Walt Disney’s original 1941 animated version of Dumbo was a short, allegorical story about a young elephant, born with some prominently unique physical features, who unfortunately bore the brunt of attention from the many bullies and xenophobes who lurked within his world. Ultimately, as Dumbo transcended his own low self-esteem, it was revealed as a story of acceptance, and of seeing strengths in what others perceive as weaknesses.
Nearly eight decades on, Disney has returned to the story and have made a new version of their famous flying elephant story. It is the first of a series of live action conversions of some of their previous animated successes, with Aladdin and The Lion King, amongst others, also to be released within the next few months.
Tim Burton is the director of the new Dumbo, and whilst there is clearly some obvious visual reference points to his favoured primary coloured design palette, this film is not seeped in as much over the top surrealism as has been some of his earlier cinematic canvasses. There is, however, more than just a passing nod here to the darker edges of storytelling that he has often tended to explore in those films.
Dumbo, subsequently, is not a film for young children anymore, as taking it into the realm of live action has removed the protective layer between fantasy and reality which allows young kids to subconsciously realise that, whilst they are reacting to and receiving the intended social and moral messages the film is communicating, what they are seeing is not a direct reflection of their actual worlds. In this film, it will be harder for youngsters to differentiate between these realms and there may be some risk of adverse reactions to what they see here.
Dumbo, in this version, is befriended by two young siblings, not the empathic, courageous and diminutive rodent, Timothy Mouse of 1941, and young viewers will be asked to vicariously assume the role of one of these youngsters and live through the children’s experiences. They will, as a result, then have to deal with learning that their mother has died in a deadly influenza outbreak, and that their father has been off fighting in World War I, and has returned from the Front as a one-armed amputee. They will also have to witness, and emotionally deal with, a panicky mother elephant, who in the act of protecting her baby, causes the Big Top tent to collapse and crush a man to death. This incident was in the original too, but the outcome was more a slapstick tossing of the ringmaster into a barrel of water which was a far less traumatic outcome for young minds to process.
The underlying messages in this modernised film version are more skewed to observations of unscrupulous business practices and environmental issues, and even though the original pleas for tolerance, acceptance, and the upholding of the family as a cornerstone for the maintenance of moral health, are still apparent, they are no longer the central focus. Some gentle recalibration of values may be required for the youngsters in the audience, so responsible adult guardians need to be on alert.
Whilst the script is weak, and the sequence of action has some significant narrative leaps that will have to be negotiated, the cast do their best with the material they have been given to work with but no-one here turns in their career-best performances.
Danny DeVito, as the struggling circus owner and ringmaster, Max Medici, inhabits the role believably, and Colin Farrell, as Holt Farrier, the returned serviceman father (Disney’s fifth choice for the role after Will Smith, Courtney Affleck and Chris Pine, amongst others, turned it down), serviceably plays his role, even if a little ‘by the numbers’ in style and approach, but it is hard to accept that his character has enough charisma and charm to win the affection of the beautiful French aerial acrobat, Colette, played by Eva Green.
Michael Keaton, as the greedy and exploitative showman, V.A, Vandevere, puts in a performance that seems to have been taken straight out of the world of amateur pantomime – he is one-dimensional and overly cartoonish, and is wearing an absolutely appalling wig!
The much-loved songs from the original are largely removed from the new film, although Danny DeVito does hum a few lines of Casey Jnr. as he walks alongside the stationary train (the locomotive, such a strong and distinct character in the earlier film, does have a smiley grille at the front this time around but it is the only attempt at recreating the personification of Casey Jr. that was achieved in his first incarnation).
The Arcade Fire sing Baby Mine over the end credits too, and there are a few orchestral flourishes at key moments where refrains from the original tunes are momentarily reprised within the score.
Dumbo, this time out, certainly does not find out that he can fly by waking up at the top of a tree after accidentally imbibing copious amounts of alcohol as he did originally, and therefore we miss out on anything remotely equivalent to the most memorable sequence in the original film – the drunken hallucinations of surrealistic Dali-esque pink elephants Dumbo sees whilst in his barely conscious stupor. This time around, there are some circus dancers who blow bubbles in the ring during a show and Dumbo sees these take on elephantine shapes in his imagination as he watches from the wings, but this sequence seems superfluous and largely at odds with the more hardened ‘realism’ of the rest of the film.
The ‘magic feather’ device is also reworked here, and used throughout the film, not just at the end, and its reoccurring usage does not make a lot of narrative sense here once it has been used to elicit the first sneeze induced flight.
For me, the new Dumbo seems like a film that does not know its intended audience. It pitches its social messages awkwardly, and in retelling the classic ‘ugly duckling’ story at its core, it becomes too focussed on spectacle over substance.
I just found myself wanting the sad, pilloried little elephant to be given a quicker release from the state of purgatory we had seen him kept in for far too long. Thankfully, Burton does grant the little fella liberation at film’s end. This act is also a concession to contemporary environmentalist thinking rather than having him fly off into the future of showbiz fame and success that his animated ancestor seemed keen to embrace eighty years ago, and that, at least, means the film finishes on a politically satisfying note.
Dumbo will be released in Adelaide cinemas on 28 March.