Tim Burton's live-action adaption of Dumbo hits the same emotional notes as the classic cartoon. It is unabashedly a children's movie; a medley of sorrow, wonder, and eventual triumph. The story has just enough darkness to establish tension. The plot is simple and straightforward, leaving little room for the all-star adult cast to manoeuvre. The young leads and heartwarming CGI elephant do all of the heavy lifting.
Dumbo opens in 1919 Sarasota, Florida. Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from World War One to his home in the Medici Brothers Circus. The diminutive ringmaster, Max Medici (Danny DeVito), has kept watch over his two children, the clever Milly (Nico Parker), and her doting younger brother Joe (Finley Hobbins). They are shocked to see that their father has lost an arm in combat. With his act as a trick horse rider no longer possible, Max assigns Holt to care for the elephants.
Max's hope to save the failing circus is his recently acquired pregnant elephant, Jumbo. A cute baby pachyderm will surely bring back the crowds. He's beyond disappointed when Jumbo births a son with monstrously large ears. Cruelly nicknamed Dumbo by a jeering audience, the wide-eyed calf becomes a media sensation after an unbelievable feat. Dumbo attracts the attention of the famed showman, V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton); who wants to pair the amazing flying elephant with his trapeze artist girlfriend (Eva Green).
Dumbo is an outcast, surrounded, and cared for by others in a similar situation. Everyone in the Medici Circus is labelled as some kind of freak. The film updates the circus performers as a tight knit family. The Farrier children are loved, but ignored by adults and their concerns. Milly and Joe give Dumbo the courage to fly. The film is a parable about the power of belief. Danny DeVito has a great line where he says, "You should listen to your children". The lesson being that they see what is possible, no matter how improbable.
Tim Burton reigns in his proclivity for morbid fantasy. Dumbo is nothing like Alice in Wonderland or Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. The production design, cinematography, and visual effects stay true to the innocence of the source material. Dumbo has bright blue eyes and endearing expressions throughout. He reminded me of a curious, but slightly frightened puppy you might find at a shelter. Dumbo is also a pro animals rights film. Burton makes a clear statement on the treatment of animals in circuses.
The Dumbo cartoon runs barely over an hour. The film covers that storyline in the first act. The screenplay by Ehren Kruger takes Dumbo into a much larger setting. The outcome is predictable. I've read reactions where some critics branded the plot tepid. Dumbo may not be loaded with surprises or twists, but is far from boring. Dumbo's journey is inspirational and uplifting. The elephant's effect on the characters will also resonate with audiences. You can't help but root for Dumbo.
Kids are going to love Dumbo. Parents will too, although I guess that depends how cynical they are. Tim Burton has always embraced the plight of the strange and forlorn. Dumbo is his latest outcast champion, but with a softer touch. The film captured everything I liked from the cartoon. Walt Disney Studios now has to pull off the same feat with Aladdin and The Lion King.