Dumbo is an elephant we can’t forget. More than 70 years since Disney’s 1941 film, the big-eared baby is still the most famous pachyderm on the planet. Director Tim Burton has dared to enter the ring with this iconic grey beast and remake the Disney classic not as a cartoon, but as live action.
In his 2019 Dumbo, there are two competing circuses — a traditional, down-on-its-luck, tented American circus run by ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) that thunders across America by rail and the huge, sinister theme park Dreamland, run by the avaricious, unprincipled and flamboyant V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), whose character bears a passing resemblance to Trump, not least the endlessly played with and thinning strawberry-blonde hair. The pachyderms are all CG — doe-eyed and, although elephants can’t cry, always looking as if they’re about to burst into tears.
Dumbo is a circus film with no circus. Eva Green, who plays Colette Marchant —the love interest and Dumbo’s performance partner in an aerial act — did train on the trapeze for the film. And there are hundreds of acrobats, aerialists, tightrope walkers, knife-throwers, jugglers, tumblers, strongmen and clowns as extras. But only very occasionally do we get a glimpse of them, all scrubbed up and standing in a static group as though they are posing for the camera. There are circus tableaux but there’s no circus action. Large set pieces are tightly choreographed in a style far more Busby Berkeley than Barnum & Bailey. It’s like Rocky with no boxing, or Bohemian Rhapsody without music. The flying elephant is the only act we ever see.
Today’s traditional circus, although professionally fearless, has awaited this extravaganza with some nervousness. I shared these fears; I’m a former circus elephant girl. Times are tough enough for the circus community — the government has pledged to ban all wild animals in circuses by 2020 — and we worried that the film would portray circus trainers as sadistic animal abusers. The original Dumbo was not kind to us, with the humans being nothing more than a silent, cruel backdrop for the animals’ animated conversations.
But in Burton’s Dumbo it’s the humans who do all the talking. A whole new cast of characters is introduced to complement the animal menagerie. Our hero is Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), who returns from the first world war to the Medicis with only one arm and with no wife left to perform their double act the Stallion Stars. Timothy Mouse is given voice by Holt’s two young children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) who befriend and look out for Dumbo, plotting his reunion with his mother as they, too, have lost theirs. Dumbo’s struggle to be accepted is expressed through Holt himself, whose missing arm mirrors Dumbo’s ears. Burton talks about them both being ‘flawed’. It’s a clumsy and inappropriate way to introduce disability into a Disney film. Disabled people don’t generally identify with deformed fictional animals.
Those are not the only changes. The animal-rights group Peta campaigned for a different ending, arguing that Dumbo and his mother Mrs Jumbo shouldn’t have to return to the ring. Instead, as Peta demanded, they’re released to an animal sanctuary and Medici proudly announces that his circus no longer believes in performing wild animals. Then Holt rides in on his horse — a real one — whipping the air.
At just 64 minutes, the original Dumbo was Disney’s shortest ever film. Burton’s version is double the length, and the lack of circus thrills make it feel even longer. The director opens his press interviews by saying:‘I never really liked the circus.’ His disdain for the thrill of a circus performance seeps through. By the end of Dumbo, I wished it had been made by someone who did.