Using his cinematic expertise, Tim Burton does an incredible job of bringing the world of Walt Disney’s Dumbo to life. What the movie lacks in depth is certainly made up for in its ability to create a circus world of spectacle that will leave the viewers in amazement. Cutting out almost everything from the original classic cartoon movie except its most basic plot, this renewed version of Dumbo focuses far more on the family taking care of the baby elephant than on Dumbo himself. Although the script leaves a bit for audiences to desire and want more of, this film draws in its viewers elsewhere, using incredible cinematography, bright colors, and an outstanding soundtrack from music legend Danny Elfman.
Holt Farrier (Colin Ferrel), after losing his arm in a war, returns to the circus where he left his children, Milly, and Joe (Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins). Max Medici (Danny Devito), ringmaster extraordinaire, informs Holt that he will no longer ride horses for the circus, but will instead take care of their newest acquisition; a baby elephant that will cause the Medici Bros. circus to catch the eye of eccentric millionaire V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton).
Shots of Medici’s circus set up in a field in Missouri or of the eccentric Vandevere’s circus/theme park, Dreamland, are what truly make this film visually spectacular. While the Medici Bros. circus is smaller and made mostly of carnival side acts, it is a vibrant world where bright colors pop on the screen. It feels calm, welcoming, and safe, setting its place within the story as a place of comfort and safety for the characters and the audience. On the other hand, Dreamland is mostly seen at night, where the darkness is lit up by brightly colored rollercoasters, a large circus tent, and a double Ferris wheel that is as dazzling as it is defying physics. Dreamland is certainly classic “Burton” in how it looks, with fantasy-like architecture that makes you wish you were there while also causing an instinct to keep a safe distance away. Burton’s approach of using color and fantasy to draw in audiences has always been one of his strong suits as a director and he doesn’t disappoint with this film.
The aspect in which Dumbo falls short is in its on-screen dialogue. Every character’s line and actions feel quite predictable and often conventional. It can seem at times that the team was uninterested in taking any major risks with this movie, rather just let it draw in audiences based on the promise of a classic Disney character coming to life. For instance, the film has a ‘bad guy’, because that’s generally what the formula calls for, not allowing the character to feel fleshed out or present any motivation for their actions. We don’t see any motivation, other than the fact that there needs to be a villain in this film to move the story forward. It isn’t insufferable, but it is apparent.
One scene that stood out, in particular, is the way that Burton adapts the classic pink elephants on parade sequence from the original film. Thanks to the stunning visuals of this scene, I found myself as entranced as Dumbo watching these elephants made of bubbles dance across the screen, expanding and multiplying to an updated musical version of the song scored by Danny Elfman, who has worked as music composer on every Tim Burton to date. The colors were vibrant and the music completely in sync with the scene, blending a gorgeous visual appearance further enhanced by a great soundtrack. To me, it is the most scene that stands out most from this movie and I would see it again just to rewatch this on the big screen.
Although the script was formulaic, Dumbo’s true strength lies in the cinematography, its gorgeous array of color, and wonderful music that helped bring the classic back to life. The way the Medici Bros. circus and Dreamland are brought to life is done in a way that only a visionary Tim Burton could have pulled off. It is a wholly entertaining movie that will bring viewers out of the mundane and into a fantastical world of amusement, acrobatics, and magic only Disney could produce. I think Vandevere said it best when he first sees Dumbo fly; “you have made me a child again.”