Whenever vision and artistry come together you’re bound to get something special and that’s exactly where we find ourselves with Tim Burton’s Dumbo, which offers new insight into the beloved elephant, and explores how his journey to fly is all kinds of magic.
Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a former circus star, finds his life turned upside-down when he returns home after the end of the First World War scarred and broken. Finding himself employed by circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) who enlists him to care for a newborn elephant, named Dumbo, whose oversized ears make him a laughing stock in an already struggling circus. But when Holt’s children, Milly and Joe, discover that Dumbo can fly, persuasive entrepreneur V. A. Vandemere (Michael Keaton) and aerial artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green) swoop in to make the peculiar pachyderm a star.
Tim Burton remains one of my favourite directors of all time, and every time I hear that he’s taking up a new project I’m excited for what this visionary director will deliver. And in Dumbo he really gives us a treat with a story that is very close to his heart and touches on many of the themes that he has explored throughout his life. With its narrative and central themes, Dumbo is tailor-made for Burton with his explorations of ideas related to outsider characters, society’s fringes and individual expression. Many characters in Burton’s films are made out to be freaks or monsters and excluded from society and that, of course, happens to the baby elephant known as Dumbo who is vilified and mocked for his large ears. But unbeknownst to the world, Dumbo’s physical extremes actually give him the power of flight and this elephant does soar to amazing heights.
Burton makes the film incredibly personal, and he really takes audiences inside the mind of Dumbo and presents the elephant’s point-of-view to the world. We feel Dumbo’s feelings and his journey to be reunited with his mother once again, and Burton’s reverence for this journey is incredibly impactful and heartfelt. Along with investing your emotions in Dumbo’s journey to find his mother, he also brings you into the life of the film’s other characters including former rodeo star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), gifted trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green) and circus owner and ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito).
Renown for his unique and quirky cinema aesthetic, Dumbo is very much a Disney movie interpreted through the vision of Tim Burton. While it doesn’t hold his typical gothic sensibilities, Burton does manage to place his own unique and thoroughly quirky design elements into the film and puts his own stamp on the material and its characters. His love for German Expressionism also helps inform the design of this early 1900s set film, and the use of practical sets, ornate costuming and wide-framed imagery really help you pull you in deeper to the experience of Dumbo.
For me what made this film so enjoyable was we were seeing Burton get to play with colour and light, and really bringing a sense of warmth to his work. It was engaging to see him get away from the shadows and instead focus on a film where light plays such an important role and his tonal palettes and cinematography borrow a lot from the look at feel of that classic cell-shaded Disney Animation.
Along with telling the story of the film’s titular baby elephant, Burton frames his story around the members of the travelling Medici Brothers circus. Chief among these characters is WWI veteran and former rodeo star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), who returns from the war a broken man, having lost his left arm in the trenches, and his wife to Spanish Influenza. Desperately looking for a way to rebuild his life, and support his children, Holt is charged to look after Dumbo, and together these two outsider characters help each other soar again.
The role of Holt was something different for Farrell, who really pulls away from his heart-throb status and falls into the role of the film’s everyman. It’s a performance that he really invests himself into and here we find him searching for the idea of hope again, which he is able to find thanks to the belief of his children and his belief in a certain baby elephant.
Joining Farrell in the film is Eva Green as the fantastical and elegant trapeze artist Colette Marchant and the actress makes the greatest change in terms of narrative arc throughout the story. Beginning as a flamboyant opportunist, Colette soon warms to both Dumbo and Holt and reveals her true persona that she wears under the mask of her circus life. Determined to do the right thing, she invests in Holt’s mission to see Dumbo reunited with his mother, and the inevitable spark that develops between the characters is spot on within the film. Green’s portrayal really borrows from the likes of Hedy Lamarr for the role, and she has this bold presence that one equates with actresses of that classic cinema era within her role as Colette.
Lending the film it’s antagonistic side is Michael Keaton as V. A. Vandevere, who makes a long-awaited return to working with Burton again and the actor again proves why he is in such demand these days. With the flair and parlance of a big-time showman, this seedy entrepreneur is one to hide behind the big lights in order to make a profit, and he sees Dumbo as his winning ticket. Keaton revels in his chance to be a villain here, and he really goes for it with his cruel business acumen. The actor makes for a great villain and he really provides the film’s central characters with plenty of obstacles to set Dumbo free.
Finally, Burton regular and cinema icon Danny DeVito graces the screen with plenty of charisma and a whole lot of comedy as the owner and ringmaster of the Medici Brothers Circus, Max Medici. The minute you see him on-screen DeVito has the whole audience laughing as this charlatan-type promoter who is looking for any way to make a quick buck and whose mounting problems are causing him plenty of stress. But while he does inevitably get his shot at the big time, he soon learns that its cost is too big to bear and that his love for his troop, who in reality are his family, drives him to do the right thing in the end. In my viewing of Dumbo, I’d say that it’s both baby Dumbo and Max who make up the heart and soul of this film and that the two of them are the ones who truly bring everything together.
But if there is one character who absolutely steals the show then it is above all else the character of Dumbo. This doe-eyed baby elephant is the very embodiment of the word cute, and the minute he arrives on the scene you’ll be sure to smile. Dumbo is above all else the epitome of love, and he’s the one hopeful thing that can bring together so many desperately broken people back together. Whether it be Holt, Colette, Max or the entire Medici troop, Dumbo is the one thing that helps to give them a purpose in their lives and to see the brightness and the hope in all things. This baby also goes on his own unique journey and has his courage tested at every turn, but through all of these unique challenges, and the faith that others have in him he does indeed soar high.
Through the vision of Tim Burton, Dumbo makes for a bold and beautiful piece of cinema that holds true to the core of the power of narrative storytelling and the unique attributes of classic Disney animation. It’s a film that truly enchants its audience and champions the ideas of individuality, family and above all else hope, and you’ll leave the cinema feeling that you can fly.
Image: Walt Disney Pictures