Dumbo is the latest Disney animated classic to be remade as a live action film. The original, a 64-minute feature film from 1941, can be visually identified by most people, but I wonder how many have actually seen it in its brief entirety. Now the story comes back to life in an expanded adaptation under the direction of Tim Burton—a master in telling stories about outsiders. And outsiders abound in this new version.
Like the original, the plot revolves around a baby elephant with amazingly large ears that enable it to fly with the help of a feather. And as in the original, the baby’s mother is locked away as a “mad elephant” after protecting her child, leaving the baby alone in the world. Unlike the original, there are no talking animals in this retelling. No crows (which in the original were something of a black-face minstrel show) or Timothy Q. Mouse, Dumbo’s mentor.
Instead, the remake builds a human story around Dumbo. The story is set in 1919, right after the end of World War I. A run-down circus, presided over by Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is setting off on a new season. Two children, Milly and Joe Farrier (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) have lost their mother to the flu. When their father Holt (Collin Farrell) returns from the war, he has lost an arm. He can no longer do the riding and roping that was his act. He is relegated to caring for the animals, which brings him into contact with Dumbo. (Actually, the animal’s name is Jumbo Jr., but because of his freakish ears, people yell Dumbo instead of Jumbo.) When another trainer is cruel to Mrs. Jumbo, Dumbo’s mother, she attacks him and ends up (as in the original) locked away. Meanwhile, Milly and Joe take care of the baby and discover that his ears give him the ability to fly.
Already we can see that the film is about families struggling with brokenness. Mrs. Jumbo and Dumbo are separated. (The film includes its version of the sorrowful nighttime visit of Dumbo to his mother with the song “Baby Mine” from the original.) The Farrier family is without a mother, and Holt is without an arm. And the circus as a whole serves as a family, but one going through very hard economic times. Each version of family is in need of healing, acceptance, and a future.
When word of a flying elephant gets out, it attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) a slick promoter with arm decoration Collette Marchant (Eva Green) who swoops in to buy up the circus. He offers Max the vision of the big time, and the chance to take care of all his people—his family. He plans to bring Dumbo and the others to his new extravaganza park, Dreamland, where he will use the act to leverage new loans from banker J. Griffin Remington (Alan Arkin).
I found the vision of Dreamland interestingly similar to Disneyland, which seems like a small nip at the hand that feeds, given that Dreamland turns into a nightmare for everyone we care about in the film.
Getting back to the common Tim Burton theme of outsiders, each of the main characters fits such a category. Dumbo with his grotesque ears, Holt as a rider/roper with only one arm, Milly, a girl who wants to be a scientist, Joe, who loves the circus but is talentless, the whole range of strange circus performers, and Collette, a talented aerialist, who Vandevere treats as a toy. By making the physical or emotional flaws of each character so obvious, it ironically allows us to get beyond the surface to emotionally bond with each as they struggle for acceptance and search for happiness. That is one of the gifts that Burton brings to many of his films. He reminds us that humanity is not about perfection, but about the way all those flaws are what make us human.
I’ve been critical of Disney’s remaking animated classics as live action films. As with any endeavor, some will be better than others. My first reaction to the news that Dumbo was being remade was negative. After all, those animated classics were beloved because they told human stories in ways that touched us. However, Burton, screenwriter Ehren Kruger, and everyone else involved created a new depth to the story and all its emotional touch points. It becomes more than a story of separation and reunion. It is a story about the healing and enabling power of family. It is not about overcoming our flaws, but about making those flaws work for us and allowing us to soar.
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios