Reviewed by: Charity Bishop
Importance of family
Children need both their mother and their father
Importance of true love
Protecting and caring for others
Making the most of our abilities and gifts
Be thankful for the blessings in our lives and the people God has provided to help us
Choosing to do what is right, instead of what is wrong
Taking respectful care of the animals that our Creator has provided
History of exploitation of people and animals in the entertainment industry
ANIMALS of the Bible
Elephants in the Bible
Colin Farrell … Holt Farrier
Nico Parker … Milly Farrier
Finley Hobbins … Joe Farrier
Michael Keaton … V.A. Vandevere
Danny DeVito … Max Medici
Eva Green … Colette Marchant
Alan Arkin … J. Griffin Remington
Lucy DeVito … Coat Check Girl
Joseph Gatt … Neils Skellig
Sandy Martin … Verna The Secretary
Deobia Oparei … Rongo the Strongo
Michael Buffer … Baritone Bates
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Walt Disney Pictures
Tim Burton Productions
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Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Tim Burton seems a strange choice to breathe live action life into one of Disney’s most beloved early classics, but the result is a funny, touching, and sweet story about a little elephant who learned to fly.
In the aftermath of World War I, the Medici Circus struggles to survive. Half the acts have either left the big top or died of influenza. The owner, Max Medici (Danny DeVito), has sold whatever he could to stay afloat—and purchased a brand new pregnant Asian elephant. He hopes her baby will draw big crowds. After her arrival, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the war less an arm, and unsure how to reconnect to his kids, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins).
Having lost their mother, the two children are struggling to cope with their grief. Since Max sold the horses Holt and his wife used in their act (plus most of their furniture), he gives Holt a new job—look after the elephants. Though displeased with being demoted, Holt’s sensitivity and compassion enables him to befriend Mrs. Jumbo. But Max’s dreams of luring crowds crash down to earth with baby Jumbo’s arrival. His large ears make him a “freak.”
When little Jumbo’s first appearance under the big top leads to disaster, Max demands his money back for the “rabid” elephant that went crazy in defending her baby and caused a man’s death. In comforting the depressed baby elephant, the Farrier children discover an astonishing secret. He can fly.
Other than “Maleficent,” the live-action Disney adaptations have not impressed me. I do not see the need to remake successful films frame-by-frame. “Dumbo” is the exception. Tim Burton kept the basic premise, but crafted a family-oriented, sentimental, and touching story, seen through the eyes of humans and Dumbo alike. I loved how he let Dumbo become a hero in his own right and gave him the motivation to fly, because he thought it would help his mother. The ending is also much more satisfying.
Since many children were in my screening, I saw how they reacted. Most of them loved it, but there were things too intense for the most emotionally sensitive kids. These are the heartbreaking scenes of Dumbo being separated from his mother, being bullied, and made ashamed of his big ears (though Dumbo doesn’t speak, his expressive eyes reveal his shame and sadness). Other moments that may scare little ones are when he almost falls off a high platform (twice), has to face down an out-of-control fire, and on “Nightmare Island” where guards think dangerous creatures have gotten out and stalk them through the mist.
There’s a fair amount of violence. Elephants rampage and knock down a circus tent, killing someone who was earlier abusing them / yelling at them and poking them with sticks. Dumbo sprays people in the face with water who mock his ears. The crowd throws things at Dumbo. Two characters almost fall to their deaths. A fire turns a theme park into an inferno. The villain talks about killing Dumbo’s mother and turning her into a pair of boots.
There are three uses of “hell,” and one unfinished s-word. Phrases include: “Good g*d!” and “What the h*ck?”. A woman steps in elephant excrement. Colette wears a few revealing outfits, and there are shirtless males.
It’s true that elephants form deep bonds with their offspring. Elephants who have lost their calves in the wild to death mourn them and return on their migration to mourn them again—they do “remember.” This film knows that and creates a powerful, realistic bond between Dumbo and his mother. His separation from her forms a large part of the story—and makes their happy ending even more joyfully poignant.
It has a pro-animal message, but it isn’t radical or inconsistent with our Christian understanding of “taking care of the animals.” Holt and his children step up and protect Dumbo and his mother from those who want to harm them (though they break the law to do it; it may spark a discussion with your kids about whether it’s okay to “steal” for a good cause).
The tale did not feel too long, and most of the acting was terrific. Burton has dialed back his surrealism to present a more whimsical circus world, still with touches of his authentic style (he uses the same costume designer, Colleen Atwood, and her work is as beautiful as usual). There are a few references to the original film (snatches of songs and tunes, pink elephants on parade in the form of bubbles, and Dumbo visiting his mother in the prison wagon). I loved it, as did most of the adult audience.
A much more complicated and “grown up” story than the original film, “Dumbo” explores loss and depression, the need to accept and love one another, the importance of mother and fatherhood, that it is okay to be different (it’s what “makes you special”), and brings its humans and animals alike to a moment of crisis, where they must do what is right—all powerful lessons for children. It also contains a lot of real-world parallels as thought-fodder for adults (the irony of a soulless corporation gobbling up the circus and not caring about the individual was not lost on me, in the light of Disney absorbing half its competitors). Burton lets the villain create his own downfall, he lets the hero get the girl, and he gives the little elephant a touching and a happy ending.
It’s not Tim Burton’s usual horror-style fare. This one seems more personal, sweet, and sincere… as if he has realized what C.S. Lewis knew—that one day, grown-ups will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.