Perhaps Disney needs to think harder about making live-action movies from its library of animated classics. In the case of Dumbo the wait was since 1941. The more recent Aladdin (1993) takes flight later this year and looks promising. Several generations of fans have given birth to several more generations since a cute flying elephant captured our hearts. But maybe they should have left this one on the library shelf.
I initially questioned the choice of Tim Burton as director, given his dark, other-worldly style, but he has a long relationship with Disney, with hits that include Alice in Wonderland, Frankenweenie, The Nightmare Before Christmas and of course, Beetlejuice. Burton actually began his career by illustrating animals for Disney films. But the Dumbo story may have lacked sufficient leeway to allow Burton’s typically twisted creative approach. That, and there was the need to sanitize the original production of its World War II era racist elements. We’re talking about more than blackface here. Jive-talking black crows and faceless black roustabouts are only part of the baggage.
At the end of the day, Dumbo is really just a one trick pony, er, elephant. Still cute, with adorable big blue eyes, the amazing computer graphics have you believing he’s real, right down to his giant, flapping ears. But the 1941 Dumbo was somehow cuter in his flattened, colorized incarnation. And he was new then - a new idea, a new film. Once he takes flight in 2019 it requires some effort to wrap a story around him more compelling than his mother being taken away.
Have you noticed how Disney likes to mess with parent/child relationships? Poor Bambi. Poor Dumbo. It seems Disney writers are working through therapeutic issues by proxy, pulling at the heartstrings of their audience. Lo and behold, I researched this, and found that Walt Disney bought his parents a home in the early 1940s. Shortly after they moved in, the furnace leaked and his mother died. Yikes! Motherless children abound in Disney features, and that’s just terribly sad.
Appearing with baby Dumbo are Burton favorites Michael Keaton as V.A. Vendevere, a duplicitous Ringling-like showman; Danny DeVito as Max Medici, owner and ringmaster of the Medici Brothers traveling circus, and Alan Arkin as J. Griffin Remington, a heartless robber baron style investor. Colin Farrell stars as Holt Farrier, a trick horse rider returning from the war minus one arm. His two kids have been cared for in his absence by fellow circus performers following the death of his wife from the 1918 influenza epidemic (another mother lost). The kids are the first to recognize Dumbo’s secret talent. Eva Green plays Collette Marchant, arriving on the arm of Vandevere as a Cruella DeVille character who is in fact an aerial artist with a heart of gold. Who knew?
Set in 1919, the traveling circus has come upon hard times. Deaths from the flu, poor attendance and the war have forced Medici to sell off assets and reassign personnel. That’s when Dumbo becomes a hot property, attracting the attention of Vandevere, who signs Medici on as a partner and builds the Dreamland circus and amusement park. “Let the people come to you,” he tells Medici.
Accents abound in this and other recent movies. Joseph Gatt plays Neils Skellig, Vandevere’s sinister, bald minion who fades in and out of an accent from the omnipresent Disney country of Evilburg, where I suppose they speak Evil-ese. Irish Colin Ferrell does his best to sound like a western cowboy. Eva Green, who is actually French, is spending her career suppressing or affecting accents as she does here, or as Penny Dreadful’s Vanessa Ives. Her ashen, haunted look makes it difficult to take her seriously as a kind-hearted child and baby elephant advocate. She’s much more believable as a witch or reincarnated Egyptian goddess.
Colin Ferrell admitted his desire to work on a Burton project for children so his kids could see one of his films. Why the others signed on is a mystery. Keaton delivers barely believable lines, seeming to have shown up the day of filming, wondering why his hair was being dyed blonde and parted to the side. Alan Arkin should have retired after Little Miss Sunshine. At age 85 he still has value as an actor but should be more particular about the roles he plays. Danny Devito is a delight, whether playing an M&M or a ringmaster. His is the most genuine performance in the film, but even he seems bored.
Your kids may enjoy Dumbo. For goodness sake, don’t show them the original. But in 2019, kids are more sophisticated than this movie gives them credit for as audience members. They may lose interest. Wait for this one to show up for free on TV.
Dumbo (2019) runs 1 hour, 52 minutes and is rated PG.
Should I see this movie?