The original 1941 Dumbo has always been one of the sadder Disney stories. The baby elephant with gigantic ears gets ridiculed almost immediately after being born, and gets separated from his mother when she tries to protect him. The 2019 live-action remake from director Tim Burton makes the story even darker, focusing on a human cast struggling with tragedy too.
While the animated classic had Dumbo and a talking mouse named Timothy as the primary protagonists, the new Dumbo focuses on a family charged with protecting the baby elephant. Circus performer Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns to the big tent after a stint in the army, but with his life radically altered by the death of his wife and the loss of his arm. His kids, the science-focused Milly Farrier (Nico Parker) and the playful Joe Farrier (Finley Hobbins), have had to process their mother’s death while their father was away, and the whole family needs to find a new role to make ends meet.
Oh, and ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito), wants the family to get to work immediately upon their reunion, and start taking care of the circus elephants.
If this sounds bleak, that’s because it is. But Dumbo enters the picture pretty quickly, and unlike the original movie where it takes a while for the elephant to fly through the air in public, this little baby gets to soar quickly after he’s torn away from mother elephant Mrs. Jumbo. That talent, the kids hope, could be the key to reuniting Dumbo with his mom.
Dumbo himself is clearly CGI, floppy ears, expression-filled eyes and all. But impressively he fits the aesthetic of the real-world environments he’s placed in. No, the elephant doesn’t speak and also does not have a talking Timothy either, but Milly and Joe fill in that roll as the baby’s friends. Plus, the various circus environments are colorful and become even more intricate as Dumbo gets to perform for bigger audiences. A gorgeous bubble sequence is a particular highlight that harkens back to the psychedelic Pink Elephants On Parade from the original movie, thankfully without intoxicating a baby elephant this time.
The cast are amusing and colorful in places, with the most memorable characters including the enchanting trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green) and the ruthless V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) highlighting the movie’s second half. But others had a tendency to just play themselves like in real life, specifically DeVito who feels like he was instructed to make the character his own to a fault. A simple way to put it, if you love DeVito’s Frank in the way more adult-oriented It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, then you’ll still enjoy this PG-rated version. If you don’t, you can’t escape.
However I did feel like the main three characters — Farrell’s Holt and both kids — lost out to the rest of the circus in terms of overall development. Especially by the time the film reaches its third act, in which all three end up in substantially more dangerous situations than seems logical for the story.
The intensity of some of the more life-threatening sequences, especially considering this is ultimately a PG-rated movie for kids, is my biggest qualm with Tim Burton’s Dumbo. There’s death, destruction and a whole lot of fire throughout this movie, with a number of moments that simply made me uncomfortable for the safety of a baby elephant and the main characters of the film. Both children seem to literally run into potentially fatal moments multiple times throughout the story.
Tim Burton does have a cinematic history of movies that play with dark themes and lighter moods that I adore, including The Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Frankenweenie. But Dumbo doesn’t quite hit that balance, with much of it feeling a little lost in the darkness. Even the ending, which I won’t explicitly spoil, has a mild hint of horror that I wouldn’t of expected.
Unlike 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, which hits both a nostalgic place for fans of the 1991 animated movie while fleshing many of its story ideas out, the new Dumbo is ultimately only loosely inspired by its 1941 source material. Parents looking to relive that film through this new take might be best left grabbing a digital copy or waiting for it to escape the Disney vault and come to thethat’s launching later this year. But if are up for a darker, fiery take on the flying elephant with kids that are closer to age 10 or up, by all means book a seat to Dumbo and see how it flies — just get ready for some turbulence.