This is the remake of an old Disney animated feature, a live-action version that looks great but serves up a three-course meal of stereotypes old and new. The best parts are the winsome title elephant and Danny DeVito’s energetic portrayal of Max Medici, the owner of a small-time circus. The rest is not so good.
The story opens in 1919, when Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) arrives home from the war, having lost everything but his children. His left arm has been amputated, his wife has died in the 1918 influenza epidemic, and his circus job as a horse-riding performer is gone because the circus is broke and the horses have been sold.
The children are 2019 kids in period clothes. Much is made of the older child, a daughter (Nico Parker), who wants to be a scientist and acts the part, and less of her younger brother (Finley Hobbins,) who hasn’t indicated a career preference yet.
Holt is given a new assignment tending the elephants. One, pregnant Mrs. Jumbo, delivers a baby boy who turns out to have very large ears, which make him the object of jokes and ridicule. When Mrs. Jumbo reacts to protect her son, the two are separated and she is chained in a wagon, apart from her beloved baby, who also misses his mother.
The two children discover Dumbo’s superpower — yes, flying — and this redounds to the benefit of the Medici circus, which attracts the attention of a more prosperous (read: greedy) circus operator named Vandevere (Michael Keaton). He absorbs the Medici troupe and then teams with a financier, who is also greedy (duh) and is played by Alan Arkin. They plan to fire all the Medici performers and exile Mrs. Jumbo to certain death while capitalizing on the prized asset, Dumbo, by making him the star attraction.
If we were talking in 17th century terms, this would be the moment known as the Slough of Despond in the “The Pilgrim’s Progress” — which I’m guessing filmmaker Tim Burton did not have in mind. But the film continues on that old story’s track to the expected redemptive conclusion, one that will gratify all the animal rights protesters who have been picketing traditional circuses for the last 25 years or so.
There’s nothing wrong with this exactly, but I didn’t understand how all the pieces came together. Children attending the movie will get the gist of the thing, but if they’re older than 12 or so, they may suspect their emotions are being manipulated in the service of a formulaic plot.
The first “Dumbo” was Disney’s fourth full-length cartoon (after “Snow White,” “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia.”) In recent years, the mouse house has been releasing various new versions of old favorites. Another Tim Burton-led one, “Alice in Wonderland,” was popular in 2010, but last year’s “Mary Poppins” disappointed fans of the original. Next up, apparently, is Will Smith as “Aladdin.”
I haven’t seen the original “Dumbo” from 1941, but the general story is clear below. It differs from the current release in that it is shorter — 64 minutes versus 112 — which may be why the current film has more characters and plot elements. Also, the older version has no real human characters; Dumbo’s best friend and biggest fan is a mouse. Other animals scorn Dumbo, including a group of crows who speak in African American dialect and then become great friends with the little guy, a touch that probably was intended as a nod to racial harmony. Unfortunately, the leader of the crows is named Jim, which sounds awkward.