At one point in his career, Tim Burton was an unrivaled master at evoking magical wonder in the unusual. It’s been years, or decades depending on where you draw the line, since Burton has been able to recapture that magic. But, with his new live-action remake of Dumbo, he has done just that — touching on what made his early work beautiful and captivating.
The nearly two-hour-long retelling spends its first half as a true remake of the 64-minute, 1941 classic Disney film. And, like any live-action Disney remake, the world is expanded, characters are added, and there’s just enough of the original left in there to satisfy those looking for a nostalgia fix. The new Dumbo checks off all those boxes, sure, but there’s enough of Tim Burton’s aesthetic in the standard Disney formula to separate it from other cookie-cutter remakes.
What really helps is the cast Burton gathers. Set in a traveling circus in 1919, the band of performers and animal handlers are led by Max Medici, a top hat-wearing ringmaster with a huge personality played Danny DeVito. Burton gives plenty of screentime to Medici, and DeVito plays the role of a senior leader of a pack of misfits perfectly. After a flu outbreak wipes out half of his circus crew, Medici has to pick up the pieces and try to find the next big act that’ll save his business. DeVito holds that weight on his shoulders quite well, both balancing being a goof while also having that pain of loss behind his eyes. Medici becomes a signature Burton character, much like Burton’s vision of Ed Wood; you can feel Burton putting his own excentricities onto the ringmaster.
Michael Keaton reunites with Burton, playing V. A. Vandevere, the head of a large theme park, who’s interested in acquiring the flying baby elephant Dumbo from Medici’s circus after the news of his unique skill makes the papers. Burton lets Keaton just go for it; with his wild hair, ever-changing accent, and splashy suits, it’s further proof Keaton was born to live in Burton’s magical world. It’s a joy seeing DeVito and Keaton together again on screen, their roles reversed since their last Burton collaboration in Batman Returns, with Keaton as the villian this time. Vandevere is the businessman feeding lies to the independent creative, having him sign contracts and ultimately screwing him over. It’s a not-too-subtle take on Walt Disney, strangely enough, and Vandevere’s Dreamland theme park evokes a much more evil version of Disneyland.
Vandevere sees Dumbo’s flying act and wants to add to it, putting his own unneeded stamp on the already incredible feat. Listen, if this isn’t an allegory for the current state of Disney filmmaking and their live-action remakes, I don’t know what is, and it’s a strange meta text to have in a Disney blockbuster, but it works. Vandevere wants one of his trapeze performers, and current girlfriend, Colette Marchant, to ride Dumbo over the crowd as part of the new act. Another Burton regular, Eva Green, plays the French performer and thankfully she isn’t wasted in the role. She is both mesmerized by Dumbo and helps him find his courage, and Green is believable on both front, next to the all-CG, big-eared elephant. Dumbo himself isn’t really the star of his own movie, his photo-realistic eyes are off-putting for one, and there’s no real personality to speak of. But, the film’s magic is in how he inspires those around him; it’s a story Burton could sell better than most directors back in his prime. Making this story his own, there are moments when the director treats Dumbo just as well as he did Edward Scissorhands. Instances of pure delight and awe, coming from those who watch Dumbo’s flight, feel completely sincere. A line read of “I feel like a kid again,” is too-on-the-nose yet earned. It is a film that is constantly fighting with itself — the inclusion of boxing announcer Michael Buffer is truly bizarre, and a pink elephant sequence is awkwardly shoehorned, and both feel like studio-mandated markers for Burton to use and quickly move past.
The true main characters in the film are Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his two kids (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins). Farrier is a war vet who comes back to the circus with an arm missing. He lost his wife during the circus’ flu outbreak and has to find a purpose while raising his children on his own. The loss of family is the film’s biggest theme, and you’re not going to get any more subtle with it when it comes to the story of Dumbo and his mother. It’s ultimately touching, as both the Farrier family and Dumbo’s family deal with change and the importance of community. It’s a family movie, of course, and its message is sweet enough without being saccharine. It’s the distinctly uplifting elements that save the film.
First-time Burton collaborator Ben Davis does some incredible cinematography work, shining a warm glow on Burton’s dark imagery. The visuals are astonishing at times, and a score by Danny Elfman only heightens Burton’s visions. Elfman and Burton have worked together so many times before, and it’s been entirely too long since they’ve been on the same level — here, the direction and score come together in a way that I can’t see one working as well without the other. Seeing Burton’s dream world with a sweeping Elfman score, all to tell this tale of the strange yet beautiful outcast, it all took me back to the early works of Burton. Dumbo is a return to form for a ringmaster long thought to be all but done, and I’m grateful there’s still magic left in the mind of a mad genius like Tim Burton.