As Disney continues their current strategy of making live action versions of classic animated film they’ve ever released, Dumbo has seemed like a natural fit from the beginning. The original is one of their earliest and biggest hits and the title character has been featured in their theme parks for decades. When they announced Dumbo as one of their latest live-action retellings, it made perfect sense…except for one small thing. The original Dumbo film is a tight 65 minutes long…not exactly feature length by today’s standards.
This caused me to be more interested in a Dumbo remake than I have been for Disney’s other live action retellings.Though they have altered the source material of their animated classics before (like in Maleficent, the retelling of Sleeping Beauty) many of their retellings have been essentially beat-for beat-remakes of the originals. If you’ve seen the animated Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast, the live action versions will hold no surprises for you, and though they look and sound nice, they don’t offer anything fundamentally new.
Clearly my opinion is not universal: Cinderella made $543 million worldwide, and Beauty and the Beast made $1.2 BILLION. People apparently don’t have the same hang-ups as I do when it comes to paying for stories they may already be familiar with. This is where my interest in Dumbo 2019 began – with the original clocking in at such a short runtime, surely they would have to pad it out with more story.
And boy did they! This version of Dumbo has a handful of things in common with it’s source material, it’s essentially a completely different movie. Yes, they both feature a flying elephant and that elephant gets separated from his mother. The opening of the movie showcases a train named Casey Jr, and there are musical callbacks throughout the first section of the movie, and circus performances feature prominently in both. The similarities pretty much end there.
One of the biggest changes is that in the original Dumbo our hero didn’t fly until pretty close to the end of the movie. His onscreen flight is basically what the entire animated version leads up to. In this retelling, he figures out how to fly a few minutes in, and that’s what kicks off the rest of the movie.
Tim Burton does a fantastic job with how the film looks – the set design and costumes look great and call to mind plenty of Burton’s previous films. Of the film’s cast, Colin Ferrell, Eva Green and (my favorite man) Michael Keaton all do fine work even if they aren’t really being asked to do much heavy lifting. The actor I was most pleasantly surprised by was Danny DeVito. He was in the film more than I expected and does a great job as the traveling circus owner Max Medici. There’s a sadness and optimism that DeVito conveys very subtly. It was great to see him bring real weight to a role that he probably could have slept his way through if he wanted.
Danny Elfman’s score is also fantastic, and if you know of Danny Elfman’s work, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. He incorporates a few of the music themes from the original in very subtle ways, but in all in service of creating something new. I plan on checking out the soundtrack in the coming week to get a better feel for it.
One of the more interesting choices in the film’s story is the role of V.A. Vandever, played by Michael Keaton. Other reviews of this film have pointed out that many qualities of his character are similar to the real Walt Disney himself. Click here to read the AV Club’s full article. Vandevere owns a stationary theme park named Dreamland, which houses various themed lands like “Nightmare Island” and attractions such as “Wonders of Science,” “Rocket to the Future.” Sound familiar? Vandevere runs Dreamland with the aid of “the banks,” which mirrors Walt Disney’s reliance on loans and credit in getting his major achievements financed. Vandevere’s Dreamland also sells Dumbo plush dolls that look like they were pulled right from the Dumbo display at your local Target.
It’s an interesting choice, possibly the most interesting of the film. The fact that Keaton is playing a bad guy that so closely mirrors Walt Disney in a Disney film is kind of bonkers and I respect how audacious it is, even if I’m not entirely sure what it’s trying to say (Capitalism is bad? Animals shouldn’t be used in entertainment? Disney is evil?). I think a re-watch may let me gain more insight into this, but as it stands right now it feels like a lot of weird choices that can’t all be coincidence. I just don’t know what it’s telling the audience.
One thing they absolutely nailed is the effects work on Dumbo himself. The idea of a flying elephant works in cartoon form, but in real life physics it’s a pretty tall order to sell onscreen. However, they truly nailed the movement and weight of it. I caught myself feeling positively teary-eyed every time he took flight and the crowds in the film started cheering.
I don’t know if this is a film I will revisit regularly, but it is certainly one of Tim Burton’s better films of this century, and I didn’t find anything in this movie to actively dislike. Oh wait, there’s a weird part where world-famous ring announcer Michael Buffer appears. You may not know his name but he’s the guy who made the catchphrase “Let’s get ready to rumblllllllle” everywhere in the late 90’s. He shows up here as a (what else?) ring announcer, only his catchphrase has been changed to “Let’s get ready for Dummmmmmmmmbooooooo!” I swear it completely baffled me in the theater, but typing it out now I think it may be so absolutely crazy that it’s actually becoming my favorite part of the film.
When compared to the other Disney live action remakes I’d say this is probably my favorite so far. It uses the original as inspiration and a jumping off point, and uses those familiar images and audience memories to tell a new and completely different story. I give Disney and the film’s creative team a lot of credit for being willing to take risks in the service of creating a truly new film. That’s the most I can hope for from any of the remakes Disney has planned over the next few years.
I’ll be expanding on this review in the next episode of the Add More Mouse podcast, so be sure to check that out in Episode #3 wherever you stream podcasts!