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.