Roll up! Roll up! You’ve seen a horse fly, a dragon fly and maybe even a house fly, but have you seen an elephant fly? Actually, unless you were a deprived child then you’ve probably seen Disney’s 1941 animated feature Dumbo.
Speaking of deprived children, we get the feeling that Tim Burton didn’t have the most “normal” of childhoods. As such, there’s likely plenty that hit home from the original film, making him an apt choice for this live action take on the sometimes weird, oftentimes wonderful story of a flying pachyderm.
However, it’s only really loosely based on the original Dumbo. That was a 63-minute feature film that, as its triumphant payoff, let us witness little Dumbo the elephant breaking the bonds of gravity and soaring about the sky. A straight remake just wouldn’t have worked, for many reasons.
So, Burton has incorporated key parts of the original, from the critical – such as the core tale of a mother’s bond with her child and appreciating that difference isn’t something to be mocked or frightened of – to the ornamental. The latter includes everything from the steampunk-ish face on Casey Jr (the train), to snippets of original soundtrack songs being hummed, and right through to a scene that could easily have been made for him if he’d been a thing in 1941, involving pink elephants and gigantic bubbles.
As the original’s talking mouse was likely out of the question, even for Burton, the story is framed around a returning WWI vet (Colin Farrell) and his two children, who are tasked with looking after a new addition to a struggling circus, a baby elephant. It’s soon discovered that the big-eared little tacker can fly, which attracts attention both good and bad. Circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) begins seeing the equivalent of cartoon dollar signs in his eyes, an OTT big city entrepreneur (Michael Keaton) steps in, and it’s off to the big time at his Dreamland amusement park. But there’s darkness behind the scenes there – hey, Tim Burton, remember?
The casting is outstanding, with Burton also rekindling one of his trademarks for the daughter role in making her just slightly creepy and off-kilter. Young Nico Parker (Thandie Newton’s daughter) handles that with aplomb, while Burton favourite Eva Green pops up eventually as a trapeze artist, and the under-utilised Alan Arkin appears all too rarely as a Wall Street tycoon. Burton’s faithful pal Danny Elfman provides the musical score, and it’s typical Elfman – in other words, it fits proceedings with appropriate quantities of both whimsy and wonder.
Burton’s take on Dumbo ticks the boxes visually – it’s often mesmerisingly stunning – and lollops along pleasantly and engagingly enough with its additional “big business uses people up” message. But while it takes story beats from the original, it just doesn’t have its heart. We’ve never managed to sit through 1941’s Dumbo without at least the occasional tear plopping down a cheek, yet we left the cinema here with our hankie neatly folded away, un-snuffled upon.
In cinemas: March 28, 2019
Starring: Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Danny DeVito
Directed by: Tim Burton