Disney didn’t bother mounting any kinds of awards campaign for Dumbo, arguably the runt of the litter of live action re-enactments of classic animations that dominated the box office of 2019. In the UK, there’s not yet been a chance to view Andrew Bujawski’s Lady and the Tramp, but Tim Burton’s superior Dumbo stands aside from the rest of the pack by dint of revising and remodelling the original rather than just a shot-for-shot remake.
In fact, the only thing wrong with Dumbo is Dumbo himself: the CGI elephant, like most photo-realistic creatures, lacks the charm of the way that Dumbo was originally drawn. Story-wise, there’s more going on that just censoring songs (When I See an Elephant Fly) or situations (Dumbo getting hammered), with strong elements of corporate and business satire via crooked businessmen Vandevere and Remington (Michael Keaton and Alan Arkin), who lock horns as they try and figure out the best way to exploit the flying elephant in the room.
Danny DeVito makes a sympathetic ringmaster, and the moppet kids are fine as these things go; Burton creates a package that’s ideal in terms of putting new wine in old bottles, but also doesn’t let up on the darkness. ‘Everything is going to be like it was before’ offers one character soothingly, but this Dumbo doesn’t coast by on nostalgia. Several close-ups of elephant dung on the sanded floor of the circus hardly lend themselves to warm and fuzzy feelings, while the death of an audience member is lingered on, even down to a follow-up shot of a stretcher being loaded into a coroner’s van.
Given that Dumbo kicks off with children discovering that their father (Colin Farrell) has lost his arm in the war, it’s clear that Burton’s mind was on something more here than flogging toys; the animals may be photorealistic, but the Dreamland amusement park which ends up on fire could only come from Burton’s Gothic imagination, and the same goes for Eva Green’s trapeze vamp. Like Dark Shadows or Big Eyes, Dumbo may not please it’s target audience with it’s feeling for both light and shade, but it provides plenty of evidence of Tim Burton’s genuine acumen and showmanship as a director.
Ultimately, Max Medici’s aphorism feels relevant to Burton’s wrestling act with his studio; ‘Never do anything I tell you without checking with me first.’ With directors and other talent seemingly falling in and out of popular franchise projects, Burton is one of the few who can bend a studio to his vision. Presumably the dismal $350+ million box office take for Dumbo will put a stop to such original thinking in future family films. But Tim Burton’s failure brings back memories of the 1980’s, when Disney couldn’t get arrested, and films like The Black Cauldron, Tron, Dragonslayer and Something Wicked This Way Comes went rapidly down the tubes. In retrospect, these failures are often better than most successes, and there’s far more of interest in Tim Burton’s Dumbo than The Lion King and Aladdin put together.