Burton at the helm, I thought he was the best director to bring everyone’s favorite baby pachyderm to live-action. I was mistaken in my assumption.
Until my recent rewatch of the 1941 original, I forgot how bright and colorful the film was. Vivid watercolors brought the world to life. Towards the end of the film is the famous “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence. This psychedelic scene is what I remembered most about Dumbo and why I believed Burton was a perfect fit for the remake. However, looking back at the original, as well as Burton’s past filmography, the styles couldn’t be more different. Burton didn’t stray away from his usual visual style so the colors were very neutral and muted. Compared to the source material, it’s a stark contrast.
If you don’t remember, Walt’s Dumbo clocks in at 63 minutes. One reason why it was able to have such a comparatively short run time is because it completely focuses on the titular Dumbo, maintaining a minimal list of side characters. Burton’s take can’t decide if it wants to put the spotlight on Dumbo, elephant trainer Holt Farrier (Collin Farrell), or his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). This lack of focus creates a lack of cohesion. No one character feels fully developed. And in a sense, that doesn’t make Dumbo’s own movie about him. Rather, he is used more as a device to move the story along.
With any remake, there is should be a fresh take on the source material or expansion of the story. Burton opts for the latter. He moves the second half of the movie away from the circus and to an amusement park run by Michael Keaton’s mustache-twirling entertainment mogul VA Vandevere. This creates even more complexity in the story, and attempts add depth to Danny DeVito’s character, making the story even less focused.
I should probably at least talk about some of the things I like before you think I’m eviscerating the film. Even with not knowing who exactly to focus its attention on, it does tell its story through Milly and Joe. This works well because it allows the audience to see and experience the awe of a flying elephant through a child’s point-of-view.
Dumbo, along with the other CGI animals, all look fantastic. Burton does have an eye for grandeur, so both the circus environment and Vandevere’s amusement park, aptly called Dreamland, feel big and boisterous. Despite my feelings about Burton’s style for the film, his style was well suited to make an elephant fly and the environments feel fantastical.
I thought Dumbo was OK 😐 I don’t mean to compare it to the 1941 original so much but when Disney’s goal is explicitly to adapt their animated classic into live-action, it’s hard not to. And when you compare the two, there really is no comparison. I do appreciate Tim Burton’s effort to add to the original story and adding his own style to it. Unfortunately, in doing so, he removed much of what makes the original so timeless and revered.
Cast & Crew
Tim Burton – Director
Ehren Kruger – Screenplay
Danny Elfman – Composer
Collin Farrell – Holt Farrier
Nico Parker – Milly Farrier
Finley Hobbins – Joe Farrier
Danny DeVito – Max Medici
Michael Keaton – VA Vandevere
Eva Green – Colette Marchant
Alan Arkin – J. Griffin Remington
Roshan Seth – Pramesh Singh
Deobia Oparei – Rongo
Sharon Rooney – Miss Atlantis