Dumbo Review: A New Timeless Classic From Tim Burton
I have admired the work of Tim Burton ever since I was little. Growing up, I had a wild imagination, and Burton’s work not only spoke to me but inspired me. I loved to draw and watched television shows and movies that highlighted and celebrated creativity. Sure, Burton wasn’t the only filmmaker that I admired growing up, but he was the one who made me fall in love with film as an art form. I wouldn’t be a film critic today if it weren’t for Tim Burton.
In the 80s and 90s, Burton was on a roll. His movies, although not always a huge draw at the box office, were loved by many and are considered cult classics. Then, in 2001, Burton made Planet of the Apes, which is still the worst film he has ever produced. The film was panned by the majority of critics and became the first major disappointment for us hardcore Burton fans. After Apes, Burton took on a lot of different projects most of which were met with mixed reviews.
Some of these films were projects he was passionate about such as Big Eyes, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd, and Frankenweenie but then there are movies like Alice in Wonderland which didn’t feel as though Burton was in control or cared all that much about, regardless of how much money they made. As someone who is still to this day inspired by Burton, it is hard to admit when he misses the mark, but he has. Films like Planet of the Apes, Alice in Wonderland, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and Dark Shadows are four prime examples that let me down.
That being said, just like I grew up watching Burton’s movies, I also spent a good chunk of my childhood watching all of the animated Disney classics from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Those three decades featured some remarkable animated films, but Dumbo remained one of my all-time favorites. As a child, I remember watching that movie over and over again while being amazed by how dark and depressing the film was. This is all the more reason why I was excited that Burton was attached to remake it because he has such a gift for dark storytelling especially when the stories focus on characters who are looked upon as outcasts.
Dumbo is the live-action reimagining of the 1941 animated classic. The film tells the story of Max Medicia (Danny DeVito), a circus owner who is in desperate need of a new act to keep his circus afloat. When he learns that Mrs. Jumbo is pregnant, Max hopes her new baby will be the answer to his prayers. Unfortunately, this baby elephant is born with extra large ears and is immediately considered the laughing stock of the circus. However, Holt Farrier’s (Colin Farrell) daughter, Milly (Nico Parker) and son, Joe (Finley Hobbins) take a liking to Dumbo and discover that he has the unique ability; to fly using his ears.
I don’t think there is any other director that could have made this film as perfectly as Burton did. He captures the heart and spirit of the original while also creating a film that is as much a love letter to Disney as it is a critique of their corporate greed. I am somewhat shocked that the powers that be didn’t try to stop Burton from addressing some of the themes he managed to explore in the film. Most of this revolved around Michael Keaton’s character, V. A. Vandevere, showing how he regularly abused his power, mistreated others, and didn’t seem to care about anything but making money.
On the other hand, if you consider yourself a hardcore Disney fan, there is so much to love and appreciate that pays homage to the golden age of Disney. The whole Dreamland park is very reminiscent of how I remember Disneyland and Disney World when I was growing up. There are even several nods to some of the older attractions that were once a part of Tomorrowland. If you grew up going to Disney Parks, the film will offer a unique feeling of nostalgia as you may recall elements of your childhood while watching the movie.
Going off of that, this film is a magnificent work of art. It is visually stunning yet not overwhelming showy, which works as a winning combination. Dumbo takes place in the 1930s, so the visuals needed to feel like they were set in that period yet still be appealing to a modern audience. There is just something about the way that the film was shot that adds a Burton-like layer on top of that old-school Disney magic. This occurs from the very first scene where we see the Casey Jr. train coming down the tracks through to the film’s final moments. Burton along with cinematographer Ben Davis has created one of the most visually stunning live-action Disney films that I have seen in quite some time.
World-renowned costume designer Colleen Atwood works alongside Burton and the incredible set design team to create stunning costumes that will more than likely get her another Oscar nomination. The outfits the characters wear range from the typical circus clothing to elaborate dresses and suits. Atwood is one of the best costume designers working today, so there is no surprise that she knocks it out of the park.
While Dumbo’s journey is the heart and soul of this story, I love that screenwriter Ehren Kruger added additional story arcs about the importance of family and believing in yourself. While it is nearly impossible not to love the relationship between Dumbo and his mom, Mrs. Jumbo, I was pleasantly surprised by how impactful the connections were between all of the human characters. The film opens with Holt returning home from war and reuniting with his daughter Milly and his son Joe. This introduction of these characters works perfectly to set the tone of the film. We see that Holt has been injured in the war and his children are still mourning the loss of their mother. This story arc works well with not only to build the relationship between the children and Dumbo but all of the relationships introduced throughout the film.
The casting of Dumbo is spot-on. You have Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, and Eva Green, who have worked with Burton in the past, while Colin Farrell, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, and Finley Hobbins are new to the Burton world. There was something almost nostalgic about seeing DeVito and Keaton together again after all these years, and I liked that there was a role reversal with their characters. Keaton plays a very over-the-top, cartoon-like villain obsessed with money and power, where DeVito plays Max rather straight. I enjoyed watching the two of them bounce off one another as Vandevere was an egotistical billionaire and Max was a poor entrepreneur struggling to keep his business afloat.
I have grown to appreciate Farrell as an actor thanks to his work in oddball indie films like The Killing of A Sacred Deer. However, after so many quirky or gritty performances, I found it rather refreshing to see him play a flawed father figure. His chemistry with Parker and Hobbin comes across as very natural, and you can tell that his character is doing his best as a caring parent trying to do the right thing. It is a simple performance but one with much depth. Eva Green as Colette Marchant is one of my favorite performances of hers. She, like Farrell’s Holt, can easily be written off as simple but there is so much going on with her underneath the surface.
Because this version of Dumbo was made in 2019, Kruger knew he had to address the theme of animal cruelty. Burton had no problem showing how poorly circus animals were treated back in the 30s and 40s. He doesn’t go out of his way to present the animals being beaten or mistreated but merely implies it. This, to me, made the film so much more effective. As a viewer, we clearly can see what the motives are of some of these characters without needing to see them physically abusing the animals. When Mrs. Jumbo gets taken away after trying to protect her son from being bullied, my eyes were filled with tears. The following scene, where Dumbo walks over to his mom’s trailer looking for comfort after she protected him isn’t only emotional but beautiful. These two scenes are powerful and touching portrayals of a mother’s love for her child.
It would be very remiss of me not to discuss the incredible score by Danny Elfman. Burton and Elfman have worked together on numerous films, and their pairing is always magical. There is nothing quite like a great Elfman score because it has such a unique quality about it. Just like with Burton’s direction, you can always tell when Elfman cares deeply about the project. He cared about this score, and it shows by how seamlessly it feels amongst the incredible images brought to life by Burton.
For nearly a decade, Disney has slowly been turning all of their animated classics into big budget live-action films. Out of all of the live-action remakes that have been released so far, Dumbo is by far my favorite. Dumbo is not only one of the best family films released in nearly a decade but a new classic. It’s a magical movie, destined to be loved and cherished by audiences for generations to come. Tim Burton has done it again!