A few of the elements missing from the original are welcome cuts (such as the painfully racist chorus of crows); others, such as the drunken “pink elephant” sequence and Dumbo’s anthropomorphic mouse friend, are rather significant things to omit, though they do get brief references. Ehren Kruger’s script keeps Dumbo as a protagonist without dialogue (though there are plenty of squeaks and trumpets), instead centering the action on a circus family, the Farriers, who take the elephant in after his mother is shipped off for mistakenly attacking someone.
The Farriers consist of a budding scientist named Milly (Nico Parker) and her brother, Joe (Finley Hobbins). Their mother is recently dead from a bout of influenza, and their father, Holt (Colin Farrell), is a distant, haunted war veteran who lost an arm in battle. Their backstory is a mostly fitting match to both Burton’s aesthetic (the director has always favored grimmer slices of life) and the somber tone of Dumbo’s narrative, which is one of forced separation and loss. Still, Burton takes pains to represent the circus the Farriers work for, run by the gregarious Max Medici (Danny DeVito), as a fairly loving community, albeit one whose profit margins have shrunk over the years.
In Dumbo, both Holt and Burton himself see a kindred spirit, an oddity who’s initially shunned by the crowds for his freakish appearance but is obviously pure of heart. Holt is moved to help an animal with a physical deformity, as he’s still getting over the loss of his own arm; it’s a clunky storytelling device that Farrell manages to elevate with his practiced soulfulness. DeVito, a Burton regular who has now played three circus ringleaders for the director (if you count the Penguin in Batman Returns, which you should), has all the necessary exuberance, but similarly excels at indicating just the right amount of sadness behind the eyes.
That sadness quickly gets exploited by V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a silky big-city circus entrepreneur who hears about the flying elephant and seeks to fold him into his own, glitzier operation. It’s here that Dumbo started to click for me. The Coney Island Vandevere empire, dubbed Dreamland, is a nonsensical steampunk paradise that’s far too ostentatious for its own good, a gilded cage for Dumbo with an especially swanky veneer. Keaton, who hadn’t collaborated with Burton since 1992, plays this entirely original villain character with cartoonish aplomb, feeling only a step removed from the vampy rogues’ galleries he fought as Burton’s Batman decades ago.
What really drew me in was just how different the back half of the film felt from its animated forebear—a surprise, given that Disney’s remakes tend to be prosaic imitations (The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast were especially so). In the original Dumbo, once the elephant learns to fly, the film wraps up pretty quickly; in the 2019 remake, that achievement just sets a capitalist nightmare into motion. The charms, and limits, of Vandevere’s empire struck me as Burton drawing a stark parallel to his own career, one that’s lately been defined by big budgets and forgettable outputs (several times bankrolled by Disney).