Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriter: Ehren Kruger, based on the original story by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl.
Runtime: 112 mins.
Australian release date: 28 March 2019
Previewed at: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney, on 28 March 2019.
The original Dumbo was an animated film released by the Walt Disney Studio in 1941 and now, all these years later, the same studio has produced a live-action version directed by Tim Burton. A story about a big-eared baby elephant who learns to fly, it’s a visual feast that takes you into a fantasyland where, just like in the ‘real’ world, good and evil vie for supremacy. It is, however, a world imbued with hope, as seen through the eyes of a positive young girl whose mantra, in the face of adversity, is: “You can do it, Dumbo; show ‘em.” And show ‘em he does!
It’s 1919 and a circus is leaving Sarasota, Florida, heading north for a tour of the southern states of the USA. When it arrives in Joplin, Missouri, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), previously the circus’s famous trick rider, returns from WWI traumatised by the experience - his left arm has been blown off in battle. He has difficulty relating to his two young children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), who have been cared for by members of the troupe since their mother died during Holt’s absence. His horses have been sold, too, so the circus owner, Max Medici (Danny DeVito), gives him the job of looking after Mrs. Jumbo, an elephant that’s about to give birth. Out pops Jumbo Jr., possessor of the largest, floppiest pair of ears anyone’s ever seen, who’s immediately ridiculed and renamed Dumbo. Infuriated, Max sells Mrs. Jumbo back to the dealer he bought her from and, in a poignant scene, she is taken away from her baby. Fully understanding the pain of losing a mother, Milly promises Dumbo that she will reunite the pair. When Dumbo becomes a highly sought-after act through using his ears to fly (with the aid of a feather), he comes to the attention of entertainment entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) and his French trapeze star Colette (Eva Green). Vandevere makes a lucrative offer to Max and entices the whole circus to his Dreamland, ‘where the impossible is possible’, with the promise of employment and a better life for all. But can he be trusted? And where is Mrs. Jumbo?
In the original animated film, Dumbo has a friend who is a mouse but the storyline has changed in Kruger’s script and the humans become his allies. There is also a modern-day emphasis on the rise of women’s abilities - Milly wants to be a scientist - and Colette, although coerced into being Dumbo’s flying companion, eventually helps to take control of the little elephant’s plight. Men, on the other hand, are the instigators of chaos, although there is some redemption in Holt’s awakening conscience. These changes seem unnecessary and superfluous to the crux of the plot. Still, the effects are all excellent and Dumbo looks almost real. He is simply adorable! Reprising the original score and a fresh adaptation means that this flying elephant is bound to do well at the box office but, regrettably, it lacks the heart of the original movie. Despite the touching story, it never quite soars.