Over the past few years, we’ve seen a handful of live-action remakes of some of Disney’s classic animated films. Some have been almost shot-for-shot recreations (Beauty and the Beast) and some have diverted a little from the source material (Cinderella, The Jungle Book) to offer a fresh look on the story. Each one has found success at the box office, which means only one thing — more. And we are about to get it. The first of three new live-action remakes that will hit theaters in the next four months is Dumbo, which turns the simple story of an elephant learning to fly into a loving portrait of the importance of family and how anyone has the ability to spread their wings and fly.
Because the original Dumbo was just over an hour, director Tim Burton had no choice but to alter the story in order for the remake to work. He does so by expanding on the last couple of the minutes of the original, in which a montage shows Dumbo becoming famous for his ability to fly. Instead, Burton introduces us to V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), the owner of a massive citywide circus, who entices Max Medici (Danny DeVito), the owner of the small but family-oriented Medici Brothers Circus, to partner with him and make Dumbo a star.
Another way Burton helps expand his world for a new audience is by focusing a lot of his attention on Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a wounded soldier returning from World War I to rejoin the Medici Brothers Circus where he and his wife performed as horse wranglers/cowboys. Unfortunately, during (and possibly because of) his absence, the Medici Brothers Circus has lost it’s zeal and his wife succumbed to an illness, leaving behind two children, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, respectively), which forces Max to sell most of Holt’s assets — including his valuable horses.
In order for Holt to continue to work (and perform) with the circus, he must become the chief elephant wangler. His first task — make the newborn elephant’s oversized ears disappear. After all, Max didn’t pay for a deformed elephant. During Jumbo, Jr.’s first appearance, in which his ears are tucked inside a baby bonnet, an accident occurs (as is a normal occurrence for Dumbo), revealing his new name to an audience of scorn.
What to do with the elephant? Make him part of the clown troop. There are two sequences in the original film in which Dumbo jumps off of a burning building, the last of which is when he flies for the first time in front of an audience. Burton cuts this to one, but does a fantastic job in recreating the sequence, and doing so in a way that will help him merge this into the second half of the film.
On that note, Burton does a great job making sure to include most of the iconic sequences. Most of the changes work well, including a beautiful homage to the pink elephants sequence and a much stronger story arc for Dumbo and his mother, which Burton structures the overall story, giving it a much stronger purpose.
One of the most obvious changes between the two films is the move away from the talking animals aspect. To do this, humans become surrogates for the animals, most glaringly, the crows and Timothy Q. Mouse, who befriended Dumbo and traveled with him along his entire journey, including being there whenever he flied. The majority of their purpose now rests on the shoulders of Milly, and Parker does a great job building a loving bond between the the two outcasts, conveying empathy with Dumbo in relation to her own character’s circumstances.
Although Burton does provide a nod to Timothy Q. Mouse in the film, it doesn’t do much except show that Burton knows he’s missing and has no idea what to do with him. For the most part, he’s just one of three mice that Milly uses to try and keep Dumbo company when no one else is around. But consider this…
In the sequence in which Dumbo first flies, he’s stuck on the ledge of the burning building and Milly climbs up to give him his magic feather. I understand why this is important, but in the overall scheme of things, her doing this isn’t absolutely necessary. What if, instead of Milly climbing up to Dumbo, her father refuses to let her go, so she tasks the mouse to climb up with the feather. Once there, he gives Dumbo the feather and then rides him back down to the ground. This would have provided hardcore fans one last perfect homage and given the mouse more importance to the film.
Like a lot of great directors, Burton likes to recast similar actors in his films, and it was great seeing a reunion between Batman Returns co-stars DeVito and Keaton, especially because their roles are slightly reversed this time around. As for as the rest of the cast, outside of some characters getting the short shrift or forcefully given some “Burton-esque” qualities, everyone plays their part perfectly in creating the usual sense of wonder you’d expect from a Tim Burton film. He does well to keep all of the action and the special effects poignant and necessary for the story he’s trying to tell. He doesn’t do too much, but doesn’t hold back either, and the mix sets a somber, yet whimsical tone that fits perfectly in the era the film is set.
Films like Beauty and Beast are already terrific films, so changing them up would do a great disservice, which is why I expect both Aladdin and The Lion King to follow similar recreations. But with a film like Dumbo, which doesn’t have a whole lot of meat on its bones to begin with (and one that you may not remember the same way after years of having not seen it), in order to tell a cohesive story for a new generation, you need to give it some weight, and I think Burton was an aoutstanding choice to bring the story to life. He does exactly what I expected, giving us a story that pays great homage to the original, but takes it in a direction that satisfies the child in us all.
My Grade: A-
Unplanned, the story of former Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson, who became an anti-abortion activist after witnessing an abortion on an ultrasound, may be a little one-sided when it comes to discussing such a controversial debate, but with some disturbing and graphic sequences of what could happen during an abortion, the film doesn’t hold back when it comes to its deeply-rooted convictions. A-
Next week, new movies include Shazam!, Pet Sematary and The Best of Enemies. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.