Fans of Walt Disney’s animated original Dumbo have already seen an elephant fly, back in 1941. What more can a modern update bring to the big top? In the hands of Tim Burton – back on enchanting form after a duo of duds – the answer is a well considered story expansion and consistently gorgeous visuals. Disney’s digital Dumbo is every bit as adorable as one could hope and twice as empathetic. With the whole film apparently occurring either at dawn or dusk, this is hardly remarkable stuff but gosh it’s nice.
Based on the delightful conceit of Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, 1941’s Dumbo barely stretched passed an hour in length, telling a tale that Pixar would yarn as a short these days. Burton’s new take finds another fifty minutes by shifting his film’s perspective to new human characters, in the form of Colin Farrell’s widowed Great War veteran Holt Farrier and his two youngsters Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). A renowned, crowd pleasing circus rodeo in his heyday, Holt returns from the front dejected and with one less arm. Unable to ride, he is tasked by employer Max Medici (Danny DeVito) with tending to the circus’ elephants. Needing particular attention is the temperamental Indian nelly Medici has just bought, who happens to be pregnant. It’s a sweet touch that sees a stork land outside the elephant enclosure just as Jumbo is about to pop. And what should tumble unto the circus, in a shroud of straw, but a baby elephant with extraordinarily large ears.
Realised with breathtaking, wrinkly realism, baby Dumbo is impressive to behold and a computer generated triumph. Subtle shifts from normality – no actual elephant has eyes quite so anthropomorphic – gift him humanised empathy but the effect never feels cartoonish. His interactions with the world around him have a textural, tangible quality and it is remarkably easy to forget that no real elephant was involved in the production.
Whilst the tone of Burton’s Dumbo is unquestionably more upbeat than the original, it is no less emotionally intense. It takes a hard heart not to break as Dumbo is separated from his mother – two more renditions of Baby Mine join Aurora’s haunting trailer version in the film – or as he is propelled into a mawkish reprise of the original’s clown routine. The infamous pink elephant sequence is reborn here too, albeit in such a way as to inspire awesome wonderment rather than disturb. No alcohol for this baby. Hic.
Another surprising delight of Dumbo is the energy that comes with Burton’s reunion of DeVito with Michael Keaton, for the first time since his own Batman Returns. Reversing his prior role in the dynamic, Keaton is the pantomime baddie this time around and proves well matched to the role of a wicked Walt Disney type, an exploitative dream-maker not so far removed from his part in The Founder. Here, he plays ruthless theme park entrepreneur V. A. Vandevere and must surely meet his comeuppance for such dastardly deeds. In an interesting move, Eva Green co-stars as trapeze artist Colette Marchant, Vandevere’s muse. It’s a fairly perfunctory role for Green but has odd parallels with her own present relationship with Burton. Does the director have so low an opinion of himself? Or, does he not see the overlap?
Green is not the only Burton regular at work here, of course. Danny Elfman’s score is typically enchanting in its union of originality and homage to the work of Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace, whilst editor Chris Lebenzon continues his two decade association with the director nicely. New to the Burton bandwagon, Captain Marvel cinematographer Ben Davis does well to infuse a sugarplum aesthetic to happier scenes, in contrast to the darker hues that come when things turn bleak. To this end, the former predominates. Whilst themes of captivity and loss are present and correct in Burton’s Dumbo, the sharper edges feel strangely blunted. The effect is a film that feels consistently cuddly but utterly unchallenging. This is as much a tale of quirky human outcasts – from a strongman who also handles the admin to a mermaid with a killer punch – as it is the elephants. All very Burton familiar and even a little bit Greatest Showman.