DUMBO. Starring: Danny DeVito, Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Nico Parker, and Finley Hobbins. Also, Alan Arkin. Directed by Tim Burton. Rated PG (Mild themes, some scenes may scare young children). 112 min.

This American fantasy-adventure film is inspired loosely by Walt Disney’s 1941 animated film of the same name, which was itself based on the book written by Helen Aberson Mayer and Harold Pearl in 1939. The movie is a live action re-imagining of the 1941 Dumbo version, with a different storyline from the 1941 film. There is much more emphasis on human characters, who have good and not-so-good, motivations and human intent towards Dumbo.


The original film was directed by a team of people under the supervision of Ben Sharpsteen, and this movie is directed by Tim Burton who directed the cult, whimsical classic, “Edward Scissorhands” (1990). Burton is well known for breathing new life into well-known tales of fantasy, like “Alice in Wonderland” (2010), and his direction is characteristically dark and distinctive. This film is a story of a circus owner who cares for a newborn elephant whose oversized ears allows him to fly, but, typical of Burton, there are secrets which need to be revealed in fantastic re-imaginings of the original story.


In this film, Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is the ringmaster and owner of a small circus that against the odds is trying to make ends meet. Dumbo, an elephant, is born in his circus with immense, oversized ears, and Dumbo’s ears turn him into a creature of ridicule in a circus that is already finding it hard. Max is at a loss to know what to do. To handle the problem, Max enlists Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a one-armed war veteran and former circus star, to help him care for Dumbo, and he is aided by Holt’s two children - Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins).


Much to their surprise, the children discover that Dumbo can use his ears to fly. Following their discovery, a ruthless, manipulative and sweet-talking entrepreneur, V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), acquires Max’s struggling circus so that he can exploit the special skills of Dumbo in a grand new, high-tech entertainment venture he has set up, called “Dreamland”. Colette Marchant (Eva Green), a French aerial artist, stars in his new “Dreamland”, and she flies with Dumbo to everyone’s delight. Vandevere does all he can to turn Dumbo into the Circus Star that Dumbo is, and for a while his venture looks promising until things start to go wrong.


Tim Burton anchors his fantasy creatures in a diverse world that is recognisable, despite the colour and vividness of what he displays. He did this successfully and most recently in “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” (2016), and he attempts the same here, which is evident in the dark scenes of the animals held captive on Dreamland’s “nightmare island”, where Dumbo’s elephant mother is caged - away from where Dumbo needs her.


Burton offers a “gothic” style of direction in a cinema-fantasy world that is dominated by Mexican Director, Guillermo del Toro. He typically directs his films by revealing hidden things that give special meaning to his characters, and this film is no exception to that rule. Typically, Burton’s fantasy re-creations are painted in rich, colourful detail, and vibrantly communicate lurking danger. Though frequently dark, his imagery is creative, and he makes use of the film medium in highly unusual ways. The film has especially impressive costume and production design, which illustrate these characteristics, and which reinforce Burton’s directorial style.


The film, however, shows Burton scaling down his usual flair for doing things differently. He uses animal appeal melodramatically, and it is animal appeal that steals the show. Dumbo is an incredibly tender, loveable animal, that wonderfully celebrates “being different”. Burton being Burton turns some of his scenes into ones that may disturb. In this movie, though, his major fantasies will bring the hankies out. Some scenes are scary, but basically he has tempered his gothic tendencies to direct a film that children will enjoy, more than adults - though scenes of “Dreamland” on fire and in a wide-lens melt-down should hold everyone’s attention for a while.


Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Released March 28th., 2019

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