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.
The answer is… it doesn’t. Dumbo‘s ersatz Disneyland is very plainly a place where bad things happen, where reality eventually turns Vandervere’s promise to “make the impossible possible” into a sad joke. Not only that, but it’s hard not to read Vandervere’s treatment of Medici Bros as analogous to Disney’s recent Fox acquisition. All of which culminates in a “button” scene, where the D on the Dreamland sign teeters and falls, leaving “Reamland.” Which one naturally interprets as a slang portmanteau meaning “a place where buggery occurs.” And considering the Jumbo/Dumbo origin story earlier in the film I don’t think that’s reading too much into it.
(In the grand tradition of naughty Easter eggs in Disney movies, there’s also a scene where you can clearly see the “mermaid’s” nipple — not a criticism, anyone who clutches pearls over children seeing a nipple deserve to be melvined to death, but it’s a fun thing to look for)
So, huh, Disney is apparently releasing a movie that reads like a takedown of Disney. Considering this is the same company that fired Edgar Wright from Ant-Man and Lord and Miller from Solo for not hewing close enough to their house style, Dumbo represents either an evolution towards greater filmmaker autonomy, a power move by Disney to own even the proceeds of their own critics, or the most incredible possibility, that they simply didn’t notice.
Does that make Dumbo Disney’s “Dre Day” (Damn, E, they tried to fade you on Dre Day, but Dre Day only meant Eazy’s payday), where proceeds from the diss track go to the dissee? I don’t know, but it makes Dumbo a lot more interesting than what I was expecting. And it’s probably Tim Burton’s best film of the 2010s, not that there was much competition.