Starring: Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Nico Parker
People who belong have always bored Tim Burton. His films tell stories of outsiders looking in, of outcasts taking centre stage. Dumbo entered the world in a league of his own: a baby elephant too small to run but with ears so big he simply had to fly. He’s always needed a friend, someone to secure a safety net.
To tell Dumbo’s story, Burton has had to bend. We’re in the throes of a renaissance, as Disney live-action remakes are coming thick and fast with no signs of stopping. This is still the story of the same elephant, but in 2019 he’s sharing the limelight with a few humans too.
Danny DeVito, Nico Parker and Colin Farrell in Dumbo
There’s the Farrier family, taking care of the baby elephant at their home within the circus. War veteran and former star performer Holt (Colin Farrell) has swapped horse-riding for elephant-caring, as well as raising his two pre-teen children as a widower.
Fourteen-year-old Londoner Nico Parker leads the show as Milly Farrier, the headstrong young girl who wants to be a scientist. Her brother, Joe, unfortunately isn’t afforded an identity of his own.
Danny DeVito beams as the eccentric and insecure Max Medici, a struggling ringmaster swayed by the promises of utopian arenas from Michael Keaton’s antagonising entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere. And as it’s a Tim Burton picture, Eva Green is there too.
The original cartoon let the animal grow into his skin with animated friends, but there are no talking mice or singing crows in Burton’s film. Dumbo’s abilities are questioned to the point of suggesting lies, whereas in the 1961 cartoon, music quickly drowned out the sound of sceptics. The story has shifted to ponder the glibness of performance art, rather than just letting young elephants fly.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It's obviously Dumbo!
When Dumbo does fly though, magic truly comes to life. Burton masterminds vast and ravishing visuals, offering a cathartic and somehow believable vision of miracles at work while the tiny pachyderm glides around a cheering arena. Composer and longterm Burton collaborator Danny Elfman sprinkles a sense of enchantment over these moments of flight with a sublime soundtrack, which feels impossible to remain unaffected by.
A handful of careful nods to the Disney urtext conveys Burton’s sensitivity, as a heavily pregnant Mrs. Jumbo peers out of her crate and nods to a flock of storks flying overhead, and baby Dumbo bobs his head in time to the hypnotic chorus of those magenta, menacing pink elephants blown up by the soapy waters of Vandermere’s entertainers.
But when the words are taken from the animals and refocused on humans who don’t quite believe in themselves as much as they pretend to have faith in Dumbo, the fascination lessens. Milly’s passion for academia lacks conviction and borders on tokenistic, while Holt and Max seem too frazzled with finances, loneliness and bruised egos to truly devote themselves to their patchwork families.
Perhaps we’ve grown too cynical to place faith in talking animals, but if these stories are going be retold, more trust could be afforded to the originally defiant voices who taught us how to soar in the first place.
29 Mar 19 – 29 Mar 20, TIMES VARY
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