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Capitalism is a weird, sometimes beautiful, sometimes confusing thing.
Wait, wait, come back! Stick with me here, because I promise we’re going to talk about Tim Burton’s new live-action Dumbo remake.
It’s no secret that Disney is growing day by day into one of the biggest media empires the world has ever seen. They’re peddlers of dreams and happiness, of imagination and magic, and they’ve been very, very successful at it. As they continue to grow, the spotlight on them gets brighter and brighter, and for the most part, they’ve rose to the challenge of maintaining a popular brand across both consumers and employees.
That’s not to say they’re perfect. For every Ava DuVernay project that exhibits diversity, positivity, and wonder, there’s a story about how their park employees are striking because they’re underpaid. For every billion-dollar film they make, there’s a social issue arriving of John Lasseter proportions.
It’s such a fascinating thing to watch unfold in the public forum; the idea that a goliath of company can still operate with the main goal of making people happy and keeping their soul intact. Some would argue that Disney lost its soul long ago, and others would argue that it’s growth has allowed it to use it’s power to swing growing ideas of social change. Either way, the amount of money that Disney pulls in, even just from it’s feature films, is reason enough to give it the side-eye. It’s enough to make us wonder how balanced it’s never-ending quest to stay on top of capitalism mountain and provide joy actually is. Are they motivated by the desire to rake in money and power (spoiler alert: they are), or are they truly trying to provide that magical experience of wonder and happiness to everyone no matter race, social status, gender, or otherwise (fuzzier, but it seems that they are).
So where does the 2019 version of Dumbo fit in to all of this? The original 1941 animated classic ran a mere 64 minutes and concluded with Dumbo soaring around the circus tent before being reunited with his mother. In this newest version, that fateful flight happens in the 1st act, and with a nearly doubled run time of 112 minutes, Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger need to fill that extra time with SOMETHING, don’t they?
This new Dumbo contains many elements of the original, with the previously mentioned 1st act serving as a lose retelling of the original animated tale. Former circus star Holt Farrier returns to his sideshow family, coming back from World War I having lost an arm, a wife, and his starring spot. Ringleader and circus promoter Max Medici gives Holt the job of handling the elephants, including the newly-acquired, pregnant Mrs. Jumbo. That baby elephant turns out to be a large-eared adorable ball of leathery skin and big blue eyes dubbed Dumbo, who forms a special bond with Holt’s children, Milly and Joe. Together, the kids and Dumbo discover his ability to fly, and Dumbo becomes a sensation.
From that point on, the film goes off into a new direction, with wealthy entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere purchasing the Medici circus, including its performers and Dumbo, to give them a home at his futuristic, fantastical theme park Dreamland. His desire is to share the wonder of Dumbo with the world, pairing him with famous high-flying artiste Colette Marchant as a duo act. From there, the Farrier family, Medici, and Colette begin to realize the dark, sinister heart that beats behind the scenes at Dreamland and within Vandevere himself.
One of the biggest changes in Dumbo is that despite its fantastical leanings (there are straight up robot arms in a film set after WWI), the animals do not speak. That means that the human cast has to carry the weight of the drama as well as the exposition, and the performances swing wildly from bland to over the top. Colin Farrell is charming enough as Holt, but he’s such a blank character that there’s nothing for him to do that really registers beyond some typical fatherly heroics. Milly and Joe, played by Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, respectively, are equally blank. Milly’s only characteristic is to be an older daughter who resents adults and loves science, but her inability to really emote hinders her. I can’t think of a single thing that stands out about Joe, other than he’s slightly better at showing emotion.
Eva Green fairs a bit better, with Colette possessing a level of grace and a passion in her eyes that serves to show why Green is such an underrated performer, taking a thin role and giving it something more. On the other end of the spectrum, Michael Keaton is in full-blown scenery chewing mode as the eccentric, twisted Walt Disney stand-in Vandevere. He is a full-blown cartoon villain, evil and cruel for the sake of being evil and cruel. The performance isn’t ‘good’, per se, but at least it’s interesting. Danny DeVito probably has the most to actually do as Madici, and has the most individual drama and arc in his character. I’d also be doing a disservice if I didn’t at least mention a cameo by a popular public figure that is so wildly insane, and references that persons real-life catchphrase, that it totally took me out of the movie in a bizarre way. You’ll know it when you see it.
Dumbo feels right at home in Tim Burton’s hands. Burton has always been a champion of the weird and outcast, and the large-eared elephant fits perfectly into his wheelhouse. Not only that, but Burton gets to play with his favorite motifs of carnivals and retro-futurism and fantasy with a Disney-sized budget. The cinematography by Ben Davis manages to be both colorful and dark, a fine fit for Burton. Davis provides a hazy, almost dreamlike quality to the film, and he is fast becoming a Disney regular (his last films include four MCU entries). Burton’s musical collaborator Danny Elfman also gets a chance to play with both carnival and fantasy themes that are a perfect fit considering their past collaborations.
Where the 2019 version of Dumbo really gets interesting is in the story it’s trying to tell. Rather than believing in yourself and getting a better life from it, as the original focused on, this is a story of greed, fighting for what’s right, and the mistreatment of animal performers. Vandevere and Dreamland are suspicious from the second they’re introduced, and are so broadly evil that it almost seems unreasonable. This is a film that bemoans the nature of greedy, gigantic conglomerates that has been produced by a gigantic conglomerate, which makes for some very interesting interpretation, depending on your point of view.
On one hand, you could look at the film as a hollow exercise by a massive corporation to peddle a message it has no intent to follow. The message of helping out the little guy, animal conservation, and the demonizing of greedy capitalism is all nonsense because Disney is just repackaging a previously sold item in a new, shiny coat to make more money.
On the other hand, it could be looked at that Disney is turning an introspective look at themselves and their place in the world as entertainers with thousands under employ to serve billions across the world. To have them make a movie about the pitfalls of fame, greed where the Disneyland stand-in is a place to be suspicious of is fascinating move.
Unfortunately, it’s the conversation that winds up being a bit more interesting than the movie itself. The titular elephant is adorable and realized well enough, and some of the art direction and cinematography are gorgeous, but the film paints in too broad of strokes to really be effective as entertainment for all ages. As previously mentioned, the villains are so cartoonishly evil and unhinged by the finale that it was difficult to take them seriously. The human characters are mostly uninteresting, with the kids unable to get you emotionally invested and the adults, particularly Farrell’s Holt, being willfully dense to the actions happening around them.
Dumbo will most likely remain a film that is more fun to talk about than it is to revisit over and over again. It’s a well-crafted film visually, but lacks in story and character to really make an impact. There are flashes of magic throughout, plenty to be pleased with, but the overall film is just too uneven an experience. Whether you find it to be a hollow money grab by Disney, or an introspective tale about family and doing the right thing, it’s a film that flies on occasion, but has trouble soaring as high as it could.
The Final Pop
Tim Burton’s Dumbo is a beautifully realized film that falters with weak characters and overly-broad storytelling. The little flying elephant is as charming as ever, and there are bursts of magic to be found, but ultimately, like Dumbo himself, it’s weighed down by the humans around it.