Like the odds against the big-eared baby elephant himself, the deck would seem to be stacked against Tim Burton’s Dumbo. Burton has been on a bit of a cold streak; Disney’s recent remakes (The Jungle Book, Maleficent) have been canned at best; and cultural nostalgia for the 1941 Dumbo isn’t quite as strong as the attachment is to, say, The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast.
But the little pachyderm flies, and, however improbable, Dumbo is Tim Burton’s best film in years.
Unlike most of the contemporary (and upcoming) Disney slate, Dumbo isn’t a beat-for-beat remake of the original movie. Burton’s Dumbo hits some of the same beats, but at nearly twice the length of its predecessor, the film is much denser, dealing with the dangers of selling out to a huge, soulless corporate entity. Nominally, that’s not a strange premise for a movie aimed at children — embracing uniqueness over homogeneity is a fairly common theme — but it takes on an extra dimension as a Disney movie in the wake of a director’s wobbling career, and a merger that has left thousands out in the cold.
That corporate entity is embodied in Dumbo by former Batman Michael Keaton as V.A. Vandevere, impresario of Dreamland. The glitz and glamour of his amusement park seduces small-time ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito), whose circus shuttles the audience through the events of the original Dumbo before Burton’s hallmark weirdness is fully allowed to take over. Burton has more on his mind than just elephants, and it’s a welcome return to the cohesive color of Batman and Big Fish (and the mania of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) when he finally takes his shot.
Once again, after attempting to defend him from humans mocking his large ears, Dumbo’s mother is separated from her baby. It’s in the wake of this separation that Dumbo discovers he can fly, so long as he’s incentivized with a feather. Timothy Q. Mouse, however, has been replaced by Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins), the precocious children of former circus star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), who has just returned home from the war after losing one of his arms. Medici has sold his horses in the interim, and so charges him with caring for the elephants.
Dumbo hits some turbulence in exploring the lives of the human characters, as several storylines jockey for attention in a way that wasn’t a problem in the elephant-focused original. The kids have the typical Disney setup — one parent dead, aspirations toward greater things, magical creature friend — and their father is clearly set up for a parallel journey of self-realization as he learns how to cope with the loss of his wife (and arm). It all pales, however, in comparison to the push and pull between Vandevere and Medici.
Burton’s style is more cartoonish than not — there’s no attempt to pretend that everything seen on screen is practical, instead embracing the too-smooth edges and pastel colors of copious CGI — and the performances are best when they’re similarly outlandish. Keaton in particular is dialed up to 11, using a near-vaudevillian physicality and way over-the-top delivery to turn Vandevere into what I can only describe as “business Beetlejuice.” DeVito meets Keaton there, but mellows out as he becomes the mom-and-pop alternative to Vandevere’s vision of corporate glory.
There’s no way that the script, written by Ehren Kruger, intends Vandevere to be a stand-in for Disney itself, but Burton’s direction hints heavily at that allegory. The Dumbo dolls sold at Dreamland are copies of the 1941 cartoon version, not the CGI elephant of this iteration; there is a House of the Future attraction mimicking the one at Disney’s Tomorrowland; Medici’s decision to join up means loss of creative control; and, again, the merging of the circus with the larger park ends up stranding most of the circus performers without a paddle.
As the characters band together for Dumbo’s sake, the movie makes a kind of argument against its own existence. Better to let Dumbo fly free than to turn him into a businessman’s cash cow (cash elephant?), and better to run things on a small scale but on one’s own terms than gun for the big time with minimal influence over the final product.
It’s a fitting, grand stroke of weirdness for a film that alternates between breathtakingly strange highs and studio-note-stale lows. For every time Keaton is allowed to cut loose or the circus performers are given the chance to show off their talents, there’s another scene bogged down by how Milly’s only personality trait is “I like science,” or shoehorned references to how Holt and Dumbo’s differences make them kindred spirits.
There’s still a formula that Dumbo is supposed to follow, and the film can’t break it, even if Burton sneaks in the subversive. The movie is Pirates of the Caribbean-esque in that sense; familiar beats interspersed with strange details. There’s the fleeting note, for instance, that Max so longs for a brother that he calls his circus “the Medici Bros. circus” and pretends to be his own sibling with the help of hair dye and a mustache. Or take the sequence partway through the film where the original Dumbo’s champagne-drunk hallucinations are translated into an alcohol-less Cirque-du-Soleil-like acrobatic number with giant bubbles, with Michael “let’s get ready to rumble” Buffer appearing as Dreamland’s emcee.
Owning the spotlight is the elephant of the hour. Dumbo is wrenchingly cute, and his big eyes tap into — though fall short of fully recreating — the sweetness of the 1941 cartoon. (Think of the “Baby Mine” sequence and how much is communicated by the way Mrs. Jumbo’s eyes take on the shape of teardrops, or the way her trunk fits around her son’s face.) Burton is a visual filmmaker, and though Keaton and DeVito’s verbal sparring is a delight to witness (particularly as Keaton leans further and further into Vandevere’s eccentricities), Dumbo’s best sequences — the grandness of Dreamland, the colors the characters wear, the pure joy when Dumbo takes flight — don’t require words, which is, in the end, perhaps the film’s greatest tribute to the original.
Dumbo opens in theaters on March 29.