The imagination of Tim Burton works wonders on Disney’s re-imagining of its 1941 cartoon classic.



Soap operatics: Dumbo comes clean (with Nico Parker, left)


How ridiculous. An elephant that can fly. You’ve seen a dragonfly, you’ve seen a fruit fly, you’ve seen a housefly, but an elephant? As part of Disney’s programme to re-animate their cartoon classics with real actors (cf. Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and the upcoming Aladdin), Dumbo is a different animal. Different in that the simple, 64-minute film of 1941 has been handed over to none other than Tim Burton. No stranger to children’s cinema, Burton connects with his young audience much as Roald Dahl did and J.K. Rowling continues to do. Hence, any charm that the original cartoon had – based on a story by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl – has been replaced by thrills, excitement and a true sense of wonder. From the very start we can recognize the Burton stamp as all the magic of the circus is brought vividly to life in a world that seems half-real and half-imagined.


But these are harsh times and, being 1919, America is still struggling from out of the shadow of the Great War. Our nominal human hero, the stunt rider Holt Farrier (an oddly cast Colin Farrell) returns from the front line without his left arm, only to find that his wife has perished from influenza. The couple’s two children, Millie and Joe, provide the obligatory child’s eye view, while the child-sized Danny DeVito delivers the comic one-liners (“Never do anything I tell you without checking with me first!”). DeVito is Max Medici, the owner of the travelling Medici Bros. Circus, and has sold off many of its props and animals to keep the show financially afloat. What he needs now is a miracle…


Before he brought us the child-friendly fantasy of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016) with Eva Green, Tim Burton directed Big Eyes (2014) with Christoph Waltz as the duplicitous artist Walter Keane. Waltz also played the elephant-abusing circus owner in Water for Elephants (2011), but I digress. So, Burton progresses from big eyes to big ears as his pachydermic protagonist here is born with the most unwieldy, wing-like ears you have ever seen on a baby elephant. And because Dumbo is ‘different’, his ears are hidden so as not to give offence to the paying public. In the original film, Dumbo was teased by the other elephants, but here it is DeVito’s ringmaster who is appalled by the aberrant newcomer.


With its storyline diverging dramatically from the original, the film is at pains to celebrate its theme of diversity and so we are back into the familiar camp of The Greatest Showman. Camp is what we expect from Burton, and he lays on the visuals with the abandon of a graffiti artist with a $170 million budget. DeVito is great fun and there’s a scenery-chewing turn from Michael Keaton as an unscrupulous entrepreneur wanting in on the act. The latter’s girlfriend, a Parisian trapeze artist, is given a nice shade of irony from Eva Green, who admits that she is “one of many gems he wears to reflect the light back on him.” There’s also a nicely restrained turn from Nico Parker as Milly, a girl more interested in scientific discovery than the tawdry flimflammery of the circus world. And the 14-year-old actress is a startling facsimile of her mother, Thandie Newton.


The circus acts are genuinely awe-inspiring and the film, running at 111 minutes, barely flags for a second. For once, the computer-generated imagery is used to excellent advantage, particularly in the flying sequences and one astonishing scene in which giant soap bubbles take on the forms of wraithlike animals (replacing the first film’s hallucinatory pink elephant episode). Burton’s regular composer Danny Elfman is also at the top of his game, producing a heart-stirring composition that actually amplifies the emotions of the drama rather than drowning them. And, with its politically appropriate conclusion, the film brings Disney’s little classic soaring into the 21st century.




Cast: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Roshan Seth, Lars Eidinger, Deobia Oparei, Joseph Gatt, Miguel Muñoz Segura, Zenaida Alcalde Alcalde, Douglas Reith, Phil Zimmerman, Lucy DeVito.


Dir Tim Burton, Pro Justin Springer, Ehren Kruger, Katterli Frauenfelder and Derek Frey, Screenplay Ehren Kruger, Ph Ben Davis, Pro Des Rick Heinrichs, Ed Chris Lebenzon, Music Danny Elfman, Costumes Colleen Atwood.


Walt Disney Pictures/Tim Burton Productions/Infinite Detective Productions/Secret Machine Entertainment-Walt Disney.

111 mins. USA. 2019. Rel: 29 March 2019. Cert. PG.