“Dumbo”: Heart and Charm

I watched the original Dumbo when I was very young and that film made an indelible impression on me, making me love animals and empathize with them, understanding how to treat animals with respect and love. That nostalgia toward the animated film made me excited for the new version, hoping it would bring something new to the story while still holding on to the same heart of the original. With a stunning cast, the new live-action version maintains the charm and heart of the old plot, adding some new insights into the treatment of animals and building on the nostalgia of the original story.

The new version of Dumbo is set in 1919 immediately after World War I, focused on the Medici Brothers Circus. Max Medici (Danny Devito), the owner has purchased an investment a pregnant female elephant. When his former horse trainer, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), returns from war, reunited with his two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), Max puts him in charge of the elephants since he’s sold Holt’s horses. Holt is struggling with his return, his wife has passed away from influenza in his absence, and the last thing Holt wants to do is take care of the elephants. But when Mrs. Jumbo has her new baby, his children bond with the newborn that is the laughing stock of the circus with his oversized ears. When Milly and Joe discover Dumbo can fly, they try to encourage him but before they can, his mother is taken from him. The children teach him to fly so he can get his mother back but persuasive entrepreneur V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) and an aerial artist named Colette Marchant (Eva Green) swoop in to make the peculiar pachyderm a star. Unfortunately, Vandevere’s ideas for Dumbo don’t include returning him to his mother and Holt, his family, and the rest of the circus must come up with a plan.

Most people watched the old film as children so as adults we have those long ago memories of sweet Dumbo and his loving Mama. The heart of this story is about mother and child as well as Dumbo’s belief in magic. Directed by Tim Burton, he has infused the new film with that same magic, focusing on Dumbo’s love for his mother and his desire to be with her. For children, this will be the most important part of the plot. They will empathize with the elephants, with Dumbo’s pain over his separation with his mother and root for him. In addition to the focus on Dumbo, for families, the story also has two child protagonists. These children, orphaned by their mother, give the audience another development of the mother and child theme. In the film, the characters of Milly and Joe stand in for the animals that were in the original, being advocates for Dumbo since he is now without a voice and they encourage him to believe in himself much like Timothy in the 1941 film. Even more, Milly is a scientist illustrating that girls can do anything they want.

So what does Dumbo 2019 offer the adults watching it? First, it gives us nostalgia. There are many references to the original, from the train to the mice that Milly trains. The first act is much of the original plot so it tugs at our heartstrings as we mentally revisit the emotions Dumbo evoked when we saw it for the first time. But more than that, there are some intriguing nuances to Dumbo that older children and adults will be able to enjoy.  It spotlights the treatment of animals at circuses and other places when used for the entertainment of humans. Given the original shows Dumbo bullied and mistreated, weaving that into the new story is brilliant, heightening the effect and adding a more modern twist. There is also some clever indictment of PT Barnum, Ringling Brothers, and even Disney itself. When Max allows himself to be swept up into V. A. Vandevere’s theme park, it mirrors Disney buying smaller companies and Dreamland with the idea of the Impossible being Possible feels like a direct jab at the Disney theme parks and how big Disney has truly grown.

While you can easily see that Dumbo and his mother aren’t real animals, the CGI is extremely well done, right down to the wrinkles on the trunks and Dumbo’s ears. His big blue eyes make you fall in love with him. The animals are expressive, enabling viewers to easily understand their emotions. For the sequences in Dreamland, it is easy to see Burton’s hand in the imaginative scenes, the glittering tents and the mechanical wonders, the Haunted Island and his promotion of those who are different. The set of the traveling circus is designed well, authentic to the many shows on the road at the time. The scenes with Dumbo flying make the child in me gasp in wonder, some of the best scenes in the movie.

There are some impressive names in this film. Danny Devito is funny and charming as Max Medici. Michael Keaton plays V. A. Vandervere as though the part were written for him, a ham at all the moments he should be and selling the corporate shill villain role, especially at the end. Eva Green is equal parts graceful and warm, her performance as a high-flying trapeze artist as wondrous as Dumbo. Colin Farrell is best when he is on his horse but his portrayal of a father missing his wife and struggling with his relationship with his children helps with building the heart of the story. The children are precocious, especially Nico Parker as Milly but they do a great job acting with CGI Dumbo. Even the secondary actors, the mermaid, the snake charmer and the other performers of the circus helps build a story full of magic.

There are flaws. One of the pivotal elements that helps Dumbo to believe is his feather but it doesn’t get used to full potential and isn’t consistent. The story feels rushed during the third act when the performers and Dumbo are in Dreamland. Some of the plot doesn’t always make sense in the context of the story, especially as it links to the original film. Most of the film is predictable, especially if you are familiar with the 1941 version. And I did miss the animals talking, which allows viewers to understand their point of view better. But while it isn’t perfect, I think Dumbo is cute and the story tugs at my heart, making me love it as much as the first time I saw Dumbo.

So verdict, do we need a live action version of Dumbo? Most likely not but this version of Dumbo is adorable, the plot is heartwarming, realistic in the depiction of the animals, and I think families will love it. Some might think children won’t like some of the sadder overtones but I think children deserve a story that isn’t sugar-coated and offers insight into how humans should treat the animals that live in the world with us. I think parents will like the conclusion of the film and the interesting nuances in the story. Even though there were tearful moments, it was worth it in the end.

Rating: 4 out of 5 feathers.

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