'Dumbo' Is Disney's Darkest Children’s Movie in Years

The live action remake of 'Dumbo' may disappoint diehard fans, but those who watch it with an open mind will get a Tim Burton-lite adventure.

Eva Green in a scene from "Dumbo."
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictu

The opening of Disneyland in California in 1955 was the second revolution fomented by Walt Disney in popular culture. After proving to Hollywood that animated films aren’t just a children’s game, the pioneer of that genre turned to the invention of another form of entertainment: the now-familiar amusement park. No longer was it a low-budget fair with dangerous rides operated by dubious characters, nor a circus of curiosities traveling from town to town. 

Disney’s vision suited the spirit of the 1950s: a clean, safe fantasy that would make people forget real life by means of sterile family entertainment. Now, with the new version of “Dumbo,” the founding father’s concept appears to have undergone a reversal at the hands of Tim Burton, who casts a yearning gaze at the old-style circus.

The original “Dumbo,” from 1941, was the Disney studio’s fourth full-length feature. After the financial flop of “Fantasia,” Disney looked for a simple, inexpensive but big idea – and found it in a short story about a flying elephant, which he turned into a 64-minute movie. Phenomenally successful, it was a fixture for generation upon generation of children. Today, though, with the Disney company morphing into a humungous corporation that’s swallowing up other studios such as Marvel, Lucasfilm and recently even 21st Century Fox, it’s looking for every possible way to maximize profits. In a nostalgia-ridden era, Disney is exploiting past successes to lure parents, no less than children, with live action versions of movies that stir sweet childhood memories. After “Beauty and the Beast” and before “Aladdin” and “The Lion King,” it’s Dumbo’s turn to get a computerized version with new friends.

The new adaptation is set exactly 100 years ago, but the fantastical aesthetic of the director, Tim Burton, leaves no room for historical accuracy. The story begins with Holt (Colin Farrell), a decorated soldier who lost an arm in war, returning home to the Medici brothers’ traveling circus. Awaiting him there are his two children, Milly and Joe, whose mother died in the flu epidemic while he was away. Before the Great War, he was a cowboy in the circus, but as an amputee that’s no longer in the cards. It’s not exactly a perfect family. Fortunately for them, the circus’ manager, Max Medici (Danny DeVito), who combines conniving with no little charm, looks after Holt and finds him a job with the elephants (and their droppings).

The plot thickens when an elephant named Jumbo tries to protect her calf and is dumped  for being off her rocker. Holt and his children are compelled to adopt the young elephant, which has been dubbed “Dumbo.” Animals don’t talk, but Dumbo manages to communicate with the aid of expressive sounds, large eyes and pixilated sweetness. The little elephant with the big ears succeeds in being as thrilling as his animated predecessor, but this time he’s not the only hero. At the heart of the film is the relationship between Dumbo and the two children, among the three of them and daddy Holt, and between the four of them and a pretty trapeze artist, Colette (Eva Green). 

The optimistic ending of the old animated movie – Dumbo takes off – is only the middle of the story in Burton’s reworking. The director and the screenwriter, Ehren Kruger, grasped that there was no point in leaving the flight until the end, and they devote half the picture to the elephant’s miraculous ability. While Milly works with Dumbo on a flying show to raise the funds to buy his mother back, it turns out that they’re getting too much attention. The greatest impresario of them all, V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), founder of the magnificent Dreamland amusement park, visits the circus with the aim of taking Dumbo. 

In contrast to Medici, Vandevere is first and foremost an entrepreneur who’s interested in profits. Harboring a vision that intertwines new and old, circus and ultramodern park, Vandevere sees Dumbo as a feature attraction. As such, he’s ready to buy the whole Medici circus – anything to get hold of the elephant.

Nico Parker, left, in a scene from "Dumbo."
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictu

Mélange of subplots

As this is a remake, albeit very different from the original, comparison is unavoidable. Shifting the center of gravity to the human characters has its advantages, but also does away with much of the charm. The computerized Dumbo is just as cute as his animated ancestor, maybe even more, but the damage is peripheral. The inner world of the little elephant, his friend the mouse, the pink elephants – all that shrinks into gestures and gets lost amid a mélange of humans and subplots.

However, in the second half of the film, when the plot completely abandons the 1941 model and the director is totally liberated from the old movie, the animation can be completely forgotten and we can surrender to Burton’s imagination. Even though the unification of forces with DeVito and Keaton evokes memories of “Batman Returns,” Burton doesn’t offer the aesthetics and the sensitivity of movies from that era, such as “Ed Wood” and “Beetlejuice.” “Dumbo” is more reminiscent of Burton’s adaptations of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” big-budget blockbusters that are committed to the demands of the big studios.

In comparison to the children’s films produced by Disney and subsidiary studios such as Marvel, the new “Dumbo” shows a surprising and untypical direction: Burton has made the darkest children’s movie released by Disney in years. Young, sensitive viewers might be turned off by the sight of a person killed in front of the camera, or by a fire that poses a genuine threat to a cute little elephant. On top of this, there are difficult but familiar scenes focusing on Dumbo’s violent separation from his mother. The transition to live action only heightens identification with the elephants and raises associations with clips of animal rights organizations. Far from reducing the preoccupation with the mother’s loss, the shifting of the story to the relations between the young elephant and human beings multiplies it.

The distance between the animated “Dumbo” and the live action version is greater than in any Disney remake. The movement between Burton’s gloominess and Disney’s didactic optimism isn’t smooth, resulting in an awkward film lacking overall balance. Burton succeeds in leaving his imprint, even if partially, and those are the better parts of the film. The final product is likely to leave Dumbo fans as well as admirers of Burton’s films unsatisfied. However, the new version will be more relevant for a generation that is not yet familiar with the delightful elephant. Children who are mature enough to cope with a somewhat more adult narrative that is emotionally dark in form, will get a Tim Burton-lite adventure.