FILM REVIEW – DUMBO. With Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin. Written by Ehren Kruger. Directed by Tim Burton. Rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language. 112 minutes.
Many movie lovers were skeptical when the Disney studio announced they would start doing live action remakes of their classic animated films. Were they really that desperate for new ideas? What was the point?
And then we started seeing them. “Maleficent” (2014) (telling “Sleeping Beauty” from a decidedly different perspective), “Cinderella” (2015), “The Jungle Book” (2016), and “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) each turned out to be movies that could stand on their own without trashing our memories of the originals. This year, Disney is going all in with live action versions of “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and “Dumbo.” They may not all succeed, but given the studio’s track record with these films, it would be foolish to bet against them.
DUMBO was certainly an odd choice to adapt. The original 1941 cartoon was only 64 minutes long and focused on a mouse mentoring a baby elephant who learns he can fly with his oversized ears. It has a number of elements that wouldn’t pass muster today, from racial stereotyping to a hallucinatory drunk sequence to telling a story of circus animals. It’s been almost two years since the Ringling Bros. circus ended its run, and several states now ban the use of elephants and other wild animals in such performances.
This new version reimagines the story by eliminating the talking animals and instead focusing on the humans with whom Dumbo – a truly impressive bit of CGI – interacts. The story is set just after World War I, with Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returning to the Medici Circus. Things have changed since he went off to fight. His wife died in the flu epidemic, circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) has sold off his horses, and Farrier’s career as a trick rider will have to adapt to his having lost an arm in the war. His two children, Milly (Nico Parker, whose real-life mother is Thandie Newton) and Joe (Finlay Hobbins) are soon taken by the birth of a baby elephant whose oversize ears make subject him to ridicule.
When they discover he can fly, it puts the Medici Circus on the map, attracting the attention of smarmy businessman V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) who wants his latest girlfriend, Colette Marchant (Eva Green), to ride Dumbo at Dreamland, his circus/amusement park. How the story plays out very much fits in with modern sensibilities, although it should be noted that this is the second recent Disney release, after “Ralph Wrecks the Internet,” that satirizes part of the Disney empire. Anyone who has been to a Disney theme park will recognize the funhouse mirror elements reflected here.
Director Tim Burton is known for his unique visual style, and he gets to go to town here. He’s also comfortable mixing his real actors with his computer animated star in such a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. The cast hits all the right notes, from Farrell’s sympathetic veteran trying to readjust to DeVito and Keaton offering differing images of sleazy owners, where you’re not quite sure how either is going to turn out. Green’s aerialist also wrestles with ambiguity until she finally takes sides. Parker and Hobbins hold their own among the adult talent and special effects, providing an anchor for the young viewers who will undoubtedly flock to this film.
Over the years this reviewer has noted certain “family films” as ones where the parents ought to flip a coin with the loser having to take their offspring to the movies. Not this time –– “Dumbo” is a movie that everyone can enjoy.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.