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Tim Burton transforms Dumbo into tale about the joys of family life

PUBLISHED: 17:07 04 April 2019 | UPDATED: 17:07 04 April 2019

The Farrier family with Dumbo  in Tim Burton's idiosyncratic remake of the Disney anaimated classic Photo: Disney

The Farrier family with Dumbo in Tim Burton's idiosyncratic remake of the Disney anaimated classic Photo: Disney

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Our arts editor reviews latest Disney film to be reimagined on the big screen.

Tim Burton and Danny DeVito on set during production of Dumbo  Photo: DisneyTim Burton and Danny DeVito on set during production of Dumbo Photo: Disney

Once upon a time, there was a young Disney film-maker called Tim who wanted to animate a poem he had written about a boy who thought he was Vincent Price. Ignoring his quirky sensibilities, his employers set him to work drawing cute baby animals on a film called The Fox and the Hound.

Burton has returned to Disney and it is difficult not to see this updating of Dumbo as ‘The Film-makers Revenge’ as the villain of the piece is the creator of an ambitious theme park, Dreamland, complete with scientific attractions showcasing ‘the world of tomorrow’ very much like dear old Uncle Walt’s Disneyland was when it first opened.

Disney is currently in the middle of a whole raft of faithful live-action re-makes of its animated classics – the wisdom of this is best left for another piece – but if this is what the Disney Studio wanted then they will be disappointed because what they have got is a Tim Burton film which is significantly different from the original.

Instead of a cute anthropomorphic tale of the life of circus animals we get an imaginative discourse on the differences between a small-scale creative enterprise (The Medici Brothers Circus) and the crass, uncaring, profit-driven world of corporate entertainment (Dreamland). We know what side Tim prefers.

Thrown into the mix is a story about the importance of family as circus trick rider Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns home after the First World War, minus an arm, to discover that his beloved wife and fellow performer has succumbed to The Spanish Flu. He is reunited with his clever and resilient children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) but is unsure what the future holds.

This family dynamic is reflected by Dumbo’s story when the baby elephant with the big ears is forcibly removed from his mother after she is sold to another circus owner. Dumbo is then adopted by the Farrier children and when they discover Dumbo can fly Holt becomes his trainer.

Dreamland theme park whcih wants Dumbo as a star attraction   Photo: DisneyDreamland theme park whcih wants Dumbo as a star attraction Photo: Disney

This theme of family is echoed by the close bonds displayed by the circus community presided over by Danny DeVito’s larger-than-life ringmaster/circus owner Max Medici. It’s clear that here is a community that loves and supports one another.

In this version of the Dumbo story, the character Dumbo is a catalyst character for a series of events rather than the central figure of the story. The Medici Brothers Circus and the story of the Farrier family is the real driving force of the narrative rather than the sentimental tale of a young elephant with over large ears.

Having said that, the scenes feature the computer-generated elephants are very convincing and are indeed photo-real but they work because the performances of the human performers are very powerful.

Eva Green plays aerial artist Collete Marchant in Tim Burton's idiosyncratic remake of the Disney anaimated classic Dumbo  Photo: DisneyEva Green plays aerial artist Collete Marchant in Tim Burton's idiosyncratic remake of the Disney anaimated classic Dumbo Photo: Disney

Burton, wisely decides to remove the talking mouse, from this re-working of the story makes Milly and Joe, his closest allies and thus provides the audience with a way into the story. The youngsters carry a lot of the weight of the film on their shoulders and Nico Parker, in particular, delivers a stand-out performance.

Not to be outdone, it’s great to see past Burton regulars Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton back on the big screen eating up the scenery and having the time of their lives. Keaton loves playing eccentrics and bad guys and just laps up his well coiffured role as mean-hearted entertainment mogul V. A. Vandevere while DeVito shines as the eccentric Max Medici who’s life is plagued by a mischievous monkey who he fails to keep locked in his desk drawer.

New Burton favourite Eva Green who starred in the excellent Gothic TV series Penny Dreadful as well as Burton’s own Dark Shadows and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, plays Collete, a French high-wire artist and Vandevere’s reluctant companion, who is charmed and won over by the Farrier family and their circus family. She is instrumental in providing a satisfying resolution to the story, which as the film develops, grows increasingly away from the 1941 source material.

Danny DeVito is the larger-than-life circus owner Max Medici in Tim Burton's idiosyncratic remake of the Disney anaimated classic Dumbo  Photo: DisneyDanny DeVito is the larger-than-life circus owner Max Medici in Tim Burton's idiosyncratic remake of the Disney anaimated classic Dumbo Photo: Disney

As you would imagine any film Burton from Tim Burton is a feast for the eyes and Dumbo is no exception while the early scenes of circus life and rural America just after the First World War is reminiscent of his heightened retro-vision displayed in Big Fish while his view of Dreamland resembles a cross between a mad scientists laboratory and production drawings for any number of Hollywood science fiction B-Pictures from the 1930s to the 50s.

Burton’s visual virtuosity is staggering as always.

The only downside to this modern re-telling of the Dumbo story is an incredibly clunky coda about animal rights, delivered straight to camera, by Max Medici, as a break-the-fourth-wall, video-promo-clip to launch his new circus, which tells us that the use of animals in circuses is wrong. In the 21st century we all know this but to deliver this message in 1919 seems wrong and artificial (and more importantly it is not needed) as other elements in the story provide that message in a much more subtle and, indeed, heartwarming way.

Michael Keaton relishes the role of ambitious businessman and theme-park owner VA Vandevere in Tim Burton's idiosyncratic remake of the Disney anaimated classic Dumbo  Photo: DisneyMichael Keaton relishes the role of ambitious businessman and theme-park owner VA Vandevere in Tim Burton's idiosyncratic remake of the Disney anaimated classic Dumbo Photo: Disney

Those wanting a straight live-action re-make of the sentimental 1940s animated feature Dumbo may be disappointed but those of us who relish each opportunity to wallow in the Gothic romance of Tim Burton’s imagination will undoubtedly be pleasantly surprised. This is not what promised by the packaging, in fact it is much better.

This review screening of Dumbo was provided by Ipswich Cineworld.

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