By: Allison UpChurch, Staff Reporter
There’s the age-old question of “if a tree falls in a forest, and there’s no one around, does it make a sound?” Today, that question can be turned into “if a baby elephant has big ears, and there’s no mother to help him grow, can he fly?” While this might seem like a weird question to ask, the latest live-action remake from the Walt Disney Company lets audiences reexperience the story of Dumbo told through the lens of filmmaker Tim Burton.
This version of Dumbo diverges significantly from its original 1941 production. In terms of Dumbo’s story arc, it stays genuinely the same as Dumbo is born to an elephant named Mrs. Jumbo who lives and performs in a circus. Then, Mrs. Jumbo and Dumbo are separated after Mrs. Jumbo causes trouble for the circus while trying to protect Dumbo from the ridicule he faces because of his big ears.
Where the overall story diverges in this new version is that Mrs. Jumbo is sold off to another circus production, and Dumbo is left behind in the care of the circus’ new elephant caretakers, Holt (played by Colin Farrell) and his two kids Milly (played by Nico Parker) and Joe (played by Finley Hobbins). It is Milly and Joe who discover that Dumbo can fly when he is given a feather, and who give Dumbo the opportunity to show his talent off to the rest of the circus. They also work to keep a promise they made to Dumbo that performing will help raise the money to buy back Mrs. Jumbo.
This movie makes a clear balance of telling a new story about Dumbo and harking back to the original through references in the songs, visuals, and dialogue. Some of these references are framed in a way so that anyone who knows the original very well can point them out, and someone who does not know the original well will not get lost all of a sudden. Some notable references include the Casey Junior train theme song playing throughout the score, pink elephants conjured up in a bubble showcase, and one particular mouse that is always dressed up in a ringmaster’s hat and red suit that harkens back to Dumbo’s original friend of Timothy Q. Mouse.
The human characters that are featured in this movie sometimes get more screen time than Dumbo himself. Characters range from zany and over the top to mellow and unexpressive - even though the sight of a flying elephant would garner some wonderous reactions from anyone. All the animal themselves and most of the landscapes and locations are constructed through CGI that sometimes blends with the practical sets; most notably in close-ups of the characters. Other times it becomes a distraction, especially in group shots or wide-angle shots where the line between real and make-believe becomes more obvious.
In trying to answer the question posed at the beginning of this article, Dumbo as a movie may not be ready to fly yet, but he is in the process of getting his feet off the ground and staying up for as long as he can.