Directed by Tim Burton
Screenplay by Ehren Kruger
Based on “Disney’s Dumbo” by Otto Englander, Joe Grant and Dick Huemer and “Dumbo” by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl
Starring Collin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green
Stories that stir the imagination, that bring us to think about more than just our immediate surroundings are what got me interested in films to begin with. Animation was my gateway as a kid because it allowed my imagination to soar. So too did films like “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and later, “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” and “Beetlejuice.”
To a certain extent, they all were vivid escapes from my reality. They did what movies are supposed to do – allow us to escape from our present surroundings, to be more than the sum whole of our parts. Of course, we are only as good as the movies we watch too.
Tim Burton’s “Dumbo,” is the first bonafide fantasy film that I’ve seen in 2019 that actually works as a fantasy. It also manages to tug at our heartstrings, and never lets go.
Set in 1916, Holt Farrier is returning from war to two strong, intelligent children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) who are desperate to show the world what amazing people they can be. They’ve been living with a couple in the Medici Brothers Circus, their mom having been killed by the flu.
Mr. Burton doesn’t waste any time setting up the particulars of the story; during the opening credits, a montage shows the state of Max Medici’s (Danny DeVito) circus as it tours the Southeastern part of the United States: Medici is broke and destitute and is looking for a quick solution, a miracle.
That miracle doesn’t come from any one aspect of the story. Ehren Kruger’s (“Arlington Road”) screenplay, inspired by the 1941 animated film of the same name by Otto Englander, Joe Grant and Dick Huemer (based on the story “Dumbo” by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl) takes the animated classic to the next level.
Never mind the rich CGI animation on Dumbo as well as the other animals featured in the film, the characters are dynamic; their emotions and needs ooze out of the screen. Not in a sappy way, mind you. Kruger created a rich foundation on which Burton was able to build his neo-real world.
None of the actors outshines one another. This is very much about Dumbo, but it is more about how Dumbo inspires the other characters. It might seem cheesy in that classic Disney sense and it has been nitpicked for that reason, but the clever magician that is Tim Burton, the one who brought us “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” 34 years ago or “Batman” a couple years later has inspired this retelling of a future classic.
Mr. Burton also surrounded himself with actors who could evoke a classic sense of struggle balanced with the gumption to go the distance. Mr. Burton has worked with both Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton previously in “Batman Returns.” Long gone are the dark shades of villainy from Mr. DeVito. Here as Mr. Medici, he is a gruff voice of hope as he guides us through the story. As the glitzy showman V. A. Vandevere, Mr. Keaton channels his inner Johnny Depp, as plantinum-blond haired character transforms from a composed, reserved business person to a cartoonish madman intent on getting what he wants, spewing singular wisdom for the selfishly independent.
Of note is Colin Farrell’s Holt Farrier, a man of action, a man hurting over the loss of his wife, and the disconnect that war has caused on his children, Farrell was much more reserved than we’ve come to see from him in past roles. This works in the film’s favor as it balances out not only his own family struggles, but also his character’s journey. Eva Green’s (“Casino Royale”) role as Collette Marchant is complementary to Farrell’s Farrier in that she is a very strong character, someone who knows how to take care of herself. She should be as a trapeze artist. She also has a trusting nature, aiding Farrier in finding the inspiration he seeks.
There are some elements of the film that felt a little too “on-the-nose” but they are not enough to put people off. It is a genuine film with exceptional craftspeople behind the camera. Chris Lebenzon is a storied editor with a number of credits to his name, he’s been a Burton collaborator for a number of years having been nominated several times in the past. This is the second Disney-released film for British cinematographer Ben Davis (“Captain Marvel” his work here shows a strong patina at the beginning of the film, a beautiful representation of the struggles in a very classic way.
What really brings the film together though is Danny Elfman’s score, full of bright notes, down notes and fun notes. If I had to pinpoint one element of the film that really brings the whole experience together, it is Elfman’s music combined with Burton’s timing. They are very simpatico.
I could gush on about Tim Burton’s imaginative Dumbo. It is a stark reminder to trust one another, to use our imagination and allow our imagination to flow. It has Disney-forward elements while it reflects on where Disney came from. It isn’t humble, but it doesn’t wear its history on its sleeve either; its refection is tempered.
I can only hope that the future re-imaginings are as tempered as Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” is.
3 out of 4 stars