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Tim Burton’s Dumbo is a charming-enough remake — and a biting Disney critique

The floppy-eared elephant returns to the big screen, flanked by a tale of corporate villainy and greed.

Eva Green and Dumbo in Dumbo.
Eva Green and Dumbo in Dumbo.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Two-thirds of the way through director Tim Burton’s live-action remake of Dumbo — no spoilers, don’t worry — Michael Keaton, playing a maniacal villain, hollers at our hero, a one-armed circus cowboy named Holt Farrier and played by Colin Farrell. “You freak!” he bellows, chaos swirling around them. “What have you done!”

“What they pay me for, sir,” Holt replies. “To put on a show.”

It’s a quippy throwaway line, but in the film’s context, it’s a lot more. Holt’s rejoinder feels like a confession of some sort, a mea culpa from Burton, whose most recent string of films (from at least 2010’s Alice in Wonderland to 2016’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and maybe longer) have disappointed and baffled former fans. Whither the weird, macabre artist responsible for Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns? Why all this banal dreck? Burton’s films arguably took a nosedive once he started getting a larger budget to make them — all spectacle, little heart or soul — and this new version of Dumbo feels eerily like an attempt to apologize for his later, passionless work.

And if that wasn’t a strange enough thing to inject into a lighthearted kids’ movie, Burton’s Dumbo remake is unmistakably a critique of entertainers who sell out to greedy corporations for the cash. Specifically, to Disney.

Somehow, Dumbo is a crystal-clear critique of ... Disney?

That last point is made with a sharp barb. Burton’s Dumbo is very nearly explicit about the dangers of Big Disney. It’s not just an allegory; the amusement park created by Keaton’s villainous character, entertainment mogul V.A. Vandevere, is undeniably modeled on Disney’s parks, right down to a version of Tomorrowland’s “House of the Future,” showcasing now-quaint technologies that “future” homes will have. The resemblance is too clear to be accidental.

Of course, Disney is also the company that produced the film, and will make bank from it.

Yes, this is very weird! It’s even weirder since Dumbo — a story in which a small circus is bought by a larger one for its assets (in this case, a flying elephant), and then the staff is laid off to cut costs — comes out just a week after Disney’s acquisition of Fox, and after a very similar thing happened to many employees at Fox, including those who’d helmed highly successful specialty divisions.

The gang enter V.A. Vandevere’s world of enchantment — which is pretty obviously modeled on a Disney park.
The gang enter V.A. Vandevere’s world of enchantment — which is pretty obviously modeled on a Disney park — in Dumbo.

The timing has to be at least mostly coincidental on Burton’s part; the film was first announced in 2014, after all. But the parallels are too stark to be totally unconscious. With Dumbo, Burton seems to have taken a relatively banal script retelling the classic 1941 children’s film and imagined it as a prescient and pointed critique of Disney. Is he biting the hand that feeds him? And did anyone at Disney notice?

I’m not sure, but the strangely timed critique alone makes the movie worth watching. On the surface, Dumbo is a perfectly adequate family film about a circus, a flying elephant, and the kids who believe in him. But the subtext is startlingly subversive.

Dumbo is entertaining, if not very creative

As a film, Dumbo is no barn-burner, largely forgettable in a way its predecessor wasn’t — not least because the 1941 film was a musical, with some of the most bewitching songs in the Disney canon, or because the weirdest parts (like the pink elephant dream ballet) are turned into far less peculiar homages. But it’s charming in its own way, mostly because little Dumbo is incredibly cute: a blue-eyed, floppy-eared little elephant who seems engineered in a (computer animation) lab to break your heart.

The animals were the main characters in the 1941 version, but in this one, set in 1919, the spotlight is on the humans. The circus that Dumbo and his mother are part of is run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito), a smooth talker who seems to take genuine pleasure in his traveling community of freaks, clowns, and performers. Holt Farrier used to perform as a daring horse rider in a pair with his wife. But he went off to fight in the Great War, and in the interim, his wife passed away, leaving behind two young children: the precocious budding scientist Milly (Nico Parker) and her younger brother, Joe (Finley Hobbs).

Farrier returns without an arm, and with a demotion; now, Medici tells him, he’ll be in charge of the elephants. It soon turns out that Baby Jumbo, aka Dumbo — whom everyone makes fun of for his massive ears — can fly. News spreads, and the whole little circus gets turned on its head when the entertainment mogul V.A. Vandemere and his lady, the “Queen of the heavens” (and, as it turns out, trapeze artist) Colette (Eva Green) show up to buy out Medici’s circus. Medici becomes a vice president in Vandemere’s operation, and the whole operation moves up to his massive Disney World-doppelganger park in Coney Island. That’s when things get dark.

Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, and Finley Hobbs in Dumbo.
Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, and Finley Hobbs in Dumbo.

There are many, many baffling things about Dumbo. Why would a circus full of oddballs and outcasts make fun of the inarguably adorable little elephant, for instance? Why is the movie at pains to clumsily shoehorn a love of “science” as Milly’s defining character trait, but for no reason, and with no consequence? Why does it feel the need to conjure up a romance in an overstuffed plot? And why do I get the distinct impression that Keaton, who positively chomps on the scenery throughout, is in an entirely different movie from Alan Arkin, playing a bigwig potential investor, who at one point jovially remarks, “This is a disaster!” while wandering through a burning landscape?

I don’t know what to tell you. Choices were made. What I know is that Dumbo isn’t entirely unpleasant to watch — on the whole, it’s probably Burton’s best since Big Fish, whatever that’s worth — and while the scenes in which the elephant takes flight around the circus tent aren’t exactly magical, they’re pretty fun.

The very existence of Dumbo, though, is far more interesting than the film itself. It’s the kind of studio film that takes on a far more interesting connotation when the culture in which it was produced is considered.

Dumbo is very cute.
Dumbo is very cute.

The subversiveness of Dumbo may be what makes it work

Dumbo is one in a long string of live-action Disney remakes, ways for the entertainment giant to more or less print piles of money for itself. The films tend to be wildly successful — 2017’s Beauty and the Beast was the second-highest grossing film of the year, behind The Last Jedi and that means this year includes not just Dumbo, but also The Lion King and Aladdin. A number of future remakes, among them Lady and the Tramp, Mulan, Pinocchio, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, have been announced.

Of course, it’s also a way for it to reinvent its old stories for new generations. Some films, like Beauty and the Beast, stick pretty close to the beloved original, even keeping many or most of the original songs. But others (like Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland remake) are more interested in rethinking the classic story from a new angle.

That didn’t work out so well for Burton in the past; his Alice was very bad, and a huge disappointment for what felt like a possibly good match between director and subject matter. Other recent adaptations he’s made (Disney or not), from Sweeney Todd to Miss Peregrine, have too often made their source material somehow less interesting, stripping out what’s eerie and great about the originals.

It’s too simple to say that this is a result of greater studio backing (and the money that comes with it). And directors aren’t obliged to stick to the style of the work they made in their early days. But it’s been a disappointment to see this from a director whose work used to feel highly original, driven by a way of seeing the world that was unique and idiosyncratic.

Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito in Dumbo.
Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito in Dumbo.

That’s why the plot of this new Dumbo — which involves a scrappy little circus selling out to a huge, spectacle-driven circus housed in the “Dreamland” portion of a huge, slick amusement park — seems so personal. There’s very little mercy here for the big entertainment corporation, headed by a guy who would rather burn the world than lose his powerful grip on people’s eyeballs. (At one point, Vandevere yells, “What happened to my power?!” which seems pretty on the nose.)

The drive to accumulate money, when it takes over the drive to make great art or entertainment, kills creativity and crowds out humanity and decency, Dumbo says. Turning simple joy and wonder into pure eye-popping extravaganza can only end in emptiness, in people losing their jobs and being trapped in avarice.

You can’t call it a sly critique, giving its pointed setting in a Disney-derived park. And it seems like calling your studio greedy becomes a bit less effective when the studio is paying for it. But the attempt, at least, may be exactly why Dumbo works, relative to Burton’s other recent films.

Certainly it helps that the whole cast is giving some kind of kooky performance in a different movie: DeVito’s playing a carnival barker; Farrell’s playing a romantic hero in a Western; Green is playing a French witch of some kind; Arkin is practically in a slacker flick; and Keaton is in a lathering frenzy by the end, more Joker than entertainment mogul. There’s just enough going on visually (synchronized dancers, fiery spectacles, unnecessary but pretty train montages) to keep things interesting.

You cannot tell me this isn’t lifted straight from the Magic Kingdom.
You cannot tell me this isn’t lifted straight from the Magic Kingdom.

And while the story is predictable and over-laden with subplots (some kind of cross between The Greatest Showman and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, and maybe a dash of Mary Poppins Returns), by the end it’s justified its stay. Families will enjoy the film together, and kids will want a plushy little Dumbo (modeled on the plushy Dumbos seen in the movie being hawked from a table outside the circus, in true Disney parks style) to fly around the living room.

But setting all that aside, it’s the personal nature of the film, seemingly Burton’s self-aware explanation for his own recent work and a critique of the company that’s making this one, that makes Dumbo notable. Injecting a little subversion into the film brings back some of that outsider spirit. Burton has always been making movies about outsiders who are mocked for being different — this time, that’s an elephant. But this gets much harder to do when you’ve become the insider. With Dumbo, he’s inching, ever so slowly, back outside the tent.

Dumbo opens in theaters on March 28.

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