As baby Dumbo makes his entrance into the world, he’s told, “Welcome to the circus. We’re all family here, no matter how small.” Disney’s new live-action version of Dumbo shines brightly in many ways, but a message of inclusion amidst a tale of misfits is what stands out, even surrounded by director Tim Burton’s magical imagery.
With all of the remakes Disney has been churning out lately (Mary Poppins Returns and the upcoming Aladdin and The Lion King to name a few), it would be easy to dismiss Dumbo. The original version premiered over 75 years ago, and the remake’s trailer misrepresents the film as much sadder than it actually is.
Dumbo opens on Holt, played by Colin Farrell in a touching performance, returning home to his circus life after World War I. He’s missing his left arm and his wife, who died in an influenza outbreak. His kids, Milly and Joe, are struggling to find their place in the circus; Milly likes science experiments more than circus acts.
The circus owner and ringmaster, Max Medici, (played by Danny DeVito) sees his next hit attraction in a new baby elephant, but deems him unfit for headlining when the new baby is born with considerably large ears. An unfortunate instance of Dumbo’s mom trying to protect her son leads to her being sent away and the two being separated.
One day, Dumbo sucks a feather up his trunk, which gives him the faith to fly, with the encouragement of Mily. Dumbo’s ability to fly strikes the fancy of entertainment entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere, who buys the circus and makes it an exhibit in his theme park, Dreamland. Vandevere is played by Michael Keaton—in a silver wig that deserves an award of its own based on its ability to foreshadow Vandevere’s malevolence even before he puts Dumbo in danger.
Dumbo lacks the darkness that Burton often brings to his movies—which include Sweeney Todd, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands—replacing it with an awe-inspiring movie design that plays up colors, old-timey circus attractions, and special effects. The shining special effect is Dumbo, of course. Like the original film, Dumbo doesn’t speak, instead communicating with others through his big blue eyes and an impressively expressive face.
While there are a few plot points that are introduced and never returned to, Dumbo is an excellent film that introduces younger generations to the story of the misunderstood little elephant with big ears. Dumbo celebrates the greatness of outsiders, and makes the point that the parts of an individual that are ridiculed can become their superpower. It reminds us that with a little faith, we can all soar to our full potential, whether or not that involves flying.
Release Date: March 29