Dumbo: What Tim Burton Gets Right

Tim Burton's Dumbo is one of the better live-action Disney remakes because it remembers what few modern blockbusters do: awe.

Disney’s accelerated conveyor belt of remakes of beloved animated classics is in no danger of ending soon. Not when Beauty and the Beast grossed $500 million of its $1.2 billion total in North America alone. This industrial reality has seemingly pushed some colleagues in the press to their saturation point since we stand on the cusp of three live-action Disney remakes in 2019—four if you count the Maleficent sequel. Yet like human characters in Tim Burton’s Dumbo, it feels like folks are taking it out on the wrong elephant.

Dumbo is doubtlessly the product of a spreadsheet somewhere in Burbank, one with every film in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ catalog (and presumably Pixar’s too), hence its featuring all the trappings of a modern studio family movie. A broken household is made whole by an adventure, precocious kids will defy social conventions in a wholesome and non-transgressive way, and a fairly hypocritical message about the dangers of greed and capitalism will fill out much of the rest of the human drama about a circus troupe in 1919 coming into the possession of a baby elephant who can fly. But despite its commercial tropes, there is something going largely ignored about Tim Burton’s reimagining of the 1941 classic: it has sincere heart and a sense of wonderment. In the modern era of studio tentpoles that really is becoming as rare as Dumbo’s ears.

In the film, Dumbo is a baby born to an Asian elephant while in a traveling circus. Initially disgusted by his large ears, ringmaster and circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) ignores the little guy and even sells his mother when she becomes violent while defending him. It is therefore up to children Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finely Hobbins), who are still estranged from their recently returned from the war father (Colin Farrell), to notice Dumbo can fly. Eventually the whole world does too, which attracts the attention of millionaire showman V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) and his prized trapeze star Colette (Eva Green).

It’s a very simple story that lengthens the 64-minute original while not really reinventing the core of it being about a young child wanting to be reunited with his mother. What makes it worthwhile, however, is not Ehren Kruger’s boilerplate screenplay, but a little of Burton’s old visual pizazz that he now so rarely indulges. At its core, Dumbo has always been the story of an outsider finding his way in the world, a narrative that Burton has told a dozen times and shows no trepidation about telling a dozen more. And on this familiar stage, he puts on a show that remembers key elements forgotten by so many modern blockbuster storytellers, at Disney or otherwise: your spectacle should invoke awe.

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To look at just one scene, consider the moment where Dumbo is first made to fly before an audience. While the climax of the 1941 film, it is merely the end of Burton’s first act. In fact, it is the sequence the whole film pivots on, playing to his strengths as a bold visualist. Rather than basking in the amusement of an elephant in clown makeup—an element from the ’41 film that is treated as unfortunate for Dumbo but endearing for the viewer—Burton has his CGI protagonist likened to a young elephantine Pagliacci, the sad clown of operatic tragedy. Indeed, Burton very much shoots Dumbo like the protagonist of a silent German Expressionist tragedy, all expressive eyes behind caged lines. Savoring anticipation of bedazzlement with a mounting, constant despair, much like a showman himself Burton milks the dread of Dumbo in his pancaked humiliation being silently raised on a makeshift elevator to the Big Top’s peak. Even before he endangers the blue-eyed creature that’s tailor-made for stuffed animals, Burton infuses him and the audience with an overbearing melancholy.

Eventually the sequence reaches its crescendo when the elevator breaks down and Dumbo is stranded at the top of a burning building set that will not stop burning. The baby elephant will either burn, plummet, or fly. Any adult knows the outcome of this sequence, and probably their children will as well, but the patience with which it is staged and the release that comes when Dumbo invariably does soar is exhilarating. By carefully placing his set-piece without a sense of irony, humor, or self-effacing knowingness, Burton has created a true marvel where an elephant flying a few laps around a circus tent is a magnificent culmination of emotion.

It’s remarkable that a computer-generated animal doing anything has impact at all in the modern milieu of blockbusters that see heroes fly into space, swing off buildings, and turn into anthropomorphic, talking oil spills. And yet, so much of the spectacle audiences are bludgeoned with is so overstuffed and excessive that the only way filmmakers appear able to combat its deadening oppressiveness is by having characters constantly dismiss these imaginative flights of fancy with glib detachment.

Dumbo, conversely, shows that for all of Burton’s recent struggles to find something new to say, he will never undercut his imagination or treat the impossible as a punchline. Despite the elephant at the center of Dumbo being digital, much of the colors of the film around him return to the tactile, if  intentionally saturated, Americana warmth of Burton’s Big Fish. Embracing Disney—as in Walt Disney—nostalgia, he relies on a natural earthiness, even in his heightened stripe lines of circus performers juggling. Hence when an elephant flies, it is something astonishing as opposed to trivial in a world where everybody is floating a a hundred feet off the ground with a smirk.

That distinction, as well as Dumbo making solid use out of the heartstring-manipulations of its source material via the “Baby Mine” song, allows Burton’s Disney remake to be the first since The Jungle Book in 2016 to have a sincerity to accompany its expected sentimentality. The third act itself is even then allowed to flirt with vague subversion since Keaton’s bizarre performance of an east coast blue blood is still nonetheless a pointed satire of Walt Disney. He’s an entrepreneur who’s built a theme park named “Dreamland” on Coney Island and desires to make Dumbo its star attraction. Anyone can guess how that story will end, but the glee with which Burton burns it all down hints at the iconoclast who once killed off Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis in the first 10 minutes of Beetlejuice, or made Batman envious of his villains out-and-proud freakishness in Batman Returns.

Dumbo can never be so daring, not while under modern Disney’s watchful eye and not with Burton as a quite different filmmaker today. But it can savor the silhouette of Eva Green’s trapeze artist having a muted aerial waltz with the young elephant, or the moment where she finally flies with the little big guy. The film earns the earnestness in its villain, of all people, staring slack-jawed at the gravity-resistant mammal and saying, “I feel like a child again.”

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read more: The Rise and Fall of the Disney Renaissance

Like all Disney remakes, Dumbo is no match for the original magic that inspired it, and continues the current question about why audiences seemingly want to just have their childhoods repackaged to them ad infinitum. The film wouldn’t exist without the Mouse House’s continued cynicism, yet unlike any of the others, Burton is aware of that cynicism and both makes fun of it and attempts to thwart it by the majesty of his own stagecraft. In doing so, he adds something new, if fleeting, to the iconography of the movie that inspired it, as opposed to simply regurgitating what you already saw in diminished, awkward live-action. After the vapid Beauty and the Beast remake and so many other soulless retreads (including perhaps a few more this year), evoking wonder out of the wearying shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.