Can a Tim Burton twist save the live-action Dumbo?

Can a Tim Burton twist save the live-action Dumbo?

Review: Dumbo
(PG) Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green

Get ready for the new wave of Disney classics being made into live-action films. With the success of Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book, it is no wonder the mouse house would consider all of their back catalogue as options for a new vein of revenue.

To choose the story of the large-eared pachyderm with racially offensive crows and psychedelic pink elephants may not seem like an obvious choice until it was announced that Tim Burton would be directing. Due to the blockbuster success of Alice in Wonderland (2010) for Disney and his reputation for creatively re-imagining classic children’s tales, this could be a combination that gets the lift that it needs. 

A remake of the 1941 production, the story begins at the Medici Brothers circus where an outfit of misfits are trying to find a new act that will bring the crowds back to the centre ring. Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) had been a significant drawcard as a stunt horse rider, but after losing an arm in the war, he had to adapt to his new role at the circus and with his family. His wife passed away from influenza while he was away, but his creative and self-reliant children have managed to survive until his return. Milly (Nico Parker) and Finley (Joe Farrier) have established their own roles in the circus, but it is the birth of elephant Mama Jumbo’s baby that solidify this precocious pair their place in the circus. 

Dumbo was meant to be the newest sideshow attraction for Max Medici (Danny DeVito). When it is discovered that the miniature pachyderm’s ears are freakishly oversized, the circus owner decides to add Dumbo to the clown’s act. Unbeknownst to this band of performers is that the young elephant possesses a special skill, he can fly. The Farrier siblings work to harness Dumbo’s aerial skills in time for the showcase.

On the night, everything goes wrong for the unveiling but suddenly Dumbo flies to the amazement of all in attendance. The news of the flying elephant quickly spreads across the country and captures the imagination of the theme park owner, V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) and an aerial artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green), who see Dumbo’s financial potential. 

Tim Burton has kept the heart of the tale, but has added in subtle changes. The animated film was a world of talking animals, while the live-action version puts the focus on the humans and the animals merely show-off their talents. While the script manages to incorporate many of the famous lines and songs from the first film, this version manages to be more culturally sensitive and adds modern twists to appeal for today’s audiences. 

For fans of the eccentric and inventive director, this production will deliver on all they would expect from this unique visionary. One of his signatures would be a dark melancholy that overshadows the overall tone of the movie. To lift things out from under the solemn feel are the magnificent visuals that manage to draw the audience into this otherworldly circus spectacle. These familiar techniques of staging and tone cause the whole experience to be rather serious, but still captures the themes of acceptance, family and community which are at the heart of this magical journey. One aspect that seems to have gone missing from this film is the jovial underpinnings usually associated with Burton’s style. Even with the comedic talent of DeVito and Keaton on board, the film has a look and feel that may be difficult for the younger set to embrace. 

Dumbo maintains the elements of a classic Disney tale, a life lesson that is wrapped up in a magical adventure. The characters associated with the circus, the lovely family connection and a flying elephant will tick the boxes for an engaging family night at the cinema, but the darker nature of this production may keep children’s imaginations from taking flight. 

What should parents know about Dumbo? 

If you enjoyed the recent Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this one will be your cup of tea. It may be a bit slow and brooding for younger viewers, but it does capture the wonder of this elephant’s tale.

Looking Deeper

Dumbo is a depiction of the love of a father and his children, plus the undeniable connection of a mother to her child. This storyline begs the question of how far a parent would go for the sake of their family. At the heart of the Bible is the ultimate example of a Father’s love for his children which culminates in the cross of Christ. Take the time to read one of the Gospels to understand what true sacrifice really means. 


1. What is sacrificial love? (John 15:13, Ephesians 5:25)

2. What should we do in difficult times? (John 16:33, Philippians 4:6-7)

Russell Matthews works for City Bible Forum Sydney and is a film blogger 


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