If Disney honchos insist on rebooting all of their animated classics as “live-action” (but heavily CGI-ed) movies, let’s hope they follow the template of the lively “Dumbo” rather than the corpse-like “Beauty and the Beast.”
Whereas “B and B” was a tedious reiteration of an already perfect film, “Dumbo” expands on the original with enough new ideas to justify itself. The best of those ideas is a solemn brother and sister, Milly and Joe (played with sincerity and warmth by newcomers Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins), who have plenty to mope about.
As the movie opens, their mother has just died in the influenza epidemic; their father (Colin Farrell) is returning from World War I, missing an arm, and the traveling circus in which they’ve spent their entire lives is about to go under — unless circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) figures out how to monetize a newborn baby elephant that has freakishly large ears.
Because the title character is an entirely computer-generated creature that spends most of the movie in an uncanny valley (you will not believe an elephant can fly, I fear), introducing a human element was a smart decision by writer Ehren Kruger and director Tim Burton. “Dumbo” creates parallels between the baby elephant, whose flying skills revive the circus, and his human pals: Milly, who has a scientific mind and does not want to be put on display by Medici. The father, whose self-consciousness about his arm creates a kinship with Dumbo. And Joe, who, like Milly, misses their mother just as much as Dumbo misses his when the circus is forced to sell Jumbo. A tender scene in which Milly says, “You’re a miracle, elephant Dumbo, and we’re going to bring your mama home,” may not quite hit the tear-jerking heights of the original’s parent/child separation scene, but it comes close.
“Dumbo” is on shakier ground when it shifts to an evil tycoon (Michael Keaton) and his plot to make Dumbo the star of a creepy amusement park, but all of the stuff with the kids and their circus family is top-notch. Burton has taken great care with the casting, even down to the tiny role of a snake charmer who is played by the great Roshan Seth.
The design elements are stunning. Burton has fun re-creating a Ziegfeld Follies-type number and the Manhattan of a century ago, while Danny Elfman’s music nods to Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” which would have been just a few years old in 1919, and the warm browns and reds of the production design recall the Norman Rockwell illustrations that were popular then.
Details like those help us remember that “Dumbo” is supposed to take place during the Woodrow Wilson administration, which is helpful because some elements don’t fit: Much of the language belongs to the texting generation. Keaton’s amusement park, Nightmare Island, could be a prototype for a new Disneyland ride. And were folks in 1919 debating the morality of forcing wild animals to live in zoos? Elements like those locate “Dumbo” in an amorphous time period that could be today or 100 years ago or never.
On the other hand, given that “Dumbo” is aimed at children (although there are some intense scenes might frighten sensitive youngsters) and that the treatment of circus animals has been in the news, “Dumbo” probably was wise not to ignore the elephant in the room.