Dumbo is just days away from flying into theaters for all the world to see. Many remember the original animated tale and, while a sad tale in part, they still fell in love with the anthropomorphic elephant like he was a cuddly puppy. However, there has been some reservation about a Tim Burton influence on the story. Would it be darker? Would the story remain the same or have a Burtonesque twist? From what perspective would the tale be told? Would it be kid-friendly? Well, I had the opportunity to see an early screening of the film and wanted to share my honest, “somewhat” spoiler-free thoughts on the latest live-action movie from Disney.
I was invited as media to attend this screening. All opinions are mine and mine alone. This post does contain affiliate links. Please see my Disclosure policy for more information.
Okay – let me clarify my “somewhat spoiler-free” statement in the title. I do go into detail about character development below and my personal thoughts with regard to actor portrayals. I do not detail the film’s story-line or share anything that happens with the film’s plot. Proceed at your own risk, but I think you’ll be fine.
DUMBO ~ The Live-Action Movie
I’m going to be completely honest right off the bat. I have been struggling since the credits with how to shape this review. Why? I simply find myself both liking and….not liking (no need to use anything stronger) the movie all at the same time. My hope is that I can effectively communicate what I mean by this without turning anyone away from seeing the film. It truly is an endearing story that will, by movie’s end, capture your heart. However, I willingly admit…I am still processing everything I saw.
“From Disney and visionary director Tim Burton, the all-new grand live-action adventure DUMBO expands on the beloved classic story 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 pachyderm for his newest, larger-than-life entertainment venture, Dreamland. Dumbo soars to new heights alongside a charming and spectacular aerial artist, Colette Marchant (Eva Green), until Holt learns that beneath its shiny veneer, Dreamland is full of dark secrets.”
Tim Burton has a tendency of being over the top when it comes to creative license. We have seen his talent take various shapes and forms (literally) that tend to give us reason to pause and wonder. Of late, we have actually come to know Disney to exercise a little more freedom, as well, when it comes to the retelling, or re-imagining, of these beloved classics. I admit I joined the throngs of people who were a little apprehensive when it came to handing the reigns over to Burton for this particular sentimental tale.
Would he be able to keep our beloved flying elephant soaring in our hearts?
It’s all about perspective
Burton chose to tell Dumbo from a completely different point of view. Instead of having talking elephants, mice and horses, he created a story-line based on humans he decided to place within the context of the story. Strangely enough, he doesn’t even implement a Toy Story or Jungle Book element to it (where toys talk when humans leave or humans talk WITH animals). He just lets the backstory of a father, two children and a circus family set the tone and “drive the train,” so to speak, when it comes to sharing Dumbo’s journey.
Does it pay homage at all to the original?
While the story is definitely unique, there are quite a few nods to the 1941 animated film. Rest assured, you will see storks, feathers and pink elephants in the film and I admit Burton does do a great job with how he weaves them into the piece. He also keeps two of the songs from the original movie. This, of course, creates an opportunity for die-hard fans of the original to feel nostalgic.
All in all, the new release is interesting and compelling and has the potential to captivate both a new audience, as well as the hearts of those who adore the classic.
So, what did I like about the film?
I actually loved the newly created backstory, or at least the framework of it. Burton pulled in social elements, such as end of World War I and economic hard times, to create a conceivable setting, as well.
I also enjoyed the different perspective, as explained above, and that it was less “Burtonesque” than I expected it to be. What do I mean? Well, it still displayed his typical color palette (think faded, muted colors) and had hints of his eery musical touch at times. However, there were very few characters that caused me personally to do a double-take or wonder, “Why, just why?”
I also thought the CG animation was spectacular and that the animals were life-like in a way that made you want to take them home with you. Watching Dumbo fly through the air and perform other acts was mesmerizing and hats off to those behind the scenes who mastered this aspect of the film.
What did I not like about this film?
Oh, boy – here we go. I actually thought there was a lot lacking in character development and that the acting was sub par. Danny DeVito and Colin Farrell were great in their roles, though not jaw-dropping. Michael Keaton, however, had me confused. He looked as if he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to channel Beetlejuice or Vulture in his role as V.A. Vandervere. I had trouble separating this character from other roles (literally, plural) he has played.
When it comes to the child actors, I have to confess that I had wanted to see so much more out of them. Nico Parker’s character, Milly, was a little too “Wednesday Adams” for me. There was so much potential to draw out the scientific curiosity from her, but it just wasn’t there. Finley Hobbins, who played Joe, wasn’t given the chance, in my honest opinion. It was almost as though he were a non-entity, an unessential character ~ which was sad in my opinion because he is absolutely adorable. I hope to see more from him in the future.
The circus family ~ well, it really felt as if they pulled some of these characters out from under a bridge. I saw more charismatic expression and closer relationships showcased in another film that told the story of a group of circus performers. Yes, times were tough in the early 1900s, but that’s when you rely on “family” the most ~ blood or not. I wanted to see more in their connection, more than we were given in the film.
I spent the first half of this film broken, to be honest. The story included things that personally tear me up inside and it was hard to watch or want to see played out. However, in contradiction, as the story progressed, I did find myself pulled in, captivated and eager to see it through to the end.
Can you see why I’m struggling with liking versus not liking this film?? I probably sound confused myself.
Would I recommend this film to families?
For the most part…yes, but there are certain circumstances where I might say no.
Oh, this is a tough one to explain.
- I think there are dark spots that some littles may not be able to handle. However, we are not talking BeetleJuice style darkness. The original itself has some gray elements to it – bullying, ridicule, retaliation and separation. We just see them carried out by humans in this live-action version.
- Death is discussed and, to be honest, someone does lose their life. It is not gruesome, it is not gory. It just happens.
- There is chaos and fire does break out in a few spots of the film.
- There is a little glorification of doing the wrong things, but for the right reasons. Some parents may find that a little hard to swallow.
- I remember perhaps two mild uses of the word, “hell,” but no true obscenities. In fact, Colin Farrell’s character begins to say the “s” word. However, he is quickly “shushed” before he can even get past the “sh.”
At the same time, I can’t deny that it is a GREAT story about accepting differences, pulling together as a team, the strength of a mother’s bond with her child and the importance of believing in one’s self. Being unique is a gift, not a curse. We should be celebrating how different we are and believing in our own individual qualities. There is a lot a family could talk about after having watched this film, so I do recommend, in general, seeing it together.
I would once again caution those who are sensitive to the things I listed above ~ death, fire, some darkness and, dare I say it, clowns. No – they aren’t portrayed in a negative fashion, but some people just have a thing against clowns and it has to be noted there are a few in the film.
The movie, however, is not a gem in my book, but certainly worth a watch.
While I feel strange the movie did not give me any direct, organized takeaways to share with you, Dumbo himself did find a way to soar straight into my heart. Perhaps he will find a way to soar into yours, as well. Are you going to see the film when it opens in theaters on March 29th?