(Rated: PG [Canada] and PG [MPAA] for peril/action, some thematic elements and brief, mild language; directed by Tim Burton; stars Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Roshan Seth, Douglas Reith; run time: 112 min.)
Second go-round fails to fly
By Ted Giese
Set in post-WWI America, “Dumbo” (2019) is the story of a baby circus elephant with enormous ears who loses his mom but learns to fly.
Dumbo first flies with the help of a grieving circus family. Like Dumbo, the family’s children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), have lost their mom, and together they discover that the elephant’s fascination with feathers helps him fly.
Under the care of their trick horse-riding father, WWI veteran Capt. Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), the children help Dumbo navigate the attention he receives for his peculiar ability and eventually assist in reuniting him with his mother, Mrs. Jumbo, who unlike their own mother, is still alive.
All that glitters
When news of Dumbo’s flying ability hits the newspapers, a big-time circus promoter, V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), approaches the man running Dumbo’s small traveling circus, Max Medici (Danny DeVito), and offers to move the entire circus to a Disneyland-style amusement park called Dreamland.
There Dumbo joins a trapeze act with Vandevere’s girlfriend, Colette Marchant (Eva Green). But all is not well under the big top. The rest of Medici’s circus performers languish, while it becomes apparent that Vandevere’s financial backer, J. Griffin Remington (Alan Arkin), is more interested in a return on his investment than in the safety and well-being of the animals.
What viewers see is an escalation of greed and exploitation: good-hearted yet grieving Holt Farrier begins caring for Medici’s elephants, hoping to get back into his pre-WWI trick-riding routine; the small-time huckster, Medici, uses Dumbo to prop up his failing circus; Vandevere cares only about paying back his investor; and Remington, with his eye on the bottom line, is a villainous capitalist who cares nothing for Vandevere, Medici, the circus, the Farrier family or Dumbo.
With all of this as a backdrop, Dumbo is convinced to fly, all the while hoping to reunite with his mother, Mrs. Jumbo, who was sold back to the man who originally sold her to Medici. The ladder of capitalism presented in “Dumbo” stretches up from the family, to the collective, to the company, to the financial bankers, each rung sparkling with more glitter and gold, yet displaying less kindness and heart. Medici’s mom-and-pop-roll-up-your-sleeves-family-circus is good, but the corporate circus of Vandevere and Remington is bad. In this way, the film teaches the ancient aphorism, “All that glitters is not gold.”
Positive depiction of family
Christian viewers will enjoy the film’s emphasis on family and the way in which Dumbo — despite his oddities — is cherished by those who love him as an adopted part of the family. The film repeatedly teaches that family is more important than wealth and success. Yet even though the film’s depiction of family is positive, viewers will want to remember that it is not just the rich who can be tempted by those things.
There are two fleeting non-Christian religious references of which Christian families may want to be aware. Upon discovering Dumbo’s ability to fly, one of the Medici circus’ sideshow performers, an East Indian/South Asian snake charmer, comments how the gods can manifest themselves in animals. Later in the film, Mrs. Jumbo is found in Dreamland chained up in a zoo-like exhibit and painted to look like the Hindu goddess Kali, the Destroyer.
Tim Burton, the director of films like “Beetlejuice” (1988) and “Edward Scissorhands” (1990), would seem the ideal choice for a movie about an outsider, set in a circus with a traveling freak show and clowns, but the film is hampered by its seeming goal of avoiding offending anyone.
For example, steam locomotives are shown without the shovels of coal being thrown into the engine (in case that might offend environmentalists); the eldest daughter Milly, on the cusp of her teenage years, is more interested in science than in finding love, getting married and having a family (thereby satisfying the feminist and science lobbies); the crows who gave Dumbo his magic feather in the original are gone, likely due to concerns about racial stereotyping; and while Dumbo’s infamous “pink elephants on parade” hallucination (following his accidental drinking of champagne) is still present, there is a new cause. All these examples suggest Disney’s and Burton’s reluctance to remain true to their source material and the time in which the film is set to avoid the risk of offending audiences or critics.
Stretched too far
At 61 minutes, the 1941 animated “Dumbo” is the shortest feature-length Disney movie. Walt Disney was advised to extend the storyline, but he is purported to have said, “You can stretch a story just so far and after that it won’t hold together.”
At 112 minutes, “Dumbo” (2019) feels like it’s been stretched a bit too far. The choice to turn many of the talking animal characters from the original film into non-speaking parts lets some of the air out of the fable-like quality of the original film. It also removes some of the film’s heart, as the lullaby “Baby Mine,” originally sung by Mrs. Jumbo to Dumbo, is now sung by one of the circus-sideshow freaks, changing the song from being loving advice from mother to child into an outsider’s description of unfolding events.
Even though it was number one at the box office on its opening weekend, this new “Dumbo” has failed to meet Disney’s expectations. Contributing factors may be its failure to satisfy the fans of the original while at the same time missing the point that the story is about taking risks. Dumbo has to learn to fly without his magic feather because, in truth, the feather is not magic — he always had the ability to fly. This theme from the 1941 film seems tailor-made for current Hollywood, yet the film is crippled by Hollywood’s ardent devotion to political correctness.
Instead of taking some risks to tackle the challenging quirks and oddities of the original animated film, this “Dumbo” plays it safe creatively. Burton’s creativity is clearly present in the film’s look, but for many viewers, this “Dumbo” will fail to fly.
Rev. Ted Giese (firstname.lastname@example.org) is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to The Canadian Lutheran and Reporter; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese.
Posted April 5, 2019