The original animated Dumbo is a beautiful film but deeply odd, held in affection more in our collective foggy sense memory than in the reality of its execution. There is a downright racist depiction of crows as a minstrel chorus (one is even named, yes, “Jim Crow”). Dumbo and Timothy (the mouse) get drunk on champagne and have a hallucinatory trip this side of Woodstock (“pink elephants”). The flick is only 64 minutes long. And there’s an anthropomorphic train (“Casey, Jr.”). Oh, and we all pretty much hate circuses now and the horrors they’ve exacted upon brilliant, beautiful pachyderms over the decades.So, as much as I love the original film, and I truly do (in great part because it’s one of those seminal movie-going experiences that shaped a lifelong championing of animal rights and a loathing of bullying of any kind), Dumbo is, in fact, rife for updating and reinvention as Disney continues to strip mine their classic film library to pad quarterly profit earnings … er … expand artistic horizons.
Tim Burton is a director who specializes in Technicolor bad dreams. His relentless storybook/Edward Gorey-book sensibility is a logical fit for a narrative dripping in creepy circus tropes (clowns! leering audiences! mustache-twirling carnival barkers!), focused on the magic of mutant deformation (those ears! that flight!), and the central tragedy of which is the heartrending separation of mother and son (“Baby Mine”). I’ve often found Burton’s cinematic output wildly uneven and maddeningly frustrating with its unrealized potential, but I, for one, found Dumbo one of his stronger efforts in years.The script by Ehren Kruger is not terribly inventive but fills out the thin story line of the original with predictable but welcome subplots. The movie’s second half literally bites the hands that feeds in a fairly wicked satire of the antiseptically brutal capitalism of the Disneyland theme park concept itself. The cast is a starry array of Burton regulars: Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Michael Keaton (who has developed a lovely niche playing country club sleeze). In that battery-acid tone that is her trademark, Green who portrays a glitzy diva trapeze artist in Keaton’s employ observes: “I am one of many gems he wears to reflect the light back on him.” Colin Farrell is in fine form as a widower who returns from the war-front (WWI) sans one arm and with two young children who desperately need him to reclaim his heart and soul. He and his wife had been equestrian performers in DeVito’s shaggy “Medici Bros. Circus,” and Farrell is faced with the economic pressures of reframing his career amidst familial heartbreak. Enter one too-cute-for-words little blue-eyed-big-eared elephant to heal this tiny clan (see: Paddington, Mary Poppins) as Dumbo seeks to reunite with his own mama. Maybe I’m too soft a touch for a movie like this, but any film that ends with as a strong a statement I’ve seen from Hollywood in years that animals (CGI-generated or not) belong in nature and that they should be admired and respected and left alone is a winner in my book. Is it a cliche that pretty much every major character rallies by the film’s raucous conclusion to restore Dumbo and his ma to their jungle lives (save two or three souls who, spoiler alert, are grimly punished for their cruelty)? Maybe. But that’s a cliche I’ll take all day long.
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.