Movie Review: 'Dumbo'

He's an outsider with big floppy ears that turn out to be his greatest asset. 
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Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studio Pictures
Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) takes care of Dumbo with his children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins).

"Dumbo" is a loose remake of Walt Disney's 1941 animated cartoon, based on the novel by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl. As you likely already know, it’s about a baby elephant with extremely large ears who discovers he can fly.

The Story 

The story begins in Sarasota, Florida in 1919 with the Medici Brothers Circus. It’s a traveling circus that has seen better days. Former circus performer Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) has just returned from the war with an amputated arm. Holt’s wife has passed away from influenza and the circus has been raising their children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins).

The circus is desperate to make more money. Circus owner Max Medici (Danny Devito) buys an elephant who turns out to be pregnant. Max hopes that a cute baby elephant will motivate people to come to the circus. Max immediately puts Holt in charge of taking care of the elephant. When the elephant delivers a little baby, the circus staff is thrilled, but the baby looks different than any other elephant that they have ever seen, with big floppy ears and a small head. 

Holt’s children, Milly and Joe, love the baby elephant and nickname him Dumbo. They eventually discover that Dumbo can fly. Perhaps if they train Dumbo to fly in the Big Tent, then he will attract a big crowd and save the circus from going bankrupt. When it's finally time for Dumbo to perform in the circus ring, he clumsily flies through the Big Tent, knocking things over and causing a commotion. The audience is spellbound, but then starts throwing popcorn and jeering. Mrs. Jumbo (Dumbo's mother) panics and stampedes the circus tent. Eventually, the entire circus tent collapses, and Mrs. Jumbo is taken away and sold. Dumbo is saddened, but now Max, Holt and the rest of the circus want Dumbo's flying act to save the circus. Surely, with a little fine tuning, Dumbo flying act will be successful. The children hope that Dumbo’s flying act to earn the circus enough money to eventually buy back Dumbo’s mother, and reunite them.

One day, an eccentric entrepreneur named V.A. Vandervere (Michael Keaton) comes to visit Dumbo. Vandervere proposes a collaboration with the Medici Bros Circus. They agree to become business partners and the entire circus troupe will perform at his Dreamland theme park. Everyone loves Dumbo, but he’s a wild animal and he tends to be unpredictable. It’s a challenge for the circus to teach him tricks, and stakes are raised when Dreamland wants to include aerial trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green) in Dumbo’s flying act.

What Parents Should Know 

“Dumbo” to be a suspenseful and captivating film that will have you sitting on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen next.  The movie is directed by Tim Burton, the same filmmaker known for his dark, gothic and eccentric fantasy films, including “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands,” and “Nightmare Before Christmas.” 

The dark overtones of "Dumbo” may be disturbing for sensitive children. There are life-and-death situations, such as an out-of-control Dumbo flying clumsily inside the Big Tent, and almost crashing into the crowd. When Mrs. Jumbo panics and stampedes the tent, a man is killed in the commotion. 

After the tent collapses, Mrs. Jumbo is taken away and sold. It’s sad when she is shackled and put into solitary confinement. Children with separation anxiety will probably not like this film. Mrs. Jumbo is labeled a “bad and mad elephant” when she was simply defending her newborn son. Later in the film, the ringmaster orders that she be taken away and killed. From the ringmaster’s perspective, elephants are merely a commodity, a money-making prop to entertain the masses, however, the film shows that elephants have feelings and emotions. The mother-child connection between Dumbo and his mom definitely tugs on heartstrings.

It points to the sentient nature of animals. The movie's vibrant, colorful circus is peppered with dark, creepy sequences and elements, including cruel animal handlers, armed henchmen going after animals and children, a raging fire and mass destruction of property, and characters in peril and falling from heights. There is an amusement park attraction named “Nightmare Island” which looks like a huge flaming skull with howling werewolves, roaring cougars, and hissing snakes inside. It’s a dark, scary and shadowy place that may give some children nightmares. 

The movie's villain is Vandevere (Keaton), a ruthless entrepreneur who is desperate to buy Medici’s circus so that he can exploit Dumbo and make a mountain of money.  It’s interesting that Vandevere could care less about the welfare of Dumbo and the circus performers. All he wants to do is cash in. He is a charlatan, conman and opportunist.

In the beginning, circus owner Max Medici (Devito) is somewhat of a villain as well. He sells Mrs. Jumbo, without any concern about separating her from her newborn baby. As the story progresses, however, we see Max grow and mature and his perspective totally changes. 

Final Take

“Dumbo” is a compelling film that sparks emotion. The message of the movie is that families should stay together, and that children — even baby elephants — need their parents. “Dumbo” also implies that no animal should be held in captivity or separated from their mother in order to do stupid pet tricks for entertainment. The film depicts the dark side of the circus, but it also has a tender and compassionate message.