Disney is on a spree of making live-action remakes of classics, to which they have been very successful. Beauty and The Beast was magical, The Jungle Book was enchanting and a non-remake, The Nutcracker and The Four Realms (an original film) was spellbinding – Therefore you can tell, I am most impressed and am happy to say Tim Burton’s latest is his best in years. Dumbo is a beautifully expressionistic take on the original animated film.
Burton brings along his signature darkness, feeling almost like ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ in a very German Expressionistic way. The influence of ‘Metropolis’, ‘Nosferatu’ and many more is present in all his films, but the design of Dumbo is built and coloured to perfection like those early silent films. Creating fantastical dream-like sets with twisted structures and at points it gets quite nightmarish in its construction.
Circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) enlists a former performer, Holt (Colin Farrell) and his two children to care for Dumbo, a baby elephant born with oversized dangling ears. Shockingly, they find out Dumbo can fly, it soon becomes the main attraction. The elephant’s abilities also draws the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), an entrepreneur who wants to showcase Dumbo in his show.
The film is a lovingly-magical experience, although different from the original it flows and weaves that content into something new and it works. The whole film is magnificently lit with the expressionistic tinge of blues, blacks and yellows. It has a some-what progression in colour as things take a turn for the worse (in the story), Burton is preoccupied with the ideas of dream and reality – can Dumbo actually fly? Is a question frequently asked. Additionally, the idea of madness and sanity is explored through the brilliantly dark Michael Keaton and his bald ‘henchman’.
It is heartfelt, funny and an emotional journey that perhaps starts a little stagnant but finds its wings fairly early and doesn’t stop flying. The cast give equally great performances, with Farrell and the kids taking front position, but it is DeVito who is by far the standout. Max Medici is a wisecracking old man, who keeps monkeys in his draws and he is an absolute gem.
There is a whole lot of humour and heart. It is mainly through Dumbo and the children that the heart-touching moments occur, that may have children and adults alike tearing up a bit. There are many uplifting and sweet scenes that will make you tingle in joy, however occasionally the script does slip a little but it’s forgivable as it does serve a purpose and isn’t just lazy writing.
A consistent use of artificial light and shadows, create an atmosphere of unease but also a sense of wonder as you watch Dumbo glide majestically through the shadowed tent. Like ‘Nosferatu’ and ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’, Burton feeds on his actors exaggerated acting styles, most notably seen through DeVito and Keaton, who both steal the show.
Dumbo is a touching film that is beautifully expressionistic and a great emotional and adventurous success.