I went into Dumbo expecting to compare it against Tim Burton’s output of the late 2000s (favorable, incidentally) or to explore what happens when a director with a style as particular as Burton’s directs a movie for a company with a house style as established as Disney’s. Instead, I came out pondering a different question: did Disney not realize this is a film about an evil Walt Disney, or were they just super chill about it?
Colin Farrell plays Holt, a WWI vet who has returned home without his left arm, to find the traveling circus where he worked has fallen on hard times. His wife died of influenza the previous year and Max Medici (Danny DeVito), the Medici Brothers’ Circus CEO and master of ceremonies, has sold off the horses Holt used in his act, leaving him a one-armed, horseless single father of two. Medici instead throws Holt the supposedly demeaning job of tending to the elephant, pitting gentle Holt against cruel Rufus, a sour-faced ghoul from the old hook-and-cattle-prod school of animal training.
Rufus, and the conflict between positive reinforcement and draconian animal training, recede into the background as a theme while Dumbo becomes the story of Holt’s motherless children helping a big-eared elephant reunite with his mom. You likely already know the broad strokes of the story, the big-eared elephant who flies with the help of a feather and saves the failing circus. A few aspects of this update do strain credulity, like the idea that the local yokels would jeer a baby elephant with giant ears, rather than find it extremely cute.
There are also a couple of tacky touches, like the sign reading “Dear Baby Jumbo” getting jostled so that it becomes “Ear Baby Dumbo” to unnecessarily explain Dumbo’s name (Solo and the Point Break remake also had asinine origin stories for the iconic characters’ names — why do we keep doing this?). Boxing announcer Michael Buffer also cameos as a master of ceremony, who belts “Let’s get ready for Dumboooo….” There’s a wacky CGI monkey providing comic relief for the kiddos as well, but these are mostly mild eye-roll-worthy touches, not movie ruiners. Tim Burton was born to direct movies about garish circuses. You only wish this one was rated R or PG-13 so he could have a little more fun.
The interesting part happens when a wealthy circus rival named V.A. Vandervere (Michael Keaton) buys Medici Bros to acquire their star attraction and makes Medici a “partner.” Vandervere is a bit over the top, but hey, it’s a Disney movie, and it’s subtly brilliant the way Keaton lets Vandervere’s accent slip from affected mid-Atlantic to his natural cornpone whenever he’s angry. Vandervere tells Medici that the traveling circus is obsolete, that the future lies in “making the crowd come to us.” By way of example, Vandervere brings Medici to his own lavish theme park, Dreamland.
I can’t imagine anyone in the audience over the age of ten could see Dreamland, with its parades and its art deco futurist roller coasters, and not instantly think of Disneyland. Further, I was wondering how Dumbo would spin Vandervere’s goal, of turning the egalitarian, mom-and-pop traveling circus into a premium attraction for those with the money to travel to the big city, as a good thing.