*SPOILERS AHEAD!!!*The last few years, Disney has been giving viewers a treat in the form of reproducing classic animated movies from their vault as beautifully rendered live-action films. While nothing, in my humble opinion, can quite compare to the magic of the originals, these films have proven interesting. They try to avoid mistakes made in times past, and cast a different light on some plot lines, answering questions and filling plot holes, etc.
This past weekend, a friend and I ventured out to see the newest in Disney's line of live actions- Dumbo. While we agreed that the original was not our favorite Disney film, we were interested in seeing what spin Tim Burton would put on this classic story of a baby elephant whose oversized ears provided both challenges and opportunities in the world of the circus.
The film opens with a sequence of images showing the memorable circus train Casey Jr. chugging it's way through North America. The original song is omitted, save for an instrumental score, and Danny DeVito (ringmaster Max Medici) singing a line or two to himself later on. Rather than introduce actual characters, there are mere flashes of each performer in the troupe doing their bit as the train whizzes by beneath them. Not gripping, as far as openings go, but a fair start to setting the stage for time period and overall feel of the movie.
It doesn't get better.
There are no animals in the first ten minutes or so, except a monkey who is set up to be comic relief (he is constantly at odds with DeVito's character). The main characters appear to be two young children and their father, a returning war veteran with one arm.
They move around in a sepia toned world talking about money, how most of the circus is dead from influenza, the ten-year-old won't take up an act (does she really need to? There are no other children in this circus!) and the father, Holt, a trick rider, has no horses to perform with. It's dull. I was bored. The kids in the theater were either crying or rolling around on the seats. No one was invested at this point.
Finally, Mrs. Jumbo is introduced. A pregnant African elephant, purchased so the show can bank on showing off a cute baby animal. DeVito, in a humorless scene, reveals that the troupe is trying to multi-task by having everyone wear "multiple hats," and so assigns the now horseless Holt to be the elephant caretaker. The role seems pointless, considering there are at least three other men taking care of the elephants.
Mrs. Jumbo was beautiful. One of the few animals who actually had camera time, she could have carried the show if they had focused more on her. She had expressive eyes that conveyed just as much as if she'd been a talking character (like in the original). Holt, although obviously still grieving the loss of his arm, wife, horses, and former life, seems to bond with the elephant over time.
The reveal is... lacking. He's hidden in a pile of hay while his mother is brutally forced off the train car (why is never explained,) and he shows off his oversized ears by tripping off the train. The children instantly fall in love with him. DeVito is enraged that he's been sold "a fake" and wants his money back. An unnamed elephant keeper, with an unidentified problem with Holt, instantly begins torturing Mrs. Jumbo about her "freak" baby.
The children take Dumbo in, feeding him peanuts and trying to help him keep his ears out of the way. It could have been a cute scene, but the boy was forgettable and the girl was so focused on being "scientific" that any heart was drained from the interaction. Dumbo inhales a feather (dangerous, much?!) flies for a second, and the kids lose their minds.
Of course, no one believes them.
Opening night of the circus results in disaster. Holt, for whatever reason, does not want to be recognized. He has to wear a false arm, which he swears about- a lot. (Ummm, kid's movie, right? Did I miss something?) Dumbo's ears are tied up in a baby bonnet to hide them, and he is pulled around the ring. This works well until the jerk caretaker enrages Mrs. Jumbo and sends her stampeding into the ring. She starts a fire, mass screaming and evacuation, jerk dude dies. It's super dark.
During a tiny interlude that nods towards the original, Dumbo visits his mother in her cage. The troupe is singing the tear jerking song "Baby Mine" in the background, and Dumbo snuggles with Mrs. Jumbo for a brief moment. It's almost screen for screen with the original, and honestly the only scene with heart. I cried.
And then Danny DeVito reappears and everything goes back to grim-dark sepia tone. Mrs. Jumbo is shipped off as a mad elephant. The kids have a weird conversation with Dumbo about missing their moms. Dumbo inhales another feather and starts flying again, and the kids tell him this is the way to get his mom back, make money flying for the show. And somehow he understands them.
Dumbo is put in the clown act, an actually interesting sequence with Holt helping Dumbo perform, and the kids hoping Dumbo will fly with enough incentive. The act goes well at first, but then fire breaks out and Dumbo gets trapped on the burning tower. The girl climbs up to give him a feather, nearly dying in the process, and Dumbo starts flying around to the shock and amazement of all.
It's a cute sequence, and had it been a turning point for better things to come, would have been delightful. But no.
Micheal Keaton arrives with a feathered French woman (Ava Green) on his arm. They want to buy Dumbo, and DeVito falls for Keaton's suavity and money talk, bringing his entire troupe to New York. There is so much money talk in this film, the kids were crying with boredom.
They move to Keaton's fantastic theme park in New York. The French woman, Colette, turns out to be a trapeze artist that Keaton wants to ride Dumbo. (Isn't he still just a baby? Can his ears really take the weight of himself and a full-grown woman? I get this is fantasy, but seriously.) She learns the children's secret of stuffing feathers up Dumbo's nose to make him fly, and starts training for the big opening night. Meanwhile, Holt and Colette start a tiny flirtationship when he finds out she is not "with" Keaton. The two actors have a spark of chemistry that would have been interesting if they could have expanded on it a bit.
Opening night comes, and with it the most bizarre performance of "Pink Elephants on Parade" that I've ever seen. Was it bubbles? Was it magic? Was it all in Dumbo's imagination? It's never explained. When Dumbo and Colette start the performance, Keaton (FOR NO APPARENT REASON) shows a complete disregard for Colette's safety, Dumbo freaks out, and Colette is only saved from certain death by Holt's quick thinking. DeVito, Keaton, and Alan Arkin have a conversation about money (the park will go under unless Dumbo impresses Arkin's character into investing.) Arkin is not impressed when Dumbo flies out of the tent, and leaves.
DeVito is issued a callous order to get rid of the rest of his troupe, and Holt finds the group of them saying goodbye to Dumbo in the elephant tent. He decides that they have to take action, and they form a plan to get Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo out of the park. (How this is supposed to help the circus troupe get jobs, I don't know.)
The next night, the troupe works together to get Mrs. Jumbo out of Neils clutches. Holt, the kids, and Colette start work on their plan to get Dumbo out during his performance. I have to credit the actors with really doing well in this sequence, and making you really invested in hoping they escape. The thematic elements might have been a bit much for the kids though.
As Colette and Dumbo soar to safety, Neils tells Keaton about Mrs. Jumbo's escape. They lock on the kids and start a rapid chase through the park. Keaton, meanwhile, goes to the control tower where Colette and Dumbo have disabled some systems to allow the others to escape. Keaton freaks and starts flipping random switches (even though his people are working on safely restoring power and warn him not to interfere.) The park is set to explode, people rush around in panic, fire is everywhere. Holt sees Neils chasing the kids and sets off to save them, using his trick riding stunts to get Neils off their backs. They end up trapped in the big tent though, until Dumbo (how did he know they were there??) shows up helps them escape.
Holt loads the kids on Dumbo, and the girl has a long and unconvincing talk with Dumbo about how he doesn't really need the feathers to fly. Then Dumbo takes off, in a beautiful sequence of him flying with the kids over a Brooklyn nightscape, and follows the truck with his mother down to the docks. Holt steals a police horse and follows them, while Keaton freaks about his burning park and DeVito heads off with Arkin to get hot dogs.
At the docks, Mrs. Jumbo and Dumbo say goodbye to the troupe and set off -on their own- to Africa. The trope then regroups with DeVito, who opens a "family circus" where no wild animal is kept in cages! Except apparently horses don't count because Holt is a trick rider again. He gets together with Colette, and the little girl invents moving pictures? As long as they're happy...
The last scene is beautiful, if unrealistic. Mrs. Jumbo and Dumbo are together at last in the wilds of Africa, where they see a huge herd of elephants waiting for them in a gorgeous waterfall landscape. Dumbo soars over their heads and the elephants all smile and wave their trunks. It's cute, even though animals born and raised in captivity have little chance of actually surviving in the wild. But hey, movie magic, right?
For me, this story held a lot of potential.
The idea of having Dumbo's handler losing an arm was inspired. It would have made such an intimate bond between them, both having these perceived disabilities. It's a topic never even touched on, though, which was a serious shame. Dumbo and Holt both overcome their issues, but separately, and without any heart or warmth or bonding.
If the story had been entirely from the kids' point of view, changing the characters so that they carried the story instead of being helpless puppets being dragged around everywhere, it could have been cool. Let the little girl ride Dumbo, finally getting her own act, just to make her father proud of her so he would pay attention to the kids more. Make them actually desperate for a mother figure instead of simply being cool with Colette hanging around. Let them progress past the sadness and deadpan expressions. It could have been interesting.
If the story had focused on Holt getting closer to his kids while coping with the loss of pretty much everything, that would have been an interesting story. Throw in more of the banter and character development between Holt and Colette, and it could have made for a beautiful and gently romantic story.
If the story had focused on DeVito figuring out where his true heart lay, in show business or making money, this could have been cool. Throw in a competent sidekick (or even just expand on the strongman character) and a maybe include a legit reason for the situation with the monkey, and this could have been interesting.
If the story had even circled around Keaton's character I would have been more engaged. It certainly wouldn't have been the first Disney film to center on the villain. Give him a redemptive arc, let him learn something from his mistakes. Let him take the good (legit good) ideas from the park and turn it into something amazing. Give him a change of heart, let him build an elephant sanctuary for Dumbo and his mom. Let him have legit reasons for what he does instead of just making him smile wickedly and leave you wondering what just happened.
Instead, the plot jumps from one thing to the next. You never spend enough time with one character to really feel anything for them. DeVito isn't funny, he's just annoying. The kids aren't cute, they're stiff and expressionless. Colette isn't engaging, she's stereotypical (and for pity's sake, how did she, a trapeze artist from the streets of Paris, know which lever to pull in the control tower to do the exact thing they needed to do?)
It wasn't even a feel-good animal film. Sure they rescued two elephants and a couple horses at the climax, but what about the other animals locked up on nightmare island? What about the other performing animals in the tents? Did they all die in the fire? And don't even get me started on the people stuck on the rides.
Definitely this film had redeeming qualities. The CGI animals where well done. Colin Farrell did a smashing job as Holt (barring the swearing) and came off as the most sympathetic character. His relationship with Colette was really the highlight of the movie for me. The scale of Keaton's park was fantastic and really made you want to visit.
Older kids, and diehard fans of the original will probably enjoy seeing the twists Tim Burton puts on this classic, but I would recommend passing for young children. Watch the original with the talking animals showing their unique perspective on circus life, and Timothy mouse as Dumbo's humorous and helpful sidekick. Or if you're just looking for a circus fix, watch The Greatest Showman. It has fewer animals but heaps more heart.