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By Ani Bundel
In March, Disney, one of the largest of the conglomerates in the entertainment industry, swallowed the majority of 20th Century Fox’s holdings. In a strange twist, this monopoly building was greeted with cheers from the public who were seemingly excited to see currently divided franchises made whole again under a single owner. Disney’s first major release since the merger — “Dumbo” opening this weekend — may cause them to reconsider, however.
“Dumbo” is the latest addition to Disney’s slate of live-action remakes from its classic cartoon library, which at this point stretches back nearly a century. However, the concept of this kind of reboot is not new. Back in the 1990s, Glenn Close cemented herself as the ultimate Cruella De Vil in a live-action “101 Dalmatians,” an update of the 1961 Disney cartoon. Indeed, director Tim Burton, the man behind “Dumbo,” has been remaking Disney for Disney since 2010, when he re-imagined the 1951 classic “Alice In Wonderland” with Johnny Depp.
“Dumbo” is the latest addition to Disney’s slate of live-action remakes from its classic cartoon library, which at this point stretches back nearly a century.
But Disney has only recently started redoing films once considered untouchable, like “Cinderella” and “Beauty and The Beast.” “Beauty and the Beast” settled for what was essentially shot-by-shot redo of the 1991 film — and was the second biggest movie of the year at the box office. But other films have taken more artistic license with the source material.
Burton’s “Dumbo” is in the latter camp. The settling is the same — the post-World War I American south — and the plot still revolves around the birth of an elephant with bizarrely large ears. But that’s about it. Those looking for the story of an adventurous young pachyderm bullied by his animal peers will not find it here. (And in one sense, that’s probably for the best. The original 1941 cartoon has not aged well, as they say, most famously due to a group of crow characters who were turned into racist minstrel stereotypes.)
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Instead, Dumbo is now surrounded by a sea of much more interesting humans, with our photorealistic CGI elephant holding the role usually reserved for co-starring pups. But the film’s new story isn’t the happy animal adventure Disney box office hits are made of. Like most of Burton’s work, it includes the kinds of traumatic events that are probably not appropriate for kids under the age of eight, and a whole lot of political messaging which fans of Disney might not appreciate. It’s not terrible, but if not for some extremely pointed anti-Disney subtext, it would probably be yet one more forgettable film from Burton’s later period.
From a pure plot perspective, the real stars of this tale are the Farriers. Father Holt (Colin Farrell) has just returned from the fields of France, short of an arm, to find his wife has died and the horses key to the family’s circus act have been sold. To earn their keep, he and his children, Joe (Finley Hobbins) and Milly (Nico Parker, daughter of Thandie Newton), are put in charge of tending the elephants, where Dumbo is born. While circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is the first to call Dumbo’s ears freakish, the rest of the circus performers rally around the little dude, while Milly and Joe are the ones to discover their pal can fly. After Dumbo’s mother, Mrs. Jumbo, is sold off for trying to protect her son during an on-stage incident, the kids convince Dumbo to fly for the circus and thus earn enough money to buy his Mama back.
Dumbo’s triumph in the ring comes barely 30 minutes in, leaving the rest of the movie to become a parable about why allowing yourself to be bought up by a conglomerate is a bad idea.
In the original film, Mama is merely caged in the back, while her young son struggles out in the world; “Dumbo” ends when the elephant flies for the public for the first time, winning fans over and getting Mrs. Jumbo and himself an upgraded train car and position in the circus hierarchy. But not in Burton’s version. Here, Dumbo’s triumph in the ring comes barely 30 minutes in, leaving the rest of the movie to become a parable about why allowing yourself to be bought up by a conglomerate is a bad idea.
Enter Michael Keaton as the villainous V.A. Vandevere, who wants the flying elephant for his own. He buys the entire circus and ships them to “Dreamland.” “Dreamland” is a painfully obviously Disney World knock-off, roller coasters and all, though with a big top tent in the center instead of a castle. Epcot’s “World of Tomorrow” is rebranded the “World of Science,” but future dioramas are instantly recognizable. Here, Dumbo finds his mother again; hilariously, she was shipped to “Dreamland” as part of a previous merger and is now part of the jungle exhibit.
But just because Dumbo and his mother are now under the same corporate big top does not mean a happy ending is assured. Layoffs are coming, and redundancies in circus performers must be dealt with. Medici may be a bigwig now, but he’s not exactly necessary either, a useless vice president under a megalomaniac chief executive. And of course, there’s the bankers and shareholders who are the wealthy puppet masters, embodied by Alan Arkin as J. Griffin Remington.
That this movie is premiering just nine days after the Disney-Fox merger closed is the height of irony, though almost certainly unintentional given that the film’s release date was set before the merger was formalized. But “Dumbo” was always an odd choice for this kind of remake, having neither marquee princesses nor massive box office hit credentials. (Its status as one of the first Disney VHS releases of the 1980s, accidentally making it a household classic, is most likely responsible for the decision.)
Perhaps it is fitting that Burton has used such a classic Disney vehicle to set metaphorical fire to his master’s house. As Farrier says to Vandevere during the film’s final act, “That’s what they pay me for, sir, to put on a show!” One assumes this would be Burton’s argument to any Disney executive questioning the film’s blatant critique. The question is, will anyone watching the show appreciate the message coming from inside the House of Mouse?