FOR generations of children, Dumbo was the first Disney movie they ever saw.
The big-eared baby elephant first hit the screens in 1941 and was based on a book. The Disney company had lost a fortune making Fantasia, released the year before. While that was critically acclaimed it was hugely costly to make and Walt Disney decided they needed something short, catchy and a guaranteed money-maker. A script for a baby elephant came across his desk, who could resist watching that?
The original film was just 64 minutes long and a massive box office success. On reflection, the film is racist, but this was made in 1941, a time where racism wasn’t seen in the same light as it is today. It is still a magical film to watch, as long as the dark side is explained to kids, and despite the scary pink elephant scene.
Disney is all about the live action remakes these days and Dumbo is the latest film to get that treatment. Thankfully, the racism is gone and so are the pink elephants, but there is a modern day take on the scarily hallucinogenic scene.
Our own Colin Farrell plays Holt Farrier, a Great War veteran who finally makes it home after the conflict. He lost his arm in the war, and his wife died during the influenza outbreak. He returns to his two children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley).
Before the war, Holt was a rodeo rider in Medici’s Circus. Despite losing his arm he assumes he will take up the routine, but the circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) was forced to sell the horses.
Max points out that the circus is family and there will always been a place for Holt, just not with horses. He puts him in charge of the elephants. Holt is furious, but the kids are happy. They are delighted to have their father back and think working together will be brilliant — but the war has changed him and he finds it hard to settle back into family life.
The circus has been losing money so Max buys Jumbo, a great Asian elephant. Jumbo is pregnant and Max thinks the baby will draw the crowds in.
He isn’t wrong, when the baby is born the crowds flock to see it, but there is a massive problem. Baby Jumbo has gigantic ears and is bullied for being a freak. He is renamed Dumbo and has his ears hidden so he can perform.
Of course, we know the story. The disguise falls off and Dumbo’s giant ears are revealed. The crowd boo, accusing Max of using fake animals.
Dumbo’s mammy is angry that her baby is being yelled at and goes on the rampage. It’s decided that she is a crazed beast and has to leave the circus. Cue lots of tissue moments as Dumbo tries to get to his mammy.
The baby is naturally maudlin over his mammy’s removal, so Milly and Joe spend lots of time with him to cheer him up. They feed him nuts and play with him and one day, out of nowhere, a feather blows in Dumbo’s direction. He sucks it up though his trunk, sneezes a great big sneeze, and for a few seconds his big ears flap and he flies.
The kids are overwhelmed and teach him to fly. His skills become public when a circus routine goes wrong, forcing Dumbo to fly to save himself. Max finally has a money-spinner.
Enter V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a cold-hearted amusement park owner who offers Max and the circus troop a place in his park in exchange for a partnership deal for Dumbo. It is a great offer; one Max can’t refuse.
Colette Marchant (Eva Green), an enigmatic trapeze artist, is going to ride Dumbo in an act, but first she has to gain the trust of Holt, the children, and most of all the elephant.
Just as things are looking up for the circus troop, Dumbo’s mammy is found in terrible conditions which sets a chain of reactions off for everyone involved.
Like the original, Dumbo deals with serious issues — the loss of a parent, the harsh treatment of animals, the pain of growing up in a less than perfect environment. It is certainly a tearjerker at times. It can be scary, so be mindful of sensitive children. The pink elephant update is a little freaky. Yet, despite these red flags, this is a gorgeous, heart-warming tale.
With a heartfelt performance from Farrell, and wonderfully comedic turns from the villainous Keaton, and the artful dodger DeVito, this is the perfect modern upgrade for a family classic.