Review: DUMBO is Tim Burton's heartfelt takedown of Disney

by Charles Gerian

“You've made me a child again.”

Tim Burton's DUMBO released this past weekend in theaters nationwide and serves as a very Tim Burton-vision of Walt Disney's animated 1941 hit, based in turn off the children's book of the same name by Helen Aberson. This isn't the story you thought you knew, and I don't quite think it's the story Disney wanted Tim Burton to show either.

DUMBO, written by Ehren Kruger (Ghost in the Shell, Transformers: Dark of the Moon) is set in 1919 and follows an amputee veteran of World War 1 named Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) who returns from Europe to find his wife deceased, the circus sold his horses, and his kids not quite sure how to react to their father's new appearance. Max Medici- the leader of this traveling show played by a unusually sincere Danny DeVito- has purchased a great Indian elephant who has just given birth to the unlikely new star of the traveling troupe...a wide-eyed baby elephant with humongous curtain-like ears that earns the name Dumbo and becomes the adopted friend of Farrier's adorable son and daughter after Dumbo's mother is forcibly removed from his life.

They come to find though, that Dumbo's unusual ability to fly with his large ears earns them a visit from V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) and his femme fatale Colette (Eva Greene) who wants Dumbo as the star attraction for his expansive Coney Island amusement park, Dreamland. This is where the film takes a delightfully fantastic turn and sets it apart from all the other generic Disney adaptations.

Vandevere, behind the skeptical Medici's back, buys controlling ownership in his little circus and absorbs it (and Dumbo) into Vandevere's Dreamland empire, taking control of Dumbo and transplanting Medici's small circus family into the twisted Gothic-Deco version of the real life Walt Disney World with Vandevere himself acting as the controlling and money hungry king of the show, a seemingly very intentional stand-in for the Bob Iger controlled Disney we have now that just mercilessly swallowed up 20th Century Fox earlier this year.

Dreamland is a kaleidoscopic wonderland that is visually Burton at his peak aesthetic. Circus performers guide Farrier, his children, and Medici's crew through a parade into Dreamworld full of Burton's iconic striped costumes and tantalizing colors with provocatively pale features- amplified here by costume paint- all set in the foreground of sinister spiraling rollercoasters, circus tents, and other various industrial contraptions that pierce the sky like rusted needles from a collection of colored candy. Vandevere's world is controlling and focused. Before Dumbo's first Dreamland show we see that the adorable elephant already has his likeness on posters, stuffed animals, and more. It becomes quickly apparent that Vandevere is unhinged, controlling, and deftly insane. Disregarding safety and care for quick profit.

Colin Farrell's goodhearted father character of Farrier strikes up a romance with Colette who is played alluringly and yet warmly by the always ravenous and regal Eva Greene whom Burton fans might recognize from DARK SHADOWS. 007: CASINO ROYALE, or 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE which is where he quips that she's the attractive girlfriend of a rich, handsome, powerful man. Colette simply replies that she is “just another jewel to reflect the light back onto [Vandevere]” and it is suggested that he bought her off the streets for his own amusement.

There's a lot going on here, visually and metaphorically, but DUMBO still has a big beating heart at the center. It is a story about acceptance, love, and the importance of family. Colette's seemingly icy heart grows warm for Dumbo as the baby's surrogate mother, and soon Dumbo's newfound family begin to realize that captivity and abuse aren't how he should be they of course hatch a plan that will set Dumbo and her imprisoned mother free leading to a spectacular sequence where it is revealed Vandevere wants Dumbo's mother, Jumbo, to be taken away and murdered so that she doesn't become a distraction to the new attraction To set the elephants- and other imprisoned animals- free, the family of freaks form together to burn Dreamland to the ground (literally and figuratively).

DUMBO is, by and large, the most heartwarming and sweet film Burton has made that also acts as the film of his that seems to say the most about creativity, art, and passion since his iconic ED WOOD. The soul of the original film is still here with an underlying message about animal cruelty and the dangers of what can happen when a corporate mega-machine gets ahold of something as innocent and captivating as genuine art and talent.

By the end of the film, Medici's circus goes back to its humble roots and Dumbo joins his mother in Aa far off jungle where they find an elephant family all their own. Medici proudly declares that their circus will now be free of captive animals, showing a shocking moment of growth from a character who could of very well been nothing more than a cheap object played with glee by Burton alumn DeVito.

DUMBO is now playing.