Tim Burton‘s 2019 re-imagining of the 1941 animated Disney classic is a weird piece of cinema. Not weird in the Tim Burton way, but in the why-did-they-make-this and who-is-the-intended-audience way. It’s also a surprisingly scathing commentary on the corporate behemoth Disney itself has become.
With the original having a runtime of just 64 minutes, it was no easy task to expand this adaptation to current feature-length expectations. Instead of a shot-by-shot remake filled with intermittent padding, Screenwriter Ehren Kruger and Director Tim Burton tried something different. The first half of the film is adapted directly from the cartoon, but the focus isn’t on talking animals, but new human protagonists. Colin Farrell plays Holt Farrier, the former star equine performer of the Medici Brothers Circus who has just returned from WWI, sans one arm. While away, his wife passed away from influenza, leaving behind their two (non-performing) children, Joe (Finley Hobbins) and his older sister Nico (Milly Farrier). Their reunion is strained at best, and any potential family bonding is sidelined by the arrival of a certain floppy-eared baby elephant. The remainder of the first half plays out more or less as the original, but with humans speaking all the important lines, instead of animals.
Around this halfway mark, something interesting happens. The antagonists show up. V.A.Vandevere (Michael Keaton) and his gorgeous arm candy Colette Marchant (Eva Green) make a special trip to the Medici Brothers Circus to see if the stories of a flying pachyderm are true. Vandevere is always on the search for “magic!”, the authentic kind, not the fake version crafted at his magnificent “DreamLand”. Max Medici (Danny DeVito) expects exactly what we do, that Vandevere will try and offer an enormous amount to purchase Dumbo, and won’t take “No” for an answer. Instead, he does something very different. Not only does he want to purchase and employ the entire circus, but he offers Max shares in his company. It appears to be the perfect scenario with everyone ending up a winner. This is where 2019’s Dumbo completely diverges from the original and begins to get interesting.
That moment caught my attention as it reminded me of how Disney itself preaches “making everyone’s dreams come true” while simultaneously buying up all the creative properties it can. When is the last time Disney, as a company, created something truly new and magical? How many of their own properties are they rehashing, while buying up and assimilating the creative competition?Was this just a reflection of my own thoughts on the screen, or is there something more to this movie? When movies are crafted, especially those on the major market scale, every little detail that’s included is a conscious decision. The look of a set, a logo, a character’s name, is rarely happenstance. If you subscribe to this theory, consider the following:
The magical land Keaton’s character runs is called “DreamLand” and besides matching initials, has many similarities to DisneyLand. There are rides, animatronics, live entertainment, and a promise that all dreams can come true! There’s even a version of Disney’s Carousel of Progress called “Big Bright Future” that features an odd David Bowie cameo. Even the character’s name seems to have some hidden meanings. In one quick glimpse as Vandevere enters his office, we see the logo for his company, VAV Enterprises, with the three initials pressed so closely together they look like a large “W”. Furthermore, his last name is generally accepted to mean “From The Ferry”. Coincidence, or a sly play on words? It could be a coincidence, but the Farrier’s last name means “a person whose job involves taking care of horses”, and Colette Marchant, who at one point complains that “she is just a shiny thing to get people to look at Vandevere” has a name that literally means “Necklace Merchant”.
There are further connections to be explored, but it should be noted that Vandevere’s actions more closely represent the Walt Disney Company in its current form and not Walt Elias Disney the man. When he decides to quickly lay-off all of the Medici performers saying, “I said I would hire them. I didn’t say how long I would keep them”, it’s impossible not to think of the fate of Fox 2000 a single day after the merger was complete. It’s also revealed that while Vandevere seems to be a strongheaded villain, many of his questionable choices are made while pandering to his cynical investors, wonderfully personified by Alan Arkin. If this wasn’t enough to get the metaphor across when we first see Vandervere’s office, it’s window has a strong resemblance to Emperor Palatine’s throne room in Return of the Jedi. Far Fetched? Perhaps, until the film reveals what the outside of his office looks like. That’s no moon.
If you believe this outlandish theory, then there’s a lot to admire and dissect in this bold statement by Tim Burton. But if this theory is false, we’re sadly left with the shell of a movie. While the Dumbo character looks great on screen, most of the CGI is rather off-putting. The visual quality of the film has been degraded, likely to make the not-quite-realistic CGI blend better? Most of the movie is drenched in a sepia color-palette that makes everything look dirty, instead of nostalgic. And while the performances are adequate, there are a lot of weird accents flying around, particularly comical is Irishman Colin Farrell‘s ‘Merican Drawl. If nothing else, it evokes adult snickers when he repeatedly mentions the “Big D!” At least Eva Green is absolutely stunning as always. It’s a shame she’s only in the second half of the film.