Disney’s 1941 animated classic, Dumbo, about a baby elephant whose large ears earn him scorn and then acclaim when he uses them to fly, has something to teach young and old alike. Bullies eventually get taken down. A good friend, even one as small as a mouse, can offer support through the toughest times. The most impossible goal can be reached with faith and determination. And, of course, there’s nothing stronger than the bond between a mother and her baby.
Similar lessons can be found in Disney’s new live action version, but one has to struggle not to get lost amidst all the special effects and overacting turned in by a cast that should have been given better material to work with. Director Tim Burton’s fingerprints are all over the film, but unlike Edward Scissorhands, where the audience was drawn in and able to empathize with the character, we never feel the emotional pull that was so essential to the enduring quality of the animated version. (One tip off: I cried every time I watched the original movie, as a child and then later with my children. I got through this screening dry-eyed.)
Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, and Finley Hobbs
When the film opens, we see a map marking a route for the Medici Bros. Circus. (The journey begins in Sarasota, Florida, once home of the Ringling Brothers Circus.) Medici’s operation has fallen on hard times. The train carrying the performers looks beaten up, the signs on the car exteriors advertising the acts are faded, like so many of the stars. Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), once a top-billed horse rider, is returning to the show after losing his left arm in World War I. While he was gone, his wife died from influenza, and he’s now a single father to son Joe (Finley Hobbins), and daughter Milly (Nico Parker).
Dumbo and his mother
Max Medici (Danny DeVito), in a last ditch effort to save his show, has purchased Jumbo, a pregnant female elephant. What could be more crowd-pleasing than a baby elephant? But Jumbo Jr., eventually dubbed Dumbo, arrives with those outsized ears that elicit gasps of horror, even from the jaded circus veterans, including one who makes it his job to torment both mother and child. When Jumbo lashes out, she’s chained and separated from Dumbo. Miss Atlantis (Sharon Rooney) strums a guitar and sings “Baby Mine,” while Dumbo snuggles into his mother’s trunk that is dangling down between the bars of her cage. (Keeping the camera focused on Rooney rather than on the elephants robs the scene of the heartbreaking moment felt in the original film.)
Without his mother, Dumbo is adopted by Joe and, particularly, Milly, whose interest in science prompts her to regard the baby elephant as a challenging puzzle to solve. (This theme – girls in STEM – is such a blatant attempt to graft contemporary issues onto what looks like a period piece, that it lands with a thud.) When Dumbo inhales a feather and sneezes violently, thus elevating his body to such an extent that he flies, the children are thrilled. No one, including their father, will believe that Dumbo can fly. But when the baby pachyaderm is added to a clown act that places him on a mile-high platform that catches fire, Milly climbs a ladder, gives him a feather, and soon Dumbo is flying over the heads of an astonished crowd. Tickets to future performances sell out, and the Medici Circus is saved.
Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito
With Dumbo’s fame spreading, it’s just a matter of time before someone appears to buy out Medici. V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), offers Max what is essentially an M&A takeover bid. For shares in Vandevere’s company, the circus and all its performers will be folded into his Dreamland theme park. (That the over-the-top entertainment complex bears a resemblance to the actual Disneyland seems odd, particularly when events there take a turn for the worse.)
Eva Green and Dumbo
Rather than letting Dumbo fly solo, Vandevere insists that his girlfriend, Colette (Eva Green), an aerialist, ride on the elephant’s back. Holt and his children struggle to get the act to work, but poor Dumbo, still missing his mother, is stressed out over the entire ordeal. When V.A. reveals his true colors, telling Max that all the other performers have to go, even Collette joins the movement to reunite Dumbo with his mother and free them from circus life.
Burton manages to work in other references to the animated original. Timothy, the cartoon mouse who befriended Dumbo, now appears as a real mouse, dressed in his signature red coat as one of Milly’s pets. The pink elephants that appeared when Dumbo got slightly tipsy now show up in soap bubbles during one of the acts. Neither reference is particularly effective, and only those familiar with the earlier Dumbo will recognize their significance.
Making Dumbo a live action film results in humans drawing the spotlight away from the animals. The CGI Dumbo is adorable and conveys plenty of feeling through his expressive eyes. But he’s never the center of the story, as he should be. And having him fly so early in the film robs the narrative of the anticipation we felt in the original, waiting for that miracle to happen.
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios