Quoting a friend of mine, “There’s no way the shortest animated Disney movie can be morphed into an engaging, live-action feature!” Yeah, well, that’s the same person whose pessimism was applied to “The Jungle Book” (2016) when Disney first dropped news it would be made into a live-action feature. To say the results were a success would be an understatement. What Jon Favreau did with that was beyond impressive. The film wasn’t only beautiful and engaging, but it allowed itself to hold a solid place of its own among a story whose origins – like “Dumbo” – are also deep-rooted within the Disney animated world. Lest we forget “Beauty and the Beast” (2017), directed by Bill Condon. I reminded her of those two. I also dropped how Tim Burton was directing it and I had full faith in what the machine and Burton would present to the world. “We’ll see,” she said. Yea… We’ll see!
The story of “Dumbo” saw light more than 70 years ago, catching the eye of Walt Disney, who made it into Walt Disney Studios’ 4th feature film release. The original animated version flew into theaters on October 23, 1941. It was embraced by both audiences and critics, winning an Academy Award for best scoring of a musical picture. That endearing relationship between mother and son beautifully illustrated in “Baby Mine” is one of many reasons audiences have been drawn to the story for generations, making Dumbo one of the most iconic, animated characters around the world. Having seen the animated version more times than I can count, Disney/Burton’s upgraded version made “Dumbo” one of my most anticipated Disney films this year, alongside “The Lion King” (also directed by Jon Favreau) hitting theaters in July.
The beloved classic expands upon a narrative where differences are celebrated, family is cherished, and dreams take flight! Circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) enlists former star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) to care for a newborn elephant whose oversized ears make him a laughingstock in an already struggling circus. But when they discover that Dumbo can fly, the circus makes an incredible comeback, attracting persuasive entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who recruits the peculiar, yet impressive beast for his newest venture, Dreamland. Dumbo turns himself into a star, soaring to new heights alongside a charming aerial artist, Colette Marchant (Eva Green), until Holt learns that beneath its shiny spectacle, Dreamland cages dark secrets.
For starters, what “Dumbo” (2019) does is quickly reignite that nostalgic feeling of what we were drawn to as kids. Even though people know the baby elephant with big ears, they may not remember every beat about his story. The animated film is told through the eyes of Dumbo; the humans in the story were background characters – villains in many ways. In Burton’s live-action feature, it’s reimagined by expanding the plot, which notably meant some of the original characters not making the cut (which sucked), and its human characters being central to the narrative. In the film, humans serve to interpret the baby elephant’s journey in a way that’s effectively relatable.
While Dumbo is no doubt the star of the film, it’s the cast of humans that really elevate this film. Most of all the kids who play up as backbone to the story and the stream-of-consciousness between baby elephant and the rest of the cast. Sought after by everyone, the kids are the glue that binds “Dumbo” the magical movie it winds up being. Brilliant in their own characters’ objectives, my hats off to Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton and Alan Arkin for being able to keep that allure they’ve had for years. They still shine on screen and live up to their talents. Eva Green stands on her own presenting the gem she always is with her enchanting personality and scene-stealing smile. And Farrell… Well, we know his charm, wit and wisdom helps carry a film. Fun and endearing, the right people were selected to make this new version of “Dumbo” a sweet experience. I also found myself chuckling at a cameo I will not ruin. I’m not big on trailers, featurettes, or exclusive clips. I stay away from that. They usually ruin it for me. Glad I did. I had no idea this cameo was on board, even though I was told it’s been exposed during TV-spots for some time now.
The story is just as touchy as the animated version. There are moments that’ll make you feel happy, sad, and a little indifferent. The overall look and style are a bit grungy and dark. Not surprisingly, very Buronesq… Giving it a period-piece appeal quickly establishes a mood. One that’s a bit dreary at first once we open upon struggles, but then changes into pure escapism. One that entails great visuals. Visuals that aren’t necessarily overdone. They’re subtle and simple and fit beautifully when called upon. Most of it due to the humanistic appeal the film leans towards the most, but also keeps you in tune the main attraction hangs on peripheral stance until called upon. And once called upon, the magical journey takes off!
“Dumbo” (2019) is a wonderful adaptation of the original source material. Subjective, of course. But there’s no doubt or denying about that heartfelt, joyful adventure it provides repackaged into a new story. Providing a lot for all audiences, it’ll be interesting to see how this version’s appeal will reflect upon audiences and critics alike. At a run of a little under two hours, reliving innocence is not a crime. This “Dumbo” soars to new heights of imaginative spectacle. And for that, I thank you, Disney.
Grade: A | Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Family | Rated: PG | Run Time: 1:42
Starring: Danny DeVito, Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, Alan Arkin
Directed by: Tim Burton