Movie review: Disney's live-action 'Dumbo' takes viewers beyond original animation

Ivy Jean Vibar, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 26 2019 01:08 PM

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MANILA -- Disney's live-action adaptation of classic animated film "Dumbo" lives up to its name, showing the upsides and downsides of life, and featuring a hefty serving of action.

It goes beyond the original film, taking off from when Dumbo learns he can fly.

While the film starts off slow, it picks up once the titular elephant is born. However, the slow pace is not without purpose. The start of the movie is meant to introduce viewers to the humans in the circus -- new characters who were not in the original animation. 

Aside from the family who will replace Timothy Q. Mouse as Dumbo's mentors, as the film does not include talking animals, there are also the other performers in the Medici Brothers Circus.

Set in the 1940s, Dumbo begins with the arrival of a beat up circus train in a small American town. Despite the train's peeling lacquer and fading paint, it elicits great excitement among townspeople looking for entertainment in a time when cellphones and internet streaming were as far from reality as activists rallying for animal rights.

It continues to show Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) Farrier meeting their father Holt (Colin Farrell) at the train station. Their reunion, while joyful, is colored by tragedy.

The two children are upset upon seeing that their father lost his left arm in the fighting, and he is in turn wracked by grief upon finding out that his wife died while he was away. This is not the only unpleasant surprise -- their fancy tent, some of their possessions, as well as the horses Holt and his wife used to train and perform with were sold by circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) in order to cope with hard times.

Despite their reduced circumstances, Milly is able to find comfort in science and playing doctor to the circus' performing animals -- including a white mouse wearing a red outfit much like Timothy Q. Mouse in the original film.

Her younger brother, meanwhile, finds amusement in tagging along with Milly. In contrast to Milly, who wants to leave the circus to be a scientist, he tries to fit in the circus by trying stunts on his own. He also offers to help Holt, who seems to want to forget the war by picking up where he left off, headlining the circus marquee with his daring horse training act.

However, they are waylaid by another surprise -- Medici's purchase of a pregnant elephant, which gives birth to Jumbo Jr., whose name will become Dumbo after a series of mishaps. Holt is assigned to care for the elephants, and the children play with the baby elephant, which Medici dislikes because of his floppy ears.

The rest of the movie introduces other new characters such as theme park founder VA Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who wants to recruit Dumbo for his newly-built Dreamland; and aerial artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green), who seems to have fled occupied France with help from Vandevere.

MODERN, ACTION-PACKED

While the stage is set for the story to revolve around Dumbo's "ugliness" and his talent for flying as trained by his mentors with a feather, the film goes beyond his looks and the original animation's drive towards revenge. This new film adds on to those petty concerns with a timelier narrative which focuses on acceptance and freedom, and most of all, courage. 

It also does not lack for humor throughout the movie, with a smattering of pop culture and showbiz references sure to induce snorts of laughter in the older members of the audience.

The characters each have limits they have to overcome, and they do so in their own ways. While not always realistic due to the ease and quickness by which they get over their troubles, the viewer is already expected to suspend disbelief -- Dumbo is a family film about a flying elephant, after all.

While it features scenes from the original animated film, such as Dumbo's unfortunate debut, and fiascos while performing with bumbling clowns atop a burning building, the live action remake's story is more relevant to modern times. 

Milly's desire for achievement and intellectual pursuits overcomes the "traditional" role of circus performer set for her by her father, Dumbo escapes from the limitations of fear, and Holt overcomes his insecurity due to his missing arm.

The film also gets rid of some scenes and characters which were criticized in the original for being racist, and chooses to have pink elephants appear through a mesmerizing bubble show instead of getting a baby elephant drunk on alcohol (champagne) like in the original movie.

It also uses visual effects to portray Dumbo and his four-legged counterparts in the film instead of using trained animals, and also subtly jabs at people's fear of the unknown and those different to themselves.

For example, "scary" animals placed in a Dreamland horror house were actually only dressed up as monsters, playing on people's fear of the unfamiliar. The animals include Dumbo's poor mother, sold by Medici for being "mad" despite merely protecting her son, painted in Eastern "brownface" which in Asia might be seen as beautiful rather than horrid.

After an action-packed final performance by Dumbo in Dreamland, various redemptions and much-deserved come-uppances, the film ends on a much lighter and animal-friendly note, with the happy vibes seen in the newly-repainted circus signs and new weather vane, reflecting positive changes in the characters.

Viewers are likely to come away dazed by the visual spectacle offered by the filmmakers, known for their work in equally entrancing movies, and maybe even inclined to be more balanced in how they view the world.

Opening in Philippine cinemas on Wednesday, Dumbo was directed by Tim Burton ("Alice in Wonderland," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory").