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Review: Dumbo

March 28, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Tim Burton’s Dumbo, the latest in Disney’s lineup of live action retellings of their earlier classics, serves as more of a reimagining of the 1941 animated film than it does a straight up remake.

This is not to say that the film strays quite as far from the original as something like David Lowery’s take on Pete’s Dragon, which bore little if any resemblance to its earlier counterpart.

But it is closer in tone to Jon Favreau’s updated retelling of The Jungle Book, which paid tribute to its predecessor without directly copying it, than it is to something like their live action Beauty and the Beast, which at times was essentially a shot-for-shot remake of the already beloved animated film.

For starters, there are no talking animals in this version of Dumbo, and the role of Timothy Q. Mouse is reduced to a mere cameo. There are no storks delivering babies or stereotyped singing crows, and no anthropomorphic choo-choo train. The animated film also clocked in at just over an hour long, where as this version runs close to two hours. This obviously means that Burton has added a lot more plot to the film, and for the most part, his approach works in a way that allows it to feel more like a companion piece to the original rather than anything close to a replacement.

So I guess the real question that everyone wants answered is if this version is worth seeing, and for me the answer to that is yes, as I tend to find Burton’s artistic voice to be an interesting one. The director’s usual stylistic visual flair is on full display here, and he also brings a personal touch to this material that wasn’t really present in something like his big budget take on Alice in Wonderland, which he also made for Disney. But I can also see why others will walk away from his Dumbo feeling disappointed, especially if they are expecting something that is closer to the animated version, as Burton certainly does put his own unique spin on the story.

The bulk of this film is actually built around a new cast of human characters, who have been added to fill out the story. The film centres around Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), who returns from World War I to his home at the circus, where his two kids Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) are waiting for him, having lost their mother to illness. Holt was a famed horse rider at the circus, but having lost his arm in the war, he is no longer able to perform. The ringleader, Max Medici (Danny DeVito), decides to cut the equestrian act to save money, and instead puts Holt in charge of the stables, where he has just brought in a pregnant mother elephant named Jumbo.

When Baby Jumbo is born, his gigantic ears make him the laughingstock of the circus, and he is given the nickname Dumbo, until Milly and Joe realize that his ears also give him the ability to fly and turn him into a main attraction. This attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a corporate tycoon who makes an offer to buy out the failing circus, and wants to put his girlfriend, French trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green), at the centre of an act with the flying elephant. But when Dumbo’s mother gets taken from him and locked away after accidentally causing a stampede in the big tent, the baby elephant longs for nothing more than to be reunited with her.

I’m actually glad that Burton opted not to go the route of just trying to copy every single moment from the original film, and while not every choice that he makes here works equally well, his decision to forge ahead along a new path makes Dumbo much more interesting in terms of a remake. Burton also seems deeply aware of the ethics around making a movie about elephants in the circus in this day and age, and the film becomes a surprisingly powerful statement against exploiting animals and using living creatures for entertainment. In the original, Dumbo’s ultimate goal was to be accepted within the circus, where as this one is about him seeking complete liberation from it.

At the centre of the film are the impressive visual effects that are able to bring Dumbo to life in a live action world, with the animators having successfully turned him into a deeply expressive and almost photorealistic computer generated creation, while still recognizably modelling him off of the original drawings. But despite the technical wizardry of its main character, the film also has a sort of old school grandeur to it, with the visually striking production design and colourful costumes by Colleen Atwood offering a feast for the eyes. The large scale practical sets that were built for the circus are spectacular, and give the film the feel of an Old Hollywood production.

The fairly simple plot does feel somewhat stretched thin at close to two hours, and the human characters are mostly rudimentary and not really that fleshed out, and at times it feels like Dumbo himself gets a bit sidelined by everything that is happening around him. But I still found much to like within Tim Burton’s Dumbo, from the impressive production design to the positive animal rights message, and there is also a gentle quality to the film that did tonally remind me of the original animated classic.

While this film forgoes being a musical, Burton’s frequent collaborator Danny Elfman is able to work in cues from some of the original film’s songs throughout his lovely score, ending with an amazing, ethereal cover of “Baby Mine” by Arcade Fire over the end credits. At its heart, this new take on Dumbo is still a bittersweet and slightly melancholic story of a misfit seeking acceptance for his differences and longing to be reunited with his mother, and these aspects of the timeless story remain fully intact.

Dumbo is opening tomorrow in theatres across Canada.

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