Among the countless Disney animated films scheduled for cynical live action remakes — this year alone sees both Aladdin and The Lion King crowding cinema screens — the studio’s 78-year-old flying elephant tale is one of the few that’s arguably ripe for reinvention.
Released as a fast B-movie to recoup the financial losses from Disney’s masterpiece Fantasia, the original 1941 animation, which runs for little more than an hour, is an unruly mixture of sentimentality and sideways dispatches from the id — a film whose surreal standout sequence is a nightmarish drunken hallucination of wildly mutating pachyderms, set to a marching band song so strange it was once covered by Sun Ra.
And the less said of the film’s inspirational gang of jive-talking birds, lead by a minstrel “Jim Crow”, the better.
In other words, it’s prime material for the director of this week’s new Dumbo, Tim Burton: a man whose own career has variously tangled with the Disney machine — from his notoriously being fired by the studio’s animation department, to helping inaugurate their present remake cycle with the billion-dollar-grossing Alice in Wonderland (2010).
Burton’s live action, CGI-enhanced Dumbo expands upon the slender framework of the original, locating its events in the heady boom of post-World War I America — where the burgeoning possibilities of the emergent Jazz Age would attract two-bit hucksters and wild-eyed visionaries alike.
It’s here, while touring the nation’s south, that a ramshackle circus lead by pint-sized ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) has fallen on hard times.
His star horse rider, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), has returned from the war minus a limb, a mischievous monkey is wreaking havoc with his personal effects, and his latest recruit, a female Asian elephant by the name of Jumbo, has just given birth to an unusually big-eared baby — dismissively nicknamed “Dumbo”.
Ostracised as a freak, Dumbo is befriended by Farrier’s young children, Millie (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), whose curiosity uncovers the elephant’s uncharacteristic gift: given a feather to Hoover up, the little guy can do aerial laps of the big top.
These too-earnest kids are no substitute for erstwhile cartoon chatterbox Timothy Q Mouse, relegated to a wordless cameo here, but Dumbo himself is a minor animated marvel — rendered, by some permissive miracle, in just the right combination of photorealistic creepiness and cutesy appeal.