Tim Burton’s lavish Dumbo remake is a visually stunning update that captures the sorrow and joy of the original.
Best known for quirky modern fairy tales like Edward Scissorhands and Alice in Wonderland, Burton seems like the ideal choice to tackle Disney’s melancholy cartoon about a lonely circus elephant. The famously whimsical director revels in the film’s vintage carnivals, his camera panning grandly around circus tents, across glittering amusement parks, and through the creepier corners of theme park sideshows. Frequent collaborator Danny Elfman contributes a characteristically carnivalesque score with welcome touches of menace.
But it’s the film’s core of sadness that puts Dumbo firmly in Tim Burton’s wheelhouse.
Dumbo begins on a bleak note as horseback-rider Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns to his home at the Medici Brothers’ Circus, physically and psychologically damaged from the war. He’s lost an arm in France (a disability which the film handles tastefully), but that’s the least of his concerns: in the intervening years, his wife has died, and the circus has fallen on hard times. Ringmaster Max Medici (poignantly played by Danny DeVito) has been run ragged trying to keep the place afloat, forcing his strongman to moonlight as an accountant and selling off the show-horses. Once a show-stopping trick rider, Holt finds himself demoted to elephant-wrangler.
The birth of a baby elephant provides the troupe with some hope, especially after it’s revealed that the creature’s oversized ears double as wings. Dumbo the Flying Elephant soon puts Medici Brothers’ on the map – and in the sights of sleazy showman V.A. Vandevere.
Dumbo is exceptionally well-cast. DeVito is a perfect pick for the run-down ringmaster, and Michael Keaton is convincing as a manic theme park owner whose delusions of grandeur are collapsing around him. (Alan Arkin, as a fed-up financier, is a perfect foil). Farrell is also touching as a troubled father struggling to reconnect with his grieving kids.
For aspiring scientist Milly and her brother Joe, the Dumbo drama is a welcome distraction from the listless figure of their depressed father, who seems to have lost a part of his identity along with everything else. (My heart broke a bit when in one scene where Joe suggested that a despondent Dumbo “wants to be alone, like Dad.”)
The script has several throwaway lines like that, quietly brilliant snatches of dialogue which throw the characters into stark relief. The best comes as Vandevere is trying to con Max into a merger: leading him into a field and placing a hand on his shoulder with an unearned familiarity, Vandevere admits, “I know there’s no Medici brother. You probably always wanted one.” It reveals a touching truth about Max, and a more sinister one about Vandevere.
The tale is populated by dozens of other colourful characters: charming trapeze artists, wannabe mermaids, a compassionate snake-charmer, and a frightening group of clowns that bring to mind the disturbing dream sequences from Burton’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. (These slice-of-life scenes with the sideshow performers recall a kindler, gentler version of the 1932 horror classic Freaks – it would have been nice to spend more time with them.)
There’s a lot to like here as a Burton fan, although I can’t shake the feeling that he could have made a truly haunting film if he’d been allowed to unleash his darker instincts. That said, Dumbo’s still quite dark for a modern children’s movie, with an undercurrent of loss running throughout.
That’s not to say Dumbo won’t delight kids, especially animal lovers. The film’s titular pachyderm is incredibly cute and more than a little sad; with floppy ears and fearful, watering eyes, it’s no wonder Dumbo brings out protective instincts of the troupe. The flight scenes are charming, and the thrilling rescue that forms the film’s climax makes Free Willy seem leisurely.
Overall, Burton’s Dumbo is well-written, well-acted, and manages to mix pathos with visual bombast. It’s worth seeing in theatres for the spectacular imagery alone. (Stick around for the credits to hear Arcade Fire’s cover of “Baby Mine,” which updates the Disney lullaby with a dreamlike, Roy Orbison-esque arrangement.)
Director: Tim Burton