By John H. Foote
Very rarely do I cry at the movies.
But I do. I still do.
The first animated film that made me cry was Dumbo (1941) which I saw at a re-release around 1967 with my parents and brother and sister, and then of course years later, on The Wonderful World of Disney. Filled with colour, spectacle and wonderful characters it all goes terribly wrong when the little elephant’s mother is deemed crazy and locked away from the others. Dumbo is taken to her by his friend the mouse, and the exchange between them is heartbreaking. He touches her trunk and then fiercely grabs on for dear life as she strokes him and swings him lovingly, her trunk a swing for the little elephant. On the score is “Baby Mine” which only made the heartache that much more powerful. I watched it again before seeing the new live action version, and damned if a tear or three did not gather in my eye.
Four years ago, I watched the movie with my girlfriend’s two-year old little boy, Ethan. We got up early, he and I, and he loved trains, so of course he wanted Dumbo on. We watched, and he curled his little body into me as we settled back, me with coffee, he with water. The scene with little Dumbo and his mother came up and I could sense a change in him. He looked up at me with tears running down his cheeks and curled into me for a tight hug. I told him everything would be OK, and he settled back down for the movie, but it reminded me how powerful cinema can be for young and old. I really miss that little guy. It was one of those magical moments that Disney has been known to provide.
When I heard Disney was remaking their animated classics as live action I was not surprised, greed governs their studio, it always has. Never would they match the power of that scene in Dumbo, they simply could not.
There are several of these Disney remakes coming this year, among them Aladdin, The Lion King, and the sequel to Maleficent, based on their Cinderella film. Next year brings more. The greed that runs Disney sickens me, it truly does, but at the end of the day all I care about is the film.
I did not care for their live action film Alice in Wonderland (2010) but did admire Cinderella (2015) and even more The Jungle Book (2017), and yes, Beauty and the Best (2017) was very good, but with this one they have outdone themselves.
Dumbo is exquisite.
To quote an old seventies movie ad, sort of, you will believe an elephant can fly.
Directed by Tim Burton, it is the best of these live action remakes and Burton’s best film in years, since Sweeney Todd (2007) I believe. After his fiasco with Alice in Wonderland I was surprised to see him interested in directing another Disney animated to live action film. Often when a filmmaker fails, critic forget that he ever had a success, and Burton certainly did, among the most imaginative directors of his generation. He was a perfect choice for Dumbo because he brings the gentle pathos of his previous films Edward Scissorhands (1990) to the picture, not overdoing it as animation can, but keeping it real, keeping it in perfect check. A gifted visual filmmaker, Burton is at his best here, creating an incredible fantasy world with just enough reality to keep us grounded in realism.
When a baby elephant is born with massive ears, the owner of a run down, struggling circus, Max Medici (Danny De Vito) hires a father, Holt (Colin Farrell), recently widowed and his two kids Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) to care for the adorable little pachyderm. His oversized ears make him a freak among the circus folks, the strong man, the mermaid, the acrobat, and the snake charmer, many of them outcasts from society too. Dumbo bonds with the motherless children when his own loving mother is sold off, each of their hearts quietly breaking. Burton does a magnificent job bringing out the pathos in the story.
Through a silly accident, it is discovered the little elephant can fly which brings audiences where there were none, a buyer to their door, and a huge boost of energy to the film.
Michael Keaton is superb as VA Vandevere, owner of a much larger circus, and he wants Dumbo. Brash, his eyes glowing when he sees the little creature in the air, Vandevere sees money, more than anything he believes Dumbo will bring money, kind of like Disney executives. Oops, did I really write that? Everything revolves around the little CGI elephant, so it is surprising he has such little screen time. But Tim Burton is too smart to let the movie fall apart due to mere screen time.
Visually the film is a wonder, typical Burton, bringing a Gatsby-like atmosphere to the big city circus, a Mecca of delights for these new circus folk, who are used to much smaller budgets.
The performances are a mixed bag, but Keaton is a bolt of lightning throughout, dominating every scene he is in. It reminded me of the first time I saw Keaton in a film, Night Shift (1982) in which his hyperactive energy burst forth and we could see his mind whirring with ideas. He steals the film, with a brilliant performance.
Colin Farrell is good, but not really memorable, a sad surprise because I am a fan of the actor, while the kids do fine work. Nico Parker is particularly strong as Milly, her scenes with Dumbo hit all the right emotional notes.
De Vito is perfect as the arrogant, crusty owner, stunned when he sees Dumbo in flight, his eyes wide like those of a child.
Gone from the animated film, mercifully, are the crows and Timothy Q. Mouse, who in the cartoon was the conscience of the baby elephant as Jiminy Cricket was to Pinocchio (1940).
The pink elephant hallucination is intact and feels like an LSD trip, however G-rated, and rest assured that heartbreaking scene where Dumbo swings in his mother’s trunk to the song “Baby Mine” is there and beautifully done.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.