Dumbo the big-eared elephant might be Tim Burton’s most complex protagonist in years. Perhaps that’s a backhanded compliment, as the director behind masterworks such as Beetlejuice and Batman has mostly churned out forgettable sludge in recent years, including another remake of a Disney animated classic (the risible Alice in Wonderland). But in Dumbo, the master of movies about misfits (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood) has found a hero worth rallying around: a floppy-lobed circus animal who finds his calling as a superstar when he learns to fly. It’s enough to give a jolt of energy to an otherwise standard entry in the Disney live-action-remake assembly line, making Dumbo the first Burton film in more than a decade to be remotely introspective.
The 1941 animated original, the fourth-ever Disney feature, was a deliberately economical piece of storytelling, a 65-minute fable made in response to budget overreaches of the studio’s previous film, Fantasia. Today, it’s hard to imagine a time when Disney would have ever worried about budgets; Burton’s remake is an extravagant, big-top show starring CGI animals and replete with his typically lush sets and costumes (designed by Rick Heinrichs and Colleen Atwood, respectively). The movie takes the basic concept of the original—a baby elephant, separated from his mother at the circus, wins her back through the power of flight—but removes many of its iconic elements, replacing them with a more convoluted tale about the dark side of achieving fame and fortune. Somehow it works.
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).
Anytime Dumbo flew around the circus, I got choked up; Danny Elfman’s score is appropriately soaring, sure, but I took my reaction as a kind of Pavlovian response more than anything else, a sign of just how deeply the original has been buried in my consciousness since childhood. Because of this visceral nostalgia, Disney’s live-action remakes usually leave me cold, wanting only to return to the rich originals and quickly erase the memory of the more bloated follow-up. Not so with Dumbo. The film is just different enough to stick out amid the studio’s backwards-looking slate, and Burton, for the first time in years, shows he hasn’t lost his love for the idiosyncratic.