Tim Burton's live-action 'Dumbo' lives up to Disney original

I vividly remember, from my 1950s childhood, the mean kids taunting kids with big ears as “Dumbo!” Such was the staying power of Walt Disney’s ugly duckling tale of that miracle mammoth — that prodigious pachyderm — that soon-to-be-teenage mutant elephant.

Disney’s 1941 classic was of modest, not elephantine, proportions. At just 64 minutes, it was Walt’s shortest animated feature, as if he had foreknowledge of the future perfect length for television.

Director Tim Burton’s live-action remake is considerably darker but true to the endearing, enduring original in many respects — with key departures. In 1941, mama Jumbo’s baby Dumbo was delivered by a stork (voiced by the late great Sterling Holloway) and ridiculed by all the other circus animals (and humans) because of his super-biggie-sized ears. When Jumbo gets sent away for trying to protect him, poor bereft Dumbo finds himself alone and friendless, except for Timothy Q. Mouse — mice traditionally frighten elephants, right? — who motivates him to achieve his full aeronautical potential in the down-at-the-heel Medici Traveling Circus.

Here, the stork is replaced by Jumbo’s almost-natural childbirth. Gone are the nattering nabobs of negative crows and Dumbo’s mouse mentor — replaced by motherless Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins), who were left in the care of their circus troupe when their mom died in the recent influenza epidemic. Their dad Holt (Colin Farrell), the lesser half of the celebrated family horseback duo, is now returning from WWI to rejoin the traveling troupe, with many medals — but without a left arm.




  • Starring: Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Michael Keaton, Alan Arkin.
  • Rating: PG for peril, action, some thematic elements and brief mild language.

It’s basic Disney 101 — starting with sad maternal separations a la “Bambi.” Gone, in addition to the mom and the dad’s arm, is Mel Blanc’s voicing of Dumbo, because neither Dumbo — nor any other animal character in the film — speaks. Thank God (and Tim Burton) for that and for the equally wise decision not to anthropomorphize the animals or their characteristics — except for Dumbo’s adorable baby-blue eyes.

Danny DeVito as the circus’ manic manager Max Medici grows on you, but the cardboard villains do not. As Vandevere, the sleazy impresario of Max’s rival “Dreamland,” Michael Keaton for the first time in his screen life is a disappointment — not least because his weird accent and delivery are unintelligible much of the time. I don’t know where or what he was going for — something along the lines of Jack Nicholson’s Joker maybe? In any case, he didn’t get there. I longed for something with the brilliance of Beetlejuice.

Similarly, Alan Arkin is mildly amusing but largely wasted in a minor role as Keaton’s cynical bankroller.

Mr. Farrell has a problematic Kentucky accent, akin to Mr. Keaton’s. But he’s otherwise OK in his thankless role. Young Miss Parker and Master Hobbins are charmingly restrained, if not deeply compelling.

But let’s hear it for truly gorgeous Eva Green as aerialist Colette (reuniting with Mr. Burton after “Dark Shadows” and “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”), swinging from giant chandeliers under the big top, on or off Dumbo’s back, while shedding most of her delicious outfits.

Speaking of which: Colleen Atwood’s period costumes and Rick Heinrichs’ dazzling ’20s-Deco production design are fab complements to Ben Davis’ cinematography, which replicates and embellishes the most memorable images of the original — notably the danse macabre of fantastic pink bubble animals. His (and Mr. Burton’s) ever-so-slightly disorienting tilted frames, fantastic Manhattan aerial sequences and Busby Berkeley-style choreographic spectacles are like a kid’s reimagining by Fellini or Fritz Lang.

The 1941 original won an Oscar for best musical score but lost out on one for best song, “Baby Mine.” In a sweet-touch tribute, Mr. Burton includes his adorably chubby circus mermaid Miss Atlantis (Sharon Rooney), strumming a ukulele and crooning “Baby Mine” here.

Fractious with Burtonized bombast? For sure. PC boxes checked? Yes — with little Milly as a budding scientist, and the PETA-friendly moral’s stunning final images, reinforced by Danny Elfman’s soaring choral finale.

All legitimate and illegitimate adult quibbles will matter naught to young audiences unburdened by preconceptions from the animated version. Though some of Burton’s grotesqueries and perilous tent-takedown and fire situations might be pretty scary for littler ones — I say, take ‘em anyway. They’ve probably seen much worse on television.

If necessary, send me the resultant shrink bills, if any, and I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: parispg48@aol.com.

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