The Medici Brothers Travelling Circus has taken a few knocks recently. With the Great War now over, the owner, Max (Danny DeVito), has seen his profits slide since many of his biggest attractions either had to leave or have been killed in the conflict. One returns, however, and he is Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), though he is not entirely intact, having lost an arm over in Europe and unlikely, it seems to Max, to be able to take up his horseriding act again. Holt's children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finlay Hobbins) are unsure how to take to their father, especially as their mother passed away of Spanish Flu, but their grief is distracted by the arrival of a certain baby elephant...
And no ordinary elephant, for this was the Disney animated classic Dumbo reimagined as a superhero movie - with the title character as the superpowered protagonist. In the original, the grand finale was where he spread his outsize ears and took to the skies, but apparently judging twenty-first century audiences were less patient he flew far earlier, in fact the plot of the source material was compressed into the first half hour, leaving the rest of the time to focus on what happened to Dumbo once his talent had been discovered, though the cynical could observe this was rewritten extensively because nobody wanted to shoot scenes with the crows as before.
The crows were problematic, as despite being thoroughly sympathetic and instrumental in Dumbo's happy ending, they had a minstrel-style stereotypical edge to them, therefore they were nowhere to be seen in this loose remake. Mind you, none of the animals spoke here as they had done in the forties incarnation, so human characters were necessary to keep the narrative puttering along, but that plotline seemed to have been influenced by one of the most widely-seen documentaries of the day, Blackfish, which detailed the abuses of trained killer whales in ocean parks, supposedly a fun day out for tourists yet anything but for the animals forced to sing for their suppers (of fish).
Fair enough, you may think this Tim Burton envisaging of Dumbo was basically Free Willy with an elephant, but there was a lot criticising the sort of business that makes a lot of money out of training and displaying animals which at least would be happier roaming a safari park or better, a national park rather than either cooped up or doing tricks, as those poor whales were. So this reimagining was an animal rights protest movie, not what you would have expected from Disney which was generally fairly conservative, but Burton truly committed to his theme, going as far as using as much CGI animation to craft his animal cast as possible, therefore Dumbo was not a real baby elephant sporting huge ears stuck to the side of its head, it was as much a cartoon as the original, not quite realistic at that.
Burton was reunited with human performers who might count as some of his regulars, with DeVito as the initially shady-seeming but eventually on the level Medici, Michael Keaton as a P.T. Barnum type apparently included to illustrate precisely how manipulative and corrupt the real Barnum could be as an antidote to The Greatest Showman, and Eva Green as one of his trapeze artist stars who is ordered to ride Dumbo as part of a new act at the biggest circus around. The baby pachyderm (who never grows up at all, despite us following him for some months) finds inspiration to fly whenever he sucks up a feather in his trunk, a curious addition that was an awkward plot device to prevent him presumably flying off in search of his absent mother himself. Burton was rarely too far away from the Gothic, and if you could get a Gothic circus this was it, with nods to The Greatest Show on Earth into the bargain, though the colour palette was muted to make it look as if it all hailed from a hundred years before. Thematically bold, then, but it was questionable whether its inspiration was able to carry those themes, though it was good to see a Disney remake that wasn't a straight copy. Music by Danny Elfman, with the songs barely alluded to.
American director, producer and writer, frequently of Gothic flavoured fantasy who has acquired a cult following in spite of the huge mainstream success of many of his projects. He began as an animator at Disney, who allowed him to work on his own projects while animating the likes of The Fox and the Hound, which garnered the attention of Paul Reubens to direct Pee Wee's Big Adventure.