In its attempt to introduce its classics to a new generation of children with the intent of making money out of their parents using nostalgia, Disney makes a bad remake and a good parable about itself.
Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a former equestrian performer and World War 1 amputee, returns to his previous employer. He is reunited with his kids but The Medici Circus is experiencing financial troubles. Nonetheless, he still got a job as a caregiver for a pregnant elephant mom. She gives birth to an elephant that’s considered deformed due to its big ears. But when the calf reveals to have the ability to fly, Dumbo becomes prey to human greed.
This live-action remake is naturally directed by Tim Burton. The setting fits his gothic kid fantasy oeuvre. The detailed costume design is mixed with post-WW1 period details, carnival-inspired visuals, and garish art deco. While this gives you a spectacle to look at, it becomes evident early on that it’s also hollow. Whatever this remake shares with the original stops once the CGI dumbo is revealed.
By the movie summary alone it’s clear that this Dumbo isn’t about Dumbo. Gone is the surreal coming-of-age tale of a flying elephant along with the subtle themes of discrimination, prejudice, isolation, and loneliness.
What you get is the classic tale of old-fashioned capitalism, filled with Burtonesque caricatures left over from Alice in Wonderland. The Medici Circus, on its last legs, is bought by a tycoon and incorporated into his theme park – Dreamland.
Sounds familiar? The live-action remake of Dumbo is more of a subversive swipe at Disney, showcasing how it’s a bad idea to get bought by a conglomerate and the fate of hapless employees who get caught up in it.
Vandevere is an ascot-wearing caricature of Walt Disney, whose Disneyland rip-off showcases a rebranded Dumbo. Later on, Dumbo finds his mom as a jungle exhibit after being shipped from a previous merger. At the same time, you get the typical corporate drills – lay-offs due to redundancies, a megalomaniac president, and the shareholder cutting his losses behind the scenes.
In this movie, The Farrier family eventually lives happily ever after and Vandevere gets his comeuppance. Dumbo and his mom are finally free. But we all know that the original told a more accurate but bittersweet ending – Dumbo becomes rich and famous with the help of a mouse, and his mom gets a better position in the circus hierarchy.
Whether this live-action remake is a timely parable of Disney that Burton leaned into or unintentionally made is up for debate. What’s clear is that Dumbo is a cash grab that’s interesting for the wrong yet ironically right reasons.
Dumbo is a blatant cash grab that turns the story of a flying elephant into a tale of run-in-the-mill human greed.