When I first heard that iconic director Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas) was remaking the 1941 Disney classic Dumbo, my interest was instantly piqued. I was beyond curious to know how Burton would update a story with the potential for so many animal rights themes. In the ‘40s, no one questioned the exploitation of wild animals for circuses. Flash forward nearly 80 years and opinions have drastically changed; Ringling Brothers is thankfully defunct, and more laws are passed each year to expressly ban the use of wild animals in circuses.
In contrast to the original animated film, Tim Burton’s version is live-action and all the animals are phenomenally created using CGI. This technology is so impressive it has to be seen on the big screen to be believed. And it’s heartening to let you know that no animals were harmed in the making of this film because no animals were used in the making of this film.
Burton’s Dumbo opens similarly to the 1941 film. I have vague memories of the original Dumbo from when I was a kid. I distinctly remember the terrifying scene where Dumbo’s mother “goes mad” after Dumbo is teased due to his large ears. There’s always been something about watching animals be bullied that’s profoundly disturbed me. As in the original film, after destroying the circus tent, Dumbo’s mom is ripped away from her baby and jailed. For any child, the thought of your mother being forcibly taken away from you and locked up is devastating.
However, this version– while sad– is far less traumatic (or maybe I’m just older). In fact, the film definitely shies away overall from showing the brutal treatment of animals who are forced to perform – there is not a bullhook in sight. (The film is PG after all.) Where the film triumphs is in accurately portraying animals, particularly Dumbo and his mother, as individuals who experience love and loss.
The film’s human main characters, played by Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Danny DeVito, and Nico Parker (who portrays Farrell’s daughter, Millie) go on a journey for sure. With the exception of Millie, there’s mostly vague indifference to Dumbo’s plight at first – though her father does punch one of the circus trainers for being harsh to the elephants.
Once Dumbo’s incredible flying abilities are revealed, the story begins to shift. Now Dumbo is the failing circus’ sudden main attraction and savior. Dumbo quickly goes from outcast to celebrity. Still, it’s only Parker’s character and her brother, who both recently lost their mother, who understand the importance of reuniting Dumbo and his mom.
As the film progresses, Dumbo’s fame grows and he and his circus are bought up by an evil — think mustache twirling — entertainment tycoon played by Michael Keaton to perform in his new theme park, Dreamland. During Dumbo’s first performance, the young elephant hears his mother’s cry. Unbeknownst to us, she was sold to Dreamland and is now part of an “attraction” called Nightmare Island along with other animals who are kept in cages and made to look ferocious.
The disruption of Dumbo’s inaugural performance causes Keaton’s character to begin plotting the murder of Dumbo’s mother. Dark, I know.
By this point, all the other human characters have fallen for Dumbo and have had enough with the animal exploitation bullshit. They quickly devise a plan to save Dumbo and his mom. In fact, the finale of the film is a direct action animal liberation extravaganza that would land you or me in prison if we tried it ourselves. (Trust me, you’ll love it!)
But it’s the last two scenes of the film where it really soars. As Danny DeVito’s character shows us his new circus (after literally burning down Michael Keaton’s shiteous Dreamland), the animals are noticeably missing. All the new acts only feature human performers. He then turns directly to the camera and tells us he and his troop no longer believe wild animals belong behind bars in any circuses.
Is it on the nose? Yes. Does it need to be said? Absolutely.
The final moment of the film reveals what’s become of Dumbo and his mom. Instead of being reunited but staying in the circus as they do in the original, they have been released back to the wild where they truly belong. Burton at long last gives Dumbo and his mother the freedom that should have never been taken from them in the first place. And perhaps it is that final message that makes this film the one animal rights activists have been waiting for.