I just watched this for the first time in a long time. With a new live-action film about to hit theatres later this month, I felt I should refamiliarize myself with the material, since I hadn’t seen the movie since I was a child and it’s been a minute.
If it’s been a while for you too, Dumbo is not what we should be calling this young elephant. He is properly named Jumbo Jr, and Dumbo is the name other people use to make fun of him. Little Jumbo Jr is made fun of because of his rather large ears. Of course, Jumbo Jr lives with his mother at the circus, where you’d think there’s be a value placed on things that are different and notable, rather than ridicule. But alas. Little Jumbo’s mum gets taken away from him when she rather violently defends him, and poor little Dumbo is basically all alone in the world except for a circus mouse who taps into the elephant’s true potential and helps inspire a flying elephant act that will win over the crowds.
Dumbo is rather short on story; the movie is only an hour long, and it’s padded out with a weird, drunken bubble scene that has no real place in the movie but fills crucial minutes. Which means there’s lots of room for Tim Burton to flex his muscles, although the pink elephants are at least imaginative and memorable, I’ll give them that. Terrific animation.
Speaking of pink elephants, let’s face it: Dumbo’s problems with race also leave room for improvement. Even though the black crows are among the only intelligent, friendly creatures in the film, they’re racial caricatures that make modern audiences very squeamish. Tim Burton is many things, but among them, he tends to be very white when it comes to casting, and this film isn’t shaping up to be much different: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Colin Farrell. The only hint of colour glimpsed in the trailer is courtesy of the little girl who befriends Dumbo. A quick check of IMDB reveals that she is actually Thandie Newton’s daughter. (And to be fair: I heard that Will Smith was approached about a role and turned it down – he’ll appear instead as the Genie in the live-action adaptation of Aladdin.)
In Burton’s Dumbo, it seems that the talking animals have largely been replaced by human characters, and the story will be interpreted through them (live action Cinderella also did away with talking animals). I am usually extremely wary of “live-action” remakes, but with Tim Burton at the helm, I have to admit: I’m curious, and I’m optimistic. The trailer looks dark and tragic and phantasmagoric. Dumbo isn’t a fairytale, never was, never will be, but it is a beloved Disney classic, about to appeal to whole new generation of viewers, 78 years after the first was released.