Review: Dumbo (Tim Burton, 2019)
It was with a degree of trepidation that I went to see the “live-action” (in reality, animation/live-action hybrid) remake of Dumbo (Tim Burton, 2019). After all, the 1941 original, both narratively and in terms of its characters, is such that it cannot be easily translated into the hyper-real form of CG animation that is typically billed (inaccurately) as “live-action,” and simultaneously retain the whimsy and sweetness of the original (Fig. 1). The 1941 Dumbo (Ben Sharpsteen, 1941) is a classic; even when the crows come on screen and speak in a kind of Minstrel-show patter that is now considered racially insensitive, the film still charms and entertains, and most people love the crows’ song, “When I See an Elephant Fly”. It’s worth noting, of course, that it’s the crows who get the clever idea to use “psychology” and convince Dumbo that it’s “the magic feather” that helps him, against all the odds, to take flight. What’s more, the 1941 film notably includes a scene – the “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence and song – that is wonderfully experimental and startling even today in mainstream animation, let alone during the 1941-42 original theatrical run. Disney’s Dumbo is a part-fable, part-fantasy, part-harrowing melodrama that has made its dent on the mainstream consciousness. That the film can range from Technicolor Pachyderms to the deeply moving and evocative (not to mention Oscar-nominated) “Baby Mine” song is possible because, at its heart, the 1941 film is about a child – Dumbo – adrift in a cruel and callous world, and how he finds friendship, and confidence in himself, and overcomes his hardships to find true success and happiness. In some ways, the 2019 film, directed by former Disney animator Tim Burton, follows a similar trajectory: children who find themselves without a mother, in a precarious and frightening set of circumstances beyond their control, must look to their own strength, find true friends to help them, and save their family. It’s just that, in the 2019 version…it isn’t Dumbo whose story carries the main narrative of the film.
Burton’s version has a great deal of warmth, pathos, and heart: beginning in a down-at-heals circus travelling across the United States in 1919, Milly and Joe Farrier (played by Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) have lost their mother to the Spanish Influenza epidemic, and are reunited with a father (played by Colin Farrell) who is a recently-returned World War I vet who has lost not only his wife, but also almost the whole of his left arm. He faces multiple griefs in that he must find his way in his drastically-changed post-war life, and must do so while facing the loss of his wife, his arm, and his livelihood – he and his wife were trick horse riders for the Medici Brothers circus; Holt returns to find that the circus owner (Max Medici, played by Danny DeVito) has sold his horses. Holt also must cope with his new role as a widowed father who struggles to relate to and help his children deal with their own grief, fear, and confusion. Reduced in station to having to tend the circus’ elephants, it is Holt, along with his children, who are the first to care for and help baby Dumbo, who is born shortly after Holt’s return. It is Milly and Joe (in the absence of Timothy Mouse and the Crows) who first witness Dumbo fly, and figure out that he believes he can fly only if he has a feather to help him. And while this new, hyper-real CG animated baby Dumbo is sweet and adorable with his huge, blue eyes and enormous ears…the fact is that, ultimately, the 2019 Dumbo – in addition to being mercilessly teased, losing his mother, and being forced to perform in the circus – must suffer the further degradation of being reduced to the role of secondary character in the film which shares his name. In many ways, the baby elephant in Tim Burton’s Dumbo felt like an afterthought – Dumbo was there, and he was charming, but the film wasn’t about him; it was about the humans – especially Holt, Milly, and Joe Farrier – who surround him, and how those humans find their strength and become their best selves. Dumbo’s story mirrors this, but never equals it.
Had I never seen the 1941 film, I would have enjoyed the 2019 Dumbo much more than I did: the characters were compelling, and were well-played by an excellent cast. The story was well told, and the settings and costumes were beautiful (and full of wonderful intertextual references to reward the presumably large number of Disney fans in the audience). There was the spectacle and magic of a top-class circus, the adorable (and uniquely-talented) baby elephant and the family who takes him to their hearts, and the charm of its yesteryear setting (which, references to the Spanish flu epidemic and the horrors of WWI aside, seems surprisingly free of racism, poverty, and other such troubling social issues; having said that, much is made of the greedy, corporate corruption of the Dreamland amusement park owned by the sinister conman V.A. Vandevere, played by Michael Keaton). In a twist that obliquely references the Ringling Brothers Circus’ decision to stop including performing elephants in its shows as of May 2016, our final glimpse of Dumbo is of him and Mrs. Jumbo, who have been smuggled onto a ship by their friends, returning to their herd and life in the wild, Dumbo soaring triumphantly overhead before returning to his mother’s side for a cuddle. Just before this, we’ve learned that Max Medici’s circus – renamed the Medici Family Circus – has renounced the practice of including wild animals in its shows, and has become a more ethical, happier, and more successful circus populated with contented and fulfilled performers; even the Farrier family seems to have grown, having found a new wife and mother in the person of a kind and beautiful French acrobat (played by Eva Green) they meet while part of the Dreamland amusement park (Fig. 2). As a stand-alone film, it works, and works well. But, ultimately, it is wrong to call this a “remake” of the 1941 Dumbo. Though moving in places, it lacks the charm and sweetness of the original. And despite its being set in 1919, this 2019 film will likely become dated in ways that, problematic crows aside, the 1941 film never will. But given some of Tim Burton’s more recent films, it could have been a lot worse. Personally, I prefer to think of the 2019 Dumbo less as a “live-action” remake of the 1941 classic, and instead as more of a return to form for Tim Burton as a director.
Amy M. Davis is a Lecturer in Film and Animation History at the University of Hull. She teaches modules on (amongst other things) American Animation History and Disney Studies, and is the author of a number of papers on Disney and animation, as well as two books, Good Girls & Wicked Witches: Women in Disney’s Feature Animation (John Libbey/Indiana University Press, 2006) and Handsome Heroes & Vile Villains: Men in Disney’s Feature Animation (John Libbey/Indiana University Press, 2013). She is editor of an up-coming book, Discussing Disney, which will be published by John Libbey and Co./University of Indiana Press in Spring 2019.