The original film was a short tale of a little elephant learning to live without his mother in this cruel world, dealing with others making fun of his appearance and learning how to embrace what would make him special. The Burton retelling of this film has that same core element, but broadens the scope to include more of the human characters that were only briefly glimpsed in the animated film. While the original story beats still hold the retelling to a certain timeline of events, the broader aspect and focus allows the storyteller to go a bit further into morals and lessons.
To start, I’ll give a spoiler free overview of the film. I don’t really follow film and tend to gloss over technical elements such as cinematography and color palette. I can say that the last Burton film I really enjoyed was Sweeny Todd (2007) and Big Eyes (2014), which I never even realized was a Burton film because it didn’t have many of the elements that typically point to him as a part of a film. The Alice films were never my cup of tea - I didn’t even bother with any past the first one because I just did not care for the weirdness of that film - and I never got around to watching Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The little I can tell you of some of the “Burton” films is that they are typically odd, dark in both tone and color, and some interesting uses of computer graphics or visual effects. With Dumbo, we have a mix of these elements.
The movie sticks with the baby elephant being separated from its mother, but also explores the human characters that inhabit a circus. The highlights of the animated film, including the Casey Jr. map scene, Baby Mine, and Pink Elephants are hit really well; however, the statement of seeing a horsefly, dragonfly, and housefly was given to us by the most disappointing casting of a character. I am happy this wasn’t a beat by beat remake, though I wish there was a bit more development to allow the story to hit the marks it wanted to hit.
While it’s not a dark film, in fact the color palette, while muted, does explore the uses of bright reds, deep blues, and vibrant yellows, there are some pretty dark tones for a Disney film based on an animated film from the Nine Old Men, including the death of a character pretty early on. There are a lot of players in this movie too, but a couple that mainly stick out. Danny Devito’s character lends some hints of humor while Colin Farrell’s character gives us the sympathetic hero coming back from war to a home that is not the same as when he left. There are also the children, who honestly were inconsequential to the movie. I feel they place in two kids but divided the personality between the two that neither felt truly fleshed out, and I didn’t really care for the direction they gave to the daughter. Overall, the addition of humans didn’t do much for the story.
There were also some really bad CG animation moments that made me question what the budget was on this film. The movie definitely had a lot of story to tell, but it felt as if it wanted to tell more and edits precluded that. There were characters that were made to seem important but were never given a lot of time. And despite being the titular character, we don’t spend nearly enough time with Dumbo. While he didn’t talk in the original animated one either, we got more interaction with him because we saw him through Timothy the mouse’s point of view and animals speaking to other animals made sense. It felt as if they didn’t want to commit to having the viewer suspend disbelief and accept that these humans and baby elephant can understand each other. I’m not sure if this would have been the better route because without it, you are left with little Dumbo in the Dumbo film.
Ok, so what is the verdict here? I can’t honestly say. The movie left zero impression on me - which can be both good and bad. It didn’t hit me as hard as Alice to the extent where I was like well, that was a waste. However, it did not impress me to the extent that Jungle Book did (I know I’m jumping directors so maybe say Big Eyes or Corpse Bride). I will say that it’s crazy that the studio that made Jungle Book, whose animated animals looked super realistic, put out Dumbo where the CG animals looks completely rubbery and pasted into the human world. I think it’s worth seeing if you have kids and want to bring them to the movies. I don’t think it’s one you have to rush out to see. And if you were a big Dumbo fan, I truly wonder how this will impact you because it doesn’t trash the original but it extends the original story enough to make it more of a retelling rather than a straight remake.
Want to talk spoilers? Ok - let’s discuss SPOILERS.
First, I really didn’t care for the daughter in this film. I believe it was summed up best by saying she acted like Athena did in Tomorrowland; however, this character was later revealed to be a robot, hence the oddness of her acting made sense. The daughter in Dumbo was not a robot, so her acting like a robot was not great. Danny Devito was stand out - he was the spark of humor that was missing in many other characters. I didn’t get a chance to connect with Farrell’s or Green’s characters, which is bad since they’re behind some of the bigger moments in the film. While Green was lovely as always, it was hard to determine whether she was a good guy or bad guy and where she fell in the plot. Farrell just didn’t hit it for me - he could have been replaced with any other actor and I wouldn’t have noticed. Keaton was great but the big business villain has been done a lot and there was no “twist” in the reveal that he wasn’t on the up and up. So overall, the characters were lacking, which is disappointing since the promise of this film seemed to be the focus of the human characters in the circus surrounding Dumbo.
I do want to talk about the “lessons” of the film, since that seemed to be a big part of what Burton was trying to do here - teach us something. What that was could be a little weird in a Disney film, however. We still have the basic lesson of not judging someone/something just because it looks different than you or seems a little funny. There’s a little more to this with Farrell’s character - who comes back from war missing his arm and is judged for this, first by his kids and then by everyone else’s stares. He’s also not allowed to go back to his old circus act of riding horses and is instead placed in charge of the elephants. Yet, the way he is prevented from returning to his act doesn’t streamline into the moral of not judging someone by their appearance and thinking a disability automatically equals a handicap - it’s because they literally don’t have the horses anymore so he couldn’t show he could ride again even if he wanted to. If the film had played it that he wasn’t allowed to ride, instead of just not having access to the horses, it would have been great to see Farrell overcome this injury and prove he could still ride, wowwing everyone with his talent again. When he does eventually get up on a horse, it just misses that moment of punch and pizzaz.
The lesson behind Keaton’s villain is probably the most interesting. So the setup is Keaton runs a theme park essentially - he brings people to the circus rather than doing the “old fashioned” bring the circus to the people on a train across the country. Of course, his main problem is the need for funding/money, so greed colors his actions and the need to make money at any cost plays into his motivations and actions. The villain goes to the extent of sacrificing safety for money and inventing animals to attract customers - so, what is the movie saying about the person who literally created a theme park destination where families spend their hard earned money on frivolities? It’s an odd juxtaposition to sit in a theater in Walt Disney World and see this portrayed on the screen. It really makes me wonder who signed off on this one.
So there it is - overall, a decent movie but nothing to exclaim over. I think this will honestly take the Mary Poppins Returns route and coast through the box office with no major hits or dips. People are really just biding their time till Endgame. There will be more to discuss, so tune in for our audio review on this week’s podcast where I will get more voices to give their own opinions on Dumbo - stay tuned!!