Tim Burton’s Dumbo (2019)
As is usual, our editors each have their own opinion on recent Disney movies we saw, so here is our combined review:
Kris’s thoughts on Dumbo
As with any Disney live-action remake, there’s the obligatoiry “this was the base of my childhood” paragraph. This is not any different here. My parents recorded Dumbo in my early youth from a German TV channel. And it’s safe to say I worn that tape beyond destruction, despite it being in German. “All aboard” will always be “Einsteigen” to me. When it was released from the vault in the late 90’s, my mom bought a brand new VHS, which probably also got destroyed.
Just before the screening I watched the original Dumbo on Blu-ray again. It’s probably a few years since I last saw it, and it still charms from beginning to end. It still feels fresh, despite it being 78 years old. It came into cinema’s when my grandparents where still too young to go and see it. It’s number 4 in the list of Disney theatrical movies.
And as it has been with many Disney classics, the powers that be figured it would be a good time to bring it back in a brand new version, helmed by the one and only Tim Burton. This isn’t the first time the tale of the flying elephant was to be continued. In the early 2000’s, the studios planned a direct to DVD Dumbo 2. After being in development hell for a few years it got killed by John Lassiter when he took over the studio with the Pixar merger. However, with the concepts that ideas never die, some ideas that got announced with the 2001 Concept Trailer can be found in the new movie.
The 2019 version of Dumbo is not a classic retelling as we have seen with Jungle Book or Beauty and the Beast. The first act of the movie is a rather verbatim retelling of the classic, with some small changes. But by the second act, things have evolved, grown, and the real stakes of the story start to appear.
But don’t fret, it still carries the soul of that small animated story about the flying pachyderm from 1941. While the message of the original movie is still there, a whole lot more is at play. A modern view on animal rights is on full blown display, covering a layered story about a small band of misfits taking on the corporate world.
It’s really no surprise that Tim Burton was chosen to direct this movie. If anything, it’s his bread and butter to tell stories about those who are different and are castaways from society. But what’s so powerful and different about Dumbo as a Burton film is that though we feel we’re in Burton’s head, he refrained himself from the darkness that seem to be following him, and keep focusing on the good. This is kind of surprising.
And it is for the best. Can you image a full blown Burtonesque Pink Elephants alcohol hallucination inspired by the original? It would be totally terrifying! Fortunately, we still get a Pink Elephant scene in a fun lighthearted way.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a sense of danger or gravitas in the film. Far from it. Of course there are scenes like Baby Mine that will make you teary-eyed. But, do you get misty eyed because of the moment between Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo you’re experiencing, or because the original animated scene between the mother and son are still in your head?
Talking about music. You can’t say Tim Burton without saying Danny Elfman. As usual, Elfman takes on scoring duties with an original soundtrack. Some song are referenced or used, but it’s nowhere close to the musical that the original was.
Also, there are no talking animals in this film. At least not in the traditional sense. Dumbo is still present like any other actor in the film, and they are all giving quite the performance.
A hilarious Danny DeVito, a very strong Michael Keaton and a melancholic-looking Colin Farrell are joined by Eva Green who stuns with her trapeze act. Children Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins both got their acting debut as brother and sister.
It’s been a busy time for DOP Ben Davis, bringing his expertise to both Dumbo as Captain Marvel. Yet Dumbo feels like it could have been lit by Annie Leibovitz’s team. It’s absolutely stunning, with soft light and dramatic sunsets engulfing the Medici Bros. circus.
While everything was shot on soundstage, you wouldn’t tell. And that is thanks to production designer Rick Heinrichs’s amazing effort. Having constructed huge sets still works the best in a movie.
The world of Dumbo feels right. A sense that I didn’t have with Wakanda in Black Panther for example. These locations feel right, because they are.
When the story continues to New York based Dreamland, this look equally gorgeous, with a gorgeous Art Deco world that would work perfect as a Disney theme park in any possible way. My design-loving heart nearly exploded with the amazing look of Dreamland that blows The Great Gatsby out of the window faster than a human cannonball.
In the end, Dumbo is a must-see Disney movie for everyone that even remotely likes the original. A great family with the same heart and message as the original, on which it expands without too much bloat.
In the end, Tim Burton’s take on Dumbo flies, but only time will tell if it becomes as timeless as the original.
David’s thoughts on Dumbo
Did you ever see an elephant fly? Disney and Tim Burton really want to make sure you do, bringing the classic tale of the flying elephant to a new generation. Upon seeing the latest of Disney’s live-action reboots, I only have one question: Why? There was a time when a new Tim Burton project would excite every movie-going bone in my body but sadly this just wasn’t a story worth telling. So where exactly did it go wrong? Well, it’s not so much wrong, but not enough of it is right.
From a visual standpoint, the film is beautiful to look at and always interesting – it is the circus after all, and everything ramps up to an 11 in the 2nd half of the film. Tim Burton assembled a fantastic cast too (save for the children but sadly there’s not a whole lot for them to do. Colin Farrell plays Holt Farrier, an old trick rider, back from the war and missing an arm. He, of course doesn’t know how to connect with his kids. At all. Nor does he try. The kids miss their father but are quick to compare him with their departed mother. “Mom always knew what to say”. Danny Devito is one of the saving graces in this film as Max Medici, owner of the Medici Bros Circus. Sadly, Michael Keaton becomes a half-note cartoon villain playing V.A. Vandevere, the founder of Dreamland, a circus of the future, so to speak. Eva Green is hardly present and Alan Arkin really could have had a juicier part as well.
The animated Disney film is a few minutes over an hour, but here, Tim Burton stretches it out to two and a half hours. Instead of a film about a sad elephant with his mouse friend, it’s all about the humans and their problems and insecurities. To put it simply, there’s just not much of an interesting story here. Dumbo can fly, but the film never gives him a good movie to fly in. The emotional scenes in the original film are passed by here, with no emotional impact but rather, becomes a cringy scene about animal cruelty. And if one scene of that isn’t enough, there’s plenty more later. The screenplay is delivered by Ehren Kruger who wrote three of the Michael Bay Transformers movies, so I suppose you can say this is his best work. The production design is great here as is Danny Elfman’s score, with a few nods to “Casey Jr” (one of the few highlights).
Unfortunately that just isn’t enough to recommend Tim Burton’s Dumbo. The CG elephant is cute, but not as cute as a real baby elephant. There’s two more live-action remakes coming from Disney this year: Aladdin, and The Lion King. Let’s hope those can deliver where Dumbo couldn’t.