Will this live-action Disney remake of the classic 1941 Disney animated feature make you laugh? Yes, it will. Will it make you cry? You bet! And because it’s directed by Tim Burton - a man of many fantastical movie ideas - you’ll probably also gawk in wonder at some of the astounding visuals.
But it should be made clear that Burton and his screenwriter Ehren Kruger have done what you’re supposed to do with a remake. They’ve completely reimagined the original. So, there are trappings of the 1941 film: A cute and clumsy little elephant with huge ears that enable him to fly, almost everyone making fun of his appearance, a forced separation from his mom, psychedelic visions of pink elephants, some perilous scenes in a circus tent, and a happy ending. There is a mouse (I think named Timothy), but he’s only onscreen for a minute or two and is not, as in the original, a helpful pal for our big-eared hero. PC police will be thrilled to know there isn’t a “racist” crow to be seen.
But there are people, lots of people. This is more a story of people and their troubles and hopes and dreams than it is about a flying elephant.
It’s 1919, and the smalltime, old-fashioned Medici Brothers Circus is making its way across the middle of America by train. Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) has just come home from WWI after being away for two years. A lot has happened while he was gone. His wife, who was his performing partner in the circus’ trick riding act, has died of the flu. The struggling circus has had to sell its horses. His two young kids have been taken in and cared for by their circus family. The poor guy has returned to a tough emotional situation. One more thing. He lost an arm in battle, but hasn’t told his kids. You can see how broken he is, not only by the circumstances awaiting him, but by the shocked expressions on his kids’ faces when they see him. “It’s still me,” he says, forlornly, trying hard to smile.
Circus owner Max Medici has somehow kept things afloat, has even bought a new elephant for the show, a pregnant elephant named Mrs. Jumbo. Now that he can’t do trick riding, Holt’s new job is to tend the elephants, and he’s there just in time for the birth of Mrs. Jumbo’s new calf. That would be Little Jumbo, later renamed Dumbo, the small fellow with ears so big he trips over them, the sight of which causes nervous Max to scream, “Make those giant ears disappear!”
Thank goodness they don’t, because Holt’s kids, taking an interest in Dumbo, learn of his strange talent. If the conditions are right, he can use those ears to fly. But before any if this can turn into good news, tragedy strikes. A circus member who regularly mistreats animals goes after Dumbo, causing Mrs. Jumbo to go after the guy. She is immediately labeled dangerous and is removed from the circus. If you don’t shed tears during the separation scene, you’re probably an automaton. In the middle of all of this, Holt comes to the realization that he has no idea how to talk with his own kids.
Then there’s more drama, with the introduction of the snake of an entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (a deliciously overacting Michael Keaton), who wants the flying elephant to draw crowds at his own spiffy Dreamland park, along with his apparent accomplice, the lovely trapeze artist Colette (Eva Green). But does she have a heart of gold to go with or against the heartless Vandevere? Could be.
The film is all about hope. Holt hopes he can forge a better relationship with his kids, Max hopes the circus can get back on its feet, Dumbo hopes he can reunite with his mom. It’s also very funny, but - a warning to parents with kids 5 and under - there are a couple of scenes featuring great peril, notably during a big fire in the tent. Some kids could be quite scared.
In the end, though, it’s a family movie about all sorts of families, and the main theme involves people - and elephants - believing in themselves.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Ehren Kruger; directed by Tim Burton
With Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton