This year, we’ve been treated to some historic moments in Disney live action cinema. There’s been the good; the impressive shot-for-shot remake of The Lion King’s trailer.
And then there was the bad; by which I mean the traumatising, vomit-inducing, hellish nightmare that was the chubby, blue Will Smith in the Aladdin footage.
Tim Burton’s reimagining of the 1941 animated classic, Dumbo, falls in the former. Thankfully. Because I’ve only just got over peeing the bed to the pink elephants in the earlier Dumbo. I couldn’t live with it being scary again.
For anyone unfortunate enough to have not have had a childhood (or for anyone fortunate enough to not have been bullied with the name of the titular character for their large ears) Dumbo is the story of a circus elephant born with larger-than-normal ears. So much so, he could fly. We’ll just skim past the jive-talking crows.
Being directed by Tim Burton, you can always assume two things: 1) the picture is going to be stunning, and 2) Johnny Depp will make an appearance.
Remember, it’s 2019, so only one of those two statements is going to be apt for Disney’s Dumbo. And let’s just say there wasn’t a scruffy, tattooed bloke wobbling about in sight. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Tim’s vision for Alice in Wonderland. While I thought the film was so-so, his world was gorgeous, and the same goes for Dumbo. The first chapter of Dumbo sees Burton tackle the 1940s aesthetic beautifully; the opening shot of Casey Junior train as it belts over marshes is spectacular, and pays a nice homage to the original. But things step up a gear as we’re introduced to Michael Keaton’s theme-park, Dreamland.
Dreamland is so strikingly dissimilar to anything we’ve seen before in the film, that it’s hard to forget it. And this is where Tim Burton’s unique imagination really excels. There’s whimsical, impossible rides and farfetched attractions. In fact, it almost looked like Dreamland had been presented several decades in the future, from the rest of the world it was set in. (Similar to Southend; however that looks as if it’s actually several decades in the past.)
This appeared to be a real passion project for the creators. Every scene was handled perfectly, and anyone who goes into a screening of Dumbo and doesn’t wonder how they’ll tackle the pink elephants on parade scene is either lying to themselves, or just has a life. (I wish I had one of those.) Again, this is portrayed brilliantly – instead of force-feeding a baby elephant booze, Dumbo is taken aback by a beautiful display of bubble manipulation, which gradually form the pink elephants – some of which perfectly mirror the choreography of the original Dumbo animation. Throughout the film, there are several other moments that pay homage; at one point, you can spot a vender selling stuffed Dumbo toys styled on the cartoon elephant.
Despite it’s constant references to its predecessor, Dumbo isn’t just for the die-hard Disney nuts. There are moments throughout which makes you think that the creators were really considering a wider audience when making this movie. While it’s only brief, there is an It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia reunion, seeing Danny DeVito star alongside Sandy Martin (who plays Mac’s mom in the sitcom). Of course, there wasn’t any mention of rum ham or troll tolls – not that I noticed – but it was a nice nod to any of the adults watching. Let’s face it; adults are now taking over screenings of live-action remakes. I will straight up punch a kid in the throat to get a good seat at the Detective Pikachu opening.
That’s not to say that this process of recreating Disney animated classics as live action movies won’t tire. Including Dumbo, we’ve had 11 already, and with the likes of Mulan, The Little Mermaid and Cruella all set to make appearances, it seems likely that this live-action fatigue could kick in. In my opinion, Disney need to carefully hand select which movies they’re going to recreate, or – much like Malificent – totally reimagine them all together. That was the issue with Dumbo; I knew what was coming. While there were a few differences this time around – we didn’t have Timothy Q. Mouse; we had an antagonist; children played a major role – I knew what to expect. Nothing was shocking, so it made it hard to feel for any of the characters during their times of trouble.
Dumbo boasted an all-star cast, featuring the likes of Colin Farrell, Eva Green and Alan Arkin. However, it was Danny DeVito as a flustered ringleader, who added some frequent comic relief, and Michael Keaton as the eccentric antagonist, who stole the show. Shockingly, however, the children who befriend Dumbo left me feeling quite cold. They were children in a Disney movie, yet they were anything but playful. They lived on a circus with a fucking flying elephant, so why did neither of them crack a smile throughout the entirety of the movie?! Especially when the main character can’t talk, it would have seemed an obvious choice to have the children make jokes and speak for the elephant.
In fact, the story arc for the two children – played by Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins – wasn’t so much of an arc, but a withered, flat line. Dumbo, himself, struggled with being accepted, after losing his mother; he conquered his fears in an attempt to reunite with her, and when he finally found her, he plucked up the courage to leave her again and save those who had looked after him. Meanwhile, the children were just, y’know, present. Take Milly Farrier, a young girl who couldn’t care for the circus, and instead strived to be a famous scientist. This is all she could bang on about, and yet we never actually saw her use her expertise. Even during the grand finale, where they were escaping goons and trapped in a burning tent – classic movies would tell you that she would use her science to escape; her father would see this and finally acknowledge it as a noble profession and they’d all live happily ever after. Instead, they didn’t. She just panicked and had an elephant fly her to safety. In this world, it’s more likely that a 200 pound mammal will glide you away from danger than a young girl being smart.
Thanks to Tim Burton, Dumbo is a very, very enjoyable film. With Easter eggs aplenty, an exceptionally adorable lead character, and a breathtaking setting, it’s hard not to fall in love with Dumbo. It’s also hard not to be hyper-critical about it when it seems like Disney’s now starting to churn out a live-action remake every six and a half milliseconds. I suppose they could do with the money though, couldn’t they?