When you think of Tim Burton, the last thing one would think of would be a family film about flying elephants, but in the grand scheme of things, the man has done it all — from superheroes like Batman to serial killers in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, or even in the realm of stop motion animation with Corpse Bride, the man has quite a varied history behind him, and it’s knowing that which brings us to this week’s new release of Dumbo, a remake of the 1941 Disney classic, itself an adaptation of a novel by Helen Aberson.
A traveling circus, owned by Max Medici (Danny DeVito, Matilda), is in the pits following the First World War — it’s even hit one of his best performers, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks), who has returned home without his left arm, or a stable relationship with his young children. As recompense for his act being scrapped, Medici has him caring for the circus’ lone elephant, who is expecting. Upon the birth of her pachyderm, the crew of the circus is taken aback by the new elephant’s massive ears, but in a surprise discovery by Holt’s children, the elephant can fly, setting off a chain reaction in the universe of showbusiness, and all that it implies.
Loads of pundits were unsure as to how Tim Burton would make Dumbo work in his style and vision, and pleasingly, it’s one of his more charming films, and certainly his most accessible. Relying on greenscreen backdrops but real props and sets, something is always happening in the 1.85:1 frame, and it’s well appreciated. Screenwriter Ehren Kruger, finally getting a break from Bayhem, writes sincerely and lovingly in his Disney debut, making a charming yarn that satisfies the child in all of us while giving a healthy dose of empathy for the lonely outcasts that have become a staple of Burton’s work.
The cast is largely in great form — Farrell plays Farrier as a lost soul, trying so desperately to be useful as father and performer in spite of a war injury, but doesn’t overplay his character’s suffering to caricature. The actors playing his children, Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, may seem stoic to people expecting dynamic performances, but that wouldn’t suit their characters well — if you want Camp Broadway kids, look elsewhere. DeVito, making his first Disney film since 1997’s Hercules, is comedic as Medici, but not hammy, while Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice) , working with Burton for the first time since Batman Returns, is creepy as domineering entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere, a villain that symbolizes corporate greed (of an apolitical type, don’t worry). Leading lady Eva Green (Penny Dreadful), in her third collaboration with Burton, is a little hastily transformed in her arc, but in the end, what she does makes sense — unlike a certain sidekick in 2017’s Beauty and the Beast.
There is one small bee under my bonnet regarding this film, and it will pester many Disney buffs and especially those who grew up in the age of when Disneyland was a new concept — there appears, at a glance, to be a lot of Walt Disney himself in the villainous Vandevere. The knee-jerk reaction is to think such a way, what with the use of an amusement park in the film’s second half as a sort of prison, but let’s be realistic — would The Walt Disney Company allow an attempt, intentional or otherwise, to slander their founder and scion? Rather, I see the park as a metaphor for the horrors of sideshow attractions of the 1920s, Coney Island-style, and I further see Vandevere as more of a caricature of the Thomas Edisons of the world, a despicable sort that Walt Disney did not fall into. If not that, it could arguably be an extension of Burton’s previously exhibited dislike for cookie-cutter perfection (see also: Edward Scissorhands, Frankenweenie) and life in a cage, physical and metaphorical (see also: Sleepy Hollow, Big Eyes), and the use of electric wonders as a surrogate for evil may be a reference to Kruger’s work on the Transformers saga.
Much like how Hugo was for Martin Scorsese — or even Jersey Boys for Clint Eastwood — Dumbo is an unexpected career move for Tim Burton, and while it bears all the hallmarks of his previous work, it’s still a film very near and dear to his heart. Potential controversy (and a useless salute to the song Pink Elephants on Parade) notwithstanding, it’s still a kindly, inspiring movie that will appeal to all people in need of an escape to gentler times.