Struggling circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) enlists a former star and his two children to care for Dumbo, a baby elephant born with oversized ears. When the family discovers that the animal can fly, it soon becomes the main attraction, bringing in huge audiences and revitalizing the run-down circus. The elephant’s magical ability also draws the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), an entrepreneur who wants to showcase Dumbo in his latest, larger-than-life entertainment venture.
Disney live-action remakes have increasingly become the standard in Hollywood, from Cinderella (that was a good one), to Beauty And The Beast (not my favourite), and this summer’s upcoming The Lion King. And now Dumbo. But with Tim Burton in the director’s chair, this isn’t any old remake.
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Burton has delivered a CGI spectacle. The stellar cast of Colin Farrell, Eva Green and Danny DeVito play second fiddle to the real star: Dumbo and his big blue eyes. Burton uses his eyes as a tool, showing glimpses of how the little elephant sees the world that are equal parts scary and wondrous. We feel for Dumbo being thrust into a baying crowd as his trepidation is reflected in those pooling eyes. It has the nightmarish stamp of Burton but remains true to the Disney we know and love.
The villain is ruthless circus owner VA Vandevere, played by Michael Keaton. Vandevere only cares for money, and Dumbo has him seeing dollar signs. The animal cruelty depicted here is deliberate because it is real. Like Dumbo and his mother, animals are brutally separated and Burton does not shy away from this truth.
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The age-old message of Disney films isn’t lost, but magnified. The circus children are the moral compass, with Milly (Nico Parker) dropping one-liners beyond her years and teaching her elders right from wrong. OK, there are plot holes and it’s not as narratively tight as it should be, but you overlook it all in wanting the ill-assorted circus troupe to succeed in helping Dumbo.
As the movie says, “anything is possible”: words we all need to hear.
Mayran Yusuf is a film critic who loves nothing better than a good scroll of @TheShaderoom on Instagram and a sucker for any drama that BBC flings out. Series link at the ready!