Synopsis: Baby elephant Dumbo and his mom are enslaved circus performers. He has big ears. Also, he can fly.
Disney’s 1941 animated film Dumbo gets a retelling in a live-action Tim Burton-directed movie. I’m happy to report that no elephants were harmed in the making of the classic or in the new film. Because, you know, they are cartoon and CGI elephants.
I am so opposed to the use of enslaved real elephants in movies that I can’t help but be concerned, even when they are cartoon elephants in a circus. All joking aside for a moment, abuse of these magnificent animals at circuses and zoos has been documented where they are subjected to bullhooks and electric prods during “training.” Most troubling is the practice of making baby elephants perform tricks by physically abusing them into position. K, back to the joking…
In the original animated feature, the plot revolves around baby circus ellie, Dumbo, using his oversized ears to fly. One day, hateful boys in the circus audience are tormenting Dumbo. His mama rushes in and spanks the boys (they should be glad she didn’t trample them). But then Dumbo and his mom are separated from each other when she is imprisoned for her “crime.” We all cry when the song “Baby Mine” plays as Dumbo and his mom twine their trunks through her cage bars. If only there was an Elephant Protective Services to reunite them. But this is 1941 and even human children probably had few protections. Anyway, once Dumbo’s flying show makes him a star, he’s allowed to be with his mom again. I can imagine all the 1940’s kids leaving the theaters thinking of what fun circuses are and how they want to go see real live elephants perform.
So… a lot has happened since 1941, like the end of World War II and the near extinction of Asian and African elephants (due to poaching and habitat loss). Non-spoiler alert: humans are really good at killing and destruction. On the bright side, CGI can create lots of animated elephants. And while 1941 Dumbo is adorable, 2019 Dumbo is adorable and realistic-looking. Classic Dumbo and new Dumbo share their big flight-making ears. And blue eyes. I can believe a flying elephant. But a blue-eyed elephant?
I cherish all baby elephants including Dumbo and baby Babar. And so, I was concerned when I learned that Tim Burton would be the new director. Should he be getting anywhere near baby animal stories?
After all, this is the ghoul master of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Edward Scissorhands. A holiday movie? The Nightmare Before Christmas. How jolly. Tim Burton can’t seem to help himself from creating onscreen phantasmagorias. In the new Dumbo, you can sense the push of the director’s creepiness and the pull of Disney’s directive to not scare the bejesus out of kids.
Dumbo 2019 keeps the central story but adds a circus family to the mix. Two young children live at the circus while their dad is away fighting World War I. When he returns, the reunion is somewhat awkward because their dad, Holt, aka Colin Farrell hasn’t written to let them know that his arm was blown off. Tim Burton probably wanted to make a movie about the lost arm, in which it crawls through the war-torn countryside looking to rejoin the rest of the body. After a while, it accepts life as a disembodied arm, finds work as a harpsichordist and falls in love with a clam.
Danny DeVito (less grating than usual) plays the owner of the traveling circus who has recently purchased Mrs. Jumbo. She soon gives birth to little Dumbo. Both CGI elephants are excellent actors. And I don’t know about stunt doubles for animation, but it appears that the baby ellie does his own flying.
Speaking of acting, Colin Farrell is always good, though his character is fairly thin in this flick. But we see that he loved his dearly departed wife. We know this because he looks at her photo from time to time with a sad, scrunched face. Also, he has a country boy, southern accent. The kids don’t. In fact, the boy rarely speaks, mostly trailing after his older sister. She is expressionless ninety percent of the time, whether she is climbing a four-story ladder or tending to the world’s cutest animal. We are told that she likes science.
But Dumbo! He conveys all the wide-eyed wonder and innocence of a child–or in this case– a baby elephant. His first forced act in showbiz is when he is dressed as a baby and paraded in front of a circus audience in a big stroller. Careful, Baby Dumbo! He is too innocent to see that some of the humans want to make sport of him. Some throw foodstuffs at him!
Mama elephant is every protective mom when she rushes in to save her baby. Except, in this case, mom is four tons and can cause considerable damage.
Dumbo 2019 doesn’t spare us the heartache of the baby ellie and his mama’s separation. Because the CGI is so realistic and because the animal actors are so good, we cry. Besides his terrible sadness, poor Dumbo isn’t getting his many requisite gallons of rich elephant milk each day. Instead, the stupid kids bring him a bag of peanuts.
Things can only get worse when big-time circus owner (Michael Keaton) arrives with a vampy trapeze artist (Eva Green) and an offer to buy the circus. Watch out because Michael K. has a crazy glint in his eye like he did in Beetlejuice. But Eva Green’s eyes frequently brim with tears ( a la fellow Frenchwoman Marion Cotillard’s signature look), so she might be sympathetic to Dumbo. No…you know what? I will not call that darling little enslaved pachyderm ‘Dumbo’ any longer! He is now Cute-O.
Now we reach a point in the movie where Tim “Creepy” Burton is unleashed. He creates a dystopian Disney called ‘Dreamland’ where our little ellie is expected to perform. It’s a menacing art deco Metropolis a la the 1927 movie. There is a really scary part of the park called ‘Nightmare Island.’ Tim Burton would probably like to live there.
Can one-armed Colin Farrell, a few friends and the stupid kids save the day?
Cute-O has a nicely updated storyline this time out. In the intervening seventy years, more people have become informed and sensitized to the mistreatment of wild animals in captivity. The movie is worth seeing for the 21st Century version of happily ever after for Cute-O and his mom.
Long live animated and –ESPECIALLY– real elephants!
P.S. Enjoy Arcade Fire’s version of “Baby Mine.”
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: Moviegoer, Movie Loon is cynical about all of the Disney remakes, but this really is sweet. Even if Tim Burton directed it.
Humor Highlight: Michael Keaton’s scenery-chewing.