2014’s Maleficent kicked off Disney’s live-action reimaginings of various beloved properties. Soon after followed 2015’s Cinderella, 2016’s The Jungle Book, and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast. For whatever reason, rather than sticking to one new release a year, 2019 will welcome four more additions, including director Tim Burton’s Dumbo, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, and Joachim Rønning’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Creating modern adaptations for films that have such incredible built-in audiences is a huge idea, but what happens when the new interpretation strays too far from what audience’s loved in the first place? Truly, it’s an aspect that is impossible to predict and is hard to plan for. Who’d have guessed that a story focused on Sleeping Beauty’s evil witch would not only capture audience’s hearts, but invite a sequel, hitting theaters in Oct 2019. Or that audiences would swoon at the near shot-for-shot recreation of Beauty and the Beast. Or that Ritchie’s mixture of past and modern approaches would result in dislikes from critics but gain lots of love from the audience. Strangely, the easiest story to adapt of them all – 1941’s Dumbo – ended up on the receiving end of both critical and audience disdain, a surprise for Disney and Burton fans alike. Frankly, it’s a disdain which is, in some ways, as equally unjustified as it is expected. The script for 2019’s Dumbo from Ehren Kruger (Ghost In the Shell) not only shifts the focus away from the wonderful Dumbo and onto the humans who are caring for the elephant, but also expands the tale into a larger one of self-love and the importance of family. In many ways, by expecting Burton to hew closely to the source material, the audience jilted themselves out of a fine cinematic pleasure and, by shifting the focus away from Dumbo, Burton and company forgot what makes the original tale so enduring.
After the end of World War I, the Medici Circus is falling on hard times. Lead by Max Medici (Danny DeVito), every act, every performer, and every accessory is examined for value on stage and off in an attempt to keep the circus afloat. Returning from the war, former horse-riding showstopper Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) finds his horses gone and his wife having succumbed to the flu, leaving his two kids, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins), under the care of fellow Medici members. As the Farrier family begins to adjust to a new life together, Max’s new purchase, the elephant Jumbo, gives birth to a child with enormous ears. At first considered a horrible mutation by Max, Baby Jumbo’s value is slowly realized by Max and is put in the middle of a show. When a misunderstanding leads to the audience seeing his ears, their terrible cries give way to a new name for the newborn: Dumbo. All seems lost for Dumbo and the Medici Circus until the Farrier kids realize that Dumbo’s big ears give him the ability to fly, creating an opportunity for larger audiences and a fresh start for the circus. That is, until imaginarian V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) shows up wanting to make Max a partner in his own park, buying every act, every performer, and every accessory in the circus – including Dumbo. But what’s often too good to be true often ends up being exactly that as the Medici Circus’s notion of family is truly put to the test.
Disney may have accidentally shot themselves in the foot with this new iteration of Dumbo. Going in, audiences are going to have a certain expectation of seeing the story they know, even if tweaked for a modern feel. Certainly, with Tim Burton in the director’s chair, audiences would recognize that the film will be a different experience than the 1941 animated classic, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Frankly, you can’t compare these films against each other because they are for totally different audiences when placed side-by-side. Those that grew up with the animated version are parents or grandparents to the ones the 2019 version is aimed toward. Adding to this, the live-action version is more focused on the humans in Dumbo’s life than Dumbo himself. The imagination and heartrending aspects remain, they’re just shifted to a different focus. This creates an immediate dissonance for any audience member – fan or critic – when watching the film. Strange to call a film Dumbo when so much of the story, even if thematically in sync with the original, doesn’t maintain its focus on the titular character. Instead, Dumbo is the mechanism by which everyone else, the good guys anyway, receive their happy ending. Frankly, it’d be better for audiences to go in cold on this Dumbo to ensure that the film gets the recognition and adoration it deserves as a separate entity.
Dumbo is a world of incredible imagination in, even when things seem bleak, in usual Burton flair. Its leads are a soldier returning home with a missing limb who thinks life will return to the way it was and his children who long for the time before he left. It features a whole crew of fantastical performers who live their lives on the outskirts of society, viewed as freaks for working in a circus, even if they have no condition that makes them appear as one. Dumbo is a film about outsiders who stick together, finding joy in performing and possessing love through their bonds. Even at his most wacky and disturbing, Burton almost always explores the significance of family and self-love in his films and Dumbo is no exception. This in combination with incredible sets makes Dumbo a world of wonders, even when early scenes are obviously constructed through copious amounts of CG. But if audiences can look past that and focus on the incredible sense of surprise eking out from every corner, they’ll feel transported to an alternate past wherein the future is filled with infinite possibilities. As Dumbo is so obviously intended for a young audience (the Farrier kids are the ones who teach Dumbo to fly after all), it’s truly no wonder that the adults who viewed it came away feeling unhappy. This Dumbo tale isn’t for them, but is for the next generation of Burtons, the ones who see possibilities without the rancor of adulthood. Isn’t that what Dumbo (1941) was all about? A child on a journey of self-discovery as he seeks to reunite with his mother.
If you’re planning to purchase Dumbo, then you’re clearly the type who appreciated Burton’s approach, therefore the bonus features are going to be right up your alley. In a series of short featurettes, you can go behind the scenes to learn how they created the sets, how the on-set stand-in for Dumbo worked with the cast, watch a dedicated blooper reel, and even see a segment dedicated to pointing out some of the less obvious homages between the two Dumbo films. What makes this a treat is listening to Burton and his cast talk about their own connections to the story, to each other, and to the creation of the film. There’s something about hearing how delighted Burton was to reunite with DeVito and Keaton after having last worked with them on 1992’s Batman Returns, or how DeVito was thrilled to be playing the good guy this time around, or how Eva Green learned aerial work in order to do more of the stunts her character Colette executes in the film. These types of behind the scenes features always add some delightful color to a film you enjoy or provide new ways to appreciate a film that you might not have connected with in the first place. One item of note, as Disney has been doing of late, there is a specific Digital Edition only feature – “Dreamland: Anatomy of a Scene” – which could not be examined at the time of this writing. Considering that some of the best moments in the film occurred only after Medici and his trope go to Vandevere’s amusement park, Dreamland, one can only hope that there’re some good tidbits within.
If you’re able to let go of your expectations, Dumbo (2019) is a sweet tale capable of bewitching the youngest of audiences, inspiring the kind of wonder and positivity the original evokes at its core. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the problematic aspects of the original animated feature are excised (specifically Jim Crow and friends, plus the nightmarish pink elephant sequence), opening up Dumbo for even greater audiences. The trick, however, is recognizing that Burton’s Dumbo isn’t as focused on the large-eared elephant as much as it is his human counterparts. By acknowledging that it’s their story more than his, there’s a chance for this version to endure in the imaginations of its audiences. Admittedly, that’s a lot to ask for folks familiar with the tale, but not so much for newer audiences who are just meeting the sweet, loveable baby boy for the first time. Don’t fret though, there’re plenty of easter eggs hidden within to make fans of the old see the very thing they loved in the first place, even if the perspective is a bit different.
Blu-ray and Digital HD Bonus Features:
- CIRCUS SPECTACULARS: Dumbo’s cast share their experience of making the film—and get to the
- heart of a story about family and believing in yourself.
- THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: Explore how one of Disney’s most lovable characters went from
- an animated classic to a stunning live-action retelling.
- BUILT TO AMAZE: Get a closer look at the film’s production and costume design.
- DELETED SCENES – A compelling collection of scenes that almost made the final film.
1. Roustabout Rufus
2. Pachyderm Plans
3. The Other Medici Brother
4. Monkey Business
5. A Star Is Born
6. Where’s Dumbo
7. Elephant Heist
9. A Seat at the Show
- EASTER EGGS ON PARADE: Discover the hidden and not-so-hidden nods to the animated Dumbo in this narrated tribute to the Disney classic.
- CLOWNING AROUND: Laugh along with the cast in a collection of big-top bloopers and goofs from the set.
- “BABY MINE” – Visual video performed by Arcade Fire
- DREAMLAND – ANATOMY OF A SCENE: From Final Script to Final Scene – The filmmakers and cast talk a lot about the feeling of “grand intimacy” in the film. Step right up as they bring the Dreamland parade to life, accomplishing the rare marriage of a massive spectacle combined with an emotional tenderness.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital June 25th, 2019.
Final (Film) Score: 3.5 out of 5.