Disney fans with a good in-depth knowledge would be aware that this year has at least two films that are live-action adaptations of some of their classic movies from the Animated Canon. Well there is technically a third but the cinematographic technique there is sort of complex, but we digress. Anyway, the first of those 2019 Disney live-action adaptations premiered last week. This is the present company’s take on the fourth animated movie from the old Disney overseen by Walt himself. The original, itself based on a book, is a heartwarming modern fable of a cute flying elephant named Dumbo.
If you think the live-action “Dumbo” will be something of the same the best answer would be both yes and no. For one thing this project was directed by Tim Burton, famed to all movie buffs for his inspired but mostly-gothic visuals in almost all his works, like “Edward Scissorhands” and the two live-action Disney “Alice” films, all with Johnny Depp. At the same time, the early 20th-Century setting of “Dumbo” is remarkably bright at times. Burton also injects “realism” in the movie by doing away with the original’s talking animals. This also necessitated that human characters take the spotlight equally with lead character Dumbo.
Speaking of which, to best characterize Dumbo, a baby elephant ridiculed for his oversized ears but who has gained an amazing ability because of them, Disney went the CGI route for him, with props and green-suit actors helping the human cast relate to him on scene. Adding the post-production work, the results are rather uncanny, with the elephant calf Dumbo having both photorealistic wrinkled skin but larger than usual eyes, the better to carry emotions. And they certainly do, with the few times he looks adorably sad and confident as his circumstances change and he becomes aware of his gift.
That he does with the help of a new element in his story’s live-action retelling. This time, instead of a talking mouse in a circus bandmaster’s getup (he is still around, but as a normal mouse and pet) Dumbo is supported by a circus family: his primary caretaker Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his children, the scientifically-inclined Milly (Nico Parker) and semi-hyper son Joe (Finley Hobbins). They are a family defined by losses, both physical and emotional, but they are able to use their own pains to form a connection and camaraderie with baby Dumbo that comes across as heartwarming.
It is interesting to note that most of the plot elements in the original cartoon movie are addressed in the earlier half of the film. Where Dumbo only shows his flying ability near the end to become a circus star, this time he discovers it while there is still more running-time left. The popularity he gains this time leads to catching the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a showman entrepreneur who owns a theme park in 1919; kind of like Walt Disney if he were a blatantly corrupt businessman.
The major conflict arrives in the latter half when Vandevere makes to acquire Dumbo for his Dreamland theme park by buying the circus that owns him and ostensibly making its well-meaning ringmaster Max Medici (Danny De Vito) his partner. But the Farrier children see something sinister afoot, even as more pressure is put upon Dumbo who deep down is still missing his mother. Trying to present an added friendly face is Dreamland’s star performer, the trapeze artist Collette (Eva Green), but when she sees the lengths Vandevere would take to get what he wants, even her loyalty may be tested.
While the “Dumbo” remake added plenty in the human element to make up for the removal of the whimsical stuff from the animation, Burton and the production team did try to sneak in a few things to keep the spirit of the 1941 original. Musical numbers become soundtrack leitmotifs, though the heart-tugging “Baby Mine” remains an in-universe song, vital as it is to Dumbo’s characterization.
As we conclude this review of “Dumbo,” we cannot help but acknowledge what so many other reviewers caught. The parallels between the plotline of Dumbo’s circus being bought up by Vandevere’s Dreamland to acquire a particular asset, and the real-life acquisition by Disney of the major media assets from Fox, are too close to ignore. What this entails can be up to the viewer’s interpretation. The in-movie deal is presented as a bad thing for Dumbo, but the real-life company asset merger does not have to be the same way.
I also volunteer another real-life factor affecting the film. Its final ending departs from that of the animation. All I will offer without spoilers is to bring up that in this decade we have seen the closing of famous circuses due to both declining audiences and the rise of animal groups agitating for the release of these companies’ trained animals. “Dumbo” shows a nostalgic picture of retro circus life in its storyline, and hammers home the fact that it no longer seems to work that way in these modern times.
Image courtesy of National Review