Dumbo review: Tim Burton’s quirky and subversive live action remake never feels bland

There’s plenty of humour and pathos in the director’s re-imagining of the animated Disney classic

Geoffrey Macnab
Friday 29 March 2019 13:44
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Dumbo - Trailer 2

Dir: Tim Burton; Starring: Eva Green, Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Alan Arkin, Deobia Oparei. Cert PG, 112 mins

Tim Burton’s live action version of Dumbo is a few hues darker than the 1941 Disney animated classic from which it springs. It’s a measure of the director’s idiosyncratic abilities that the film has such a personal stamp. As with Burton’s other fables, notably Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, Dumbo is about a group of sensitive outsiders with special gifts who do not fit comfortably with social norms.

There’s plenty of humour and pathos along the way: slapstick, with a mischievous monkey (“little hairball”) hiding in a drawer or on the top of circus ringmaster’s head, and cutesy interludes featuring scene-stealing white mice. The circus troupe includes a bodybuilder (“Rongo the Strongo” who not only lifts dumbbells but helps with the administration), a plump mermaid and a snake charmer (Roshan Seth) who has a python draped around his neck. Burton’s characteristically whimsical charm, seen in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is found here.

Much of the story hinges on Dumbo’s desperation to be reunited with his mother. The film has its soaring, emotional moments when Dumbo takes wing, all of which are amplified by another of composer Danny Elfman’s majestic scores. The focus, though, is as much on the humans as on the eponymous elephant.

Burton has packed the cast with familiar faces from his own repertory company of character actors. It’s refreshing to see Danny DeVito back on screen playing the seedy circus owner, the actor having the same diminutive and cantankerous presence as ever. Eva Green, who appears to have taken over Helena Bonham Carter’s role as Burton’s muse, plays a trapeze artist, while Michael Keaton is a swanky but evil showman with a fiendish grin. Having all worked with the director before, they know just how to pitch their performances so that they’re flamboyant without falling into outright camp.

The film starts in Florida in 1919. The Medici Brothers’ circus is struggling. We can tell as much from the food stains on the vest of the ringmaster, Max Medici (DeVito), and the faded paintwork on the circus wagons. It’s not just the war that has harmed business but the Spanish flu epidemic. The scent of death is never far away.

Burton includes a magnificent early sequence in which a belching steam train pulls into town and soldiers returning home appear on the platform. One of the last to disembark is Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), formerly the circus cowboy. His kids Milly (played by Thandie Newton’s daughter Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) rush towards him through the steam but can’t hide their shock at what the war has done to him.

In a bid to revive his circus, Max has bought a pregnant elephant, Mrs Jumbo. The elephants here do not speak, with the filmmakers avoiding anthropomorphising the animals. There are close ups of their tear-filled eyes as mother and child are separated, but they don’t burst into song. Nor does a stork deliver the baby (although one is spotted nearby when Dumbo is born). Sophisticated CGI gives the impression we are watching real elephants. We can see every wrinkle on their trunks and skin.

Burton’s inspiration for the circus is as much Tod Browning’s horror classic Freaks as the Disney original. Like Browning, he identifies with the circus misfits. Their way of life is dying and the public treats them with ambivalence, marvelling at their stunts but also taunting and ridiculing them.

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Lonely and motherless themselves, Holt’s kids strike up an immediate rapport with Dumbo. When Dumbo sneezes after sucking a feather up his trunk, Milly and Joe are first to notice he jumps prodigious distances into the air using his enormous floppy ears to propel himself upward.

Ehren Kruger’s screenplay portrays a world in which everyone is exploiting everyone else. Max sees the flying elephant as his best chance of saving the circus. Just as Max takes advantage of Dumbo, city slicker showman V A Vandevere (Keaton) takes advantage of Max. He, in turn, is in thrall to the cynical old Wall Street banker, J Griffin Remington (Alan Arkin).

Narratively, the new Dumbo is a little flimsy. It has only two main locations. From the Florida backwaters, the story quickly switches to the big city, where Vandevere runs “Dreamland”, a gigantic amusement park with a circus at its centre. Plot points are skimmed over. Some characters disappear abruptly from the storyline while others aren’t developed. The richness here is less in the plotting than in the extraordinary visuals. Dreamland is an homage both to Art Deco and to the Hollywood of the 1920s and 1930s. Production design is exhaustively detailed. Burton includes wildly elaborate tracking shots through vast crowds of onlookers and circus jugglers, clowns and acrobats, Busby Berkeley-like chorus scenes and a finale involving fire and captive animals that could come from an old King Kong-style horror movie.

Always at the centre of the commotion is the lovable, floppy-eared pachyderm himself. Dumbo serves a double function. He is the forlorn little creature reviled as a freak who learns how to harness his own special talent. He is also there to help the human characters overcome their traumas. In caring for him, Holt connects with his own children and deals with his wartime grief. His daughter Milly finds a focus for her scientific experiments. The trapeze artist Colette overcomes her own cynicism. It’s catharsis all round. The themes are much the same as in the original animated film but Burton comes at them in such a quirky and subversive way that the film never feels bland or earthbound.

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