Tim Burton’s ‘Dumbo’ Tranforms a Disney Classic Into a Mammoth Spectacle

Tim Burton‘s “Dumbo” continues Disney’s revival of its cherished animated catalogue as new, live-action spectacles. This was always going to be a more challenging proposition than “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Jungle Book” because the original 1941 “Dumbo” is merely an hour and four minutes long. That was just enough space to tell its endearing, heartbreaking and triumphant fable of a baby elephant with enormous ears, capable of flying and seeking its imprisoned mother. This 2019 “Dumbo” is a reimagining that expands the story, adds new characters and becomes a circus epic with dynamic vistas. Burton was the perfect choice to direct, because this tale fits perfectly with his taste for the weird and freakish. He keeps the heart of the premise, delivering a lively family film, yet his signature strangeness is all around.

This time the story is set in 1919. Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from World War I, missing an arm, to the traveling circus troupe he used to call home. His children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) are eager to see him, but are at first taken aback by his injury. Farrier also discovers that his wife passed away during the great Spanish flu outbreak. Running the circus is Max Medici (Danny DeVito), a natural showman who has bought a pregnant elephant, Mrs. Jumbo. When she gives birth the result is a big-eared baby elephant that provokes gasps all around. Medici panics and immediately sells Mrs. Jumbo back to her original owner, leaving the baby, dubbed “Dumbo” by mean audiences, orphaned. Milly and Joe start caring for the somber but loveable baby and soon discover he can use his big ears to fly (if prompted to grab a feather). Medici and Farrier soon realize they have something special, as does a greedy tycoon named V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton). Vandevere offers to bring Medici’s whole troupe to his enormous theme park, Dreamland, where he plans to exhibit Dumbo alongside his aerial acrobat, trophy girlfriend Colette (Eva Green). Of course the tycoon only cares about profits, no matter the cost. Meanwhile Dumbo only longs for one thing, to find his mother.

The original “Dumbo” worked like a small bedtime story, made by Walt Disney to recoup financial losses from the massive production that was “Fantasia.” It told a simple story with cheerful animation. One would have to be truly cold-hearted not to feel for poor Dumbo in the way he’s animated, with tears flowing down his cheeks while he misses Mrs. Jumbo. Tim Burton and writer Ehren Kruger take the skeleton of the tale and use it to build a nearly two hour mammoth of color and light. On the surface this is a standard Disney spectacle, delivering the popcorn goods for families in the audience. We get the heroic kids who defy the evil adult villains, the good-hearted dad (Farrell) who must overcome his own obstacles, and a subtle love interest with the always luminous Eva Green. Wisely the film avoids making the animals talk, the gossiping lady elephants from the original work just fine in animation. There’s no street smart mouse either. The story this time around is really about the humans. As in the original, there is an interesting theme of motherhood running through out. Milly and Joe have lost their mother, but find a maternal bond with Dumbo, who has also lost his own parent. Dumbo becomes a true dependent in this version, with Burton using POV shots to show his disorientation when observing the adult world around him. Returning from war, Farrell’s Farrier must now prove himself against a different sort of opponent, the evil Vandevere and also overcome the handicap of having lost an arm. Michael Keaton is having pure fun as a villainous man of enterprise, snarling and grinning while emerging from a limousine. We’ve seen this sort of story many times before, in different forms, but Burton manages to make it engaging with his particular style.

It is as spectacle that “Dumbo” truly soars. Burton is one of those filmmakers with such a unique voice that his style is instantly recognizable, including in the work of directors attempting to imitate. Even when making an obvious box office project like this, Burton still makes the material his own. The tent pole circus world becomes baroque and rich, with elements that are both eerie and alluring. The opening shots are a fun homage to the original movie, as the Medici circus train crisscrosses maps and we see the various freaks and attractions on display, from mermaids quoting Shakespeare underwater to strongmen lifting giant weights. Once the action moves to Dreamland the film takes on the scope of a classic 1940s production, with squadrons of marching clowns and theme park buildings that look taken from pulp sci-fi. Burton also finds ways to render tribute to the first movie with originality. That classic original scene of Dumbo going to see his mother in the cart where she is chained is brought back to life, only this time instead of the song “Baby Mine” being sung over the soundtrack, it is performed nearby, next to a campfire by a circus troupe member. Burton regular Danny Elfman’s score has his usual, choral strangeness but also wonderful little winks at the 1941 score. There is light humor all around, avoiding flatness and being genuinely chuckle-inducing.

But what about the main attraction? Digital animation has reached a point where we rarely question whether Dumbo is real. He’s designed with loving attention, in particular his expressions through the eyes. Broken hearts can be predicted in scenes where he lies on the ground, sniffing peanuts with his trunk, or when he’s made to put on clown makeup for a death-defying stunt. When he lifts off the ground it’s hard to deny the scenes are exciting, or that there is suspense when Eva Green first tries to ride our hero in front of a large audience only to realize there’s no safety net below (always be mindful when dating a greedy tycoon).

If a good family time is what you seek, then “Dumbo” is the circus epic to behold. It doesn’t reach the level of perfection of the original, but it manages to reimagine it as something both vintage and fun. Like an excellent time under the big top, you get what the sign promises, skillfully pulled off by a master of memorably freakish visions.

Dumbo” opens March 29 in theaters nationwide.