Review – So Batman, the Penguin and an Elephant Meet in a Bar… (“Dumbo”)

In what is an on-going, non-stop stream of Disney animated-feature-to-live-action remake(Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin, The Jungle Book, etc), here’s yet another one, but this one is from an old Disney maestro, Tim Burton, who gave us the glorious The Nightmare Before Christmas. Will it be any good?

One thing is for certain, fanciful storytelling in NOT in Tim Burton’s wheelhouse. Look at his remakes of Charlie & The Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland; hardly what you’d call ‘family-friendly fare’. Tackling an iconic Disney cartoon like Dumbo seemed like a slam-dunk, but Burton decided to, you guess it, make it dark, moody, and sullen at times. It’s 1919 and the Medici Brothers Circus is on the road again, run by only one guy, the cantankerous Max Medici (Danny DeVito). Pulled by the mighty Casey Jr. railroad (one of many Disney homages), this lackluster and pitiful little circus troupe has seen better days. Coming back home to the circus is one-armed WWI veteran Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a former trick-rider reduced to caring for the elephants.

At least Holt’s practically expressionless kids are glad to see him. Ten-year-old Joe (Finley Hobbins) wants to help out, but older daughter Milly (Nico Parker–who looks like a 12-year-old Angelina Jolie) just wants to be a scientist like Madame Curie. But their lives turn around when a circus baby elephant is born that has enormous ears and is laughed at by most of the company. However, the kids (sorry, no Timothy Q. Mouse to the rescue here) find out, much to their delight, that this elephant can fly when he sucks in a feather with his trunk.

Having an prodigious pachyderm that can fly makes Max very happy and, faster than you can say “exploitation”, Dumbo is a bone-fide smash hit. Ah, but success brings out the cockroaches and in strolls ruthless V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton with a really bad blonde wig). He owns Dreamland, a gigantic and garish steampunk-like Disneyland (actually based on the real 1917 Coney Island amusement park). Along with his superstar attraction, French trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green), Vandevere strikes up a deal to buy Dumbo and the whole Medici circus. Sounds pretty good, right? C’mon, this is a Tim Burton film! Things have to go sideways!

Dumbo, weirded out being in a new place, performs under the tutelage of the kids (apparently, this elephant can understand English) with the promise of getting to see his mother again. But even though Dumbo wows the massive crowd, that evil Vandevere just can’t let well enough alone. There’s thrills and chills, along with deep sadness and pathos combined with a surprising lack of humor or whimsy. Just like that dreadful remake of Pete’s Dragon in 2016, this version delivers on the truly remarkable CGI effects, but loses when dealing with painful family loss, unnecessary deaths, stark drama, and not enough enjoyable family fun time with an elephant that can fly. It wants to be amusing and for the kids, but can’t quite manage it with all it dark undertones and unhappy characters.

But what can you expect from screenwriter Ehren Kruger, whose body of work is comprised mostly of Transformers movies and those scary, creepy Ring films. Hardly the kinda guy you’d want to script a lovable, laughable kids movie, huh? I half expected there to be a bigger body count and an axe murderer lurking in some corner. But, it’s not all that bad, I suppose. What time we spent with that cutsie Dumbo is both delightful and remarkable; his flying and facial expressions are damn impressive for a CGI character. The kids are both newbies (and it shows), but Farrell, Green, DeVito, and Keaton are all excellent. It’s cool to see DeVito and Keaton together again in another Burton film, I just wish Michelle Pfeiffer showed up for the trifecta!

Dumbo (1941)
Originally rejected by Walt Disney, this very short animated featured film (only 64 minutes!) grossed more than his more expensive Pinocchio or Fantasia films that cost twice as much. It’s also one of Disney’s and Pixar founder John Lasseter’s favorite movies that, as you can clearly see, used the trademark “make ’em laugh, make ’em cry” guideline.
The WDP Circus (Walt Disney Productions) is off and traveling on the mighty Casey, Jr. railroad (yes, just like the ride at Disneyland) for parts unknown and Mrs. Jumbo the elephant (Verna Felton voiced) welcomes her new baby boy via a snooty stork (Disney stalwart Sterling Holloway). She names him Jumbo, Jr., but after he sneezes and his ears pop-out to ginormous proportions, her fellow catty elephants call him Dumbo instead. Bitches!
Over-protective, as any mother would be, Mrs. Jumbo is locked away after she goes berserk and attacks a bunch of hooligan teenagers who mess around with Dumbo. Alone, afraid, and ostracized by the other elephants, Dumbo gets a new friend in Timothy Q. Mouse (Edward Brophy), a ringmaster-dressed rodent who is also a loud-mouthed huckster and con man… er, mouse. He convinces the circus owner (in his sleep) to let Dumbo be in the show, but it yields disastrous results. Dumbo is then reduced to being a sad-faced clown with the others, making him feel even worse. Timothy cheers him up by taking him to see his chained-up mother, in what is probably THE most heart-breaking scene in the movie, guaranteed to make you tear-up. Especially with that song, Baby Mine playing, you don’t stand a chance.
But afterwards, in what is undoubtedly the most bizarre and surreal part of the film, Dumbo & Timothy accidentally get drunk and see Pink Elephants On Parade, a five minute song and visually WTH scene that defies description. It would be right at home if shown on the Ren & Stimpy or Ricky & Morty shows, THAT’S how weird it is. Anyway, the guys meet up with some black crows afterwards (the catchy When I See An Elephant Fly) and Dumbo is taught to fly by Timothy. His true prowess is put to the test the next day as Dumbo soars inside the big top, amazing one and all, and becoming the “ninth wonder of the world”, just as Timothy had predicted.
Writers Dick Grant & Joe Huemer had a helluva time getting Walt to make this movie, but they eventually succeeded. If you take a look at this movie, you’ll notice it looks cheaply made, as compared to the others made at the same time like Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi. Mostly because it was made during the much-publicized animators strike at the time, but also because Walt didn’t have much faith in it, making it a low-budget film. Little did he know it would go one to be his biggest hit at the box office. Another interesting fact is that Dumbo never speaks! Originally given a voice by Dickie Jones (the voice of Pinocchio), Walt scrapped that idea and just made him mute like Dopey or Gideon the Cat.
Also, when VHS home video’s were first being sold to the public, Dumbo & Alice in Wonderland were the first to be released. If you get a chance to rent the DVD/Blu-ray of the movie, check out the deleted scene where Timothy Q. Mouse explains his mouse heritage to Dumbo, going all the way back to “pre-hysterical times”. No footage exists, but there are rare archival drawings of what it was supposed to look like. Was it crazy and strange? Let’s just say it makes that ‘drunk Pink Elephant scene’ look tame, okay?

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