Tim Burton makes movies about outcasts. From Pee Wee Herman to Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood to Sweeney Todd, Burton makes movies about people who stand out from the crowd because of their looks, personality, and their lifestyle. So it’s no wonder why Burton would be drawn to Dumbo, Disney’s latest live-action remake of the classic tale about a big eared elephant who learns he can fly. But what makes this version of Dumbo an interesting film, beyond some good performances and visual flair, giving me further hope that Burton still has it as a director, is how the film represents Burton’s career as a director.
This latest telling of the 1941 animated feature takes us to the Medici Brothers Circus run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito), a lower-end circus barely making ends meet. When one of the circus’ biggest acts, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), comes back from the war without an act, Medici puts him and his kids on elephant duty. While on duty, Holt discovers that his biggest elephant, Jumbo, has given birth to a baby elephant with gigantic ears. While taking care of baby Jumbo after his mother is sent away, Holt’s kids find out that with just a small feather, baby Jumbo fan fly using his ears. This gains the attention of Medici and the rest of the circus and after a spectacular performance and being the talk of the country, baby Jumbo, now named Dumbo, he catches the eye of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a tycoon who runs the biggest amusement park in the country called Dreamland. However, Dreamland isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and Holt, the kids, and the entire Medici circus try to reunite Dumbo with mother.
Tim Burton is really the first director who introduced the idea of a director to me. Watching his films as a child, well before I understood anything about film aesthetic and how films are made and what a director actually does, I knew what a “Tim Burton movie” was. It was dark, twisted, gothic, and bizarre, which is what a lot of his early career work was. Nobody made movies like Burton. Nobody made movies like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman and Batman Returns, and Ed Wood. Sure, there were cinematic influences, but Burton’s films were unique and he had control over them all. But it’s when Burton made Planet of the Apes that he started to change as a director. Apes, which is arguably Burton’s worst film, was a film that didn’t feel like Burton had any control over and felt like a big, bloated studio film. And sure, after Apes, Burton kept trying to get on track and even had moments where he was almost there with Big Fish and Sweeney Todd, but he’s never been the same. And then he got caught doing either bigger, more bloated studio films like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland or Burton-lite films like Dark Shadows and Big Eyes, where Burton tried to rekindle the magic of the past.
What Dumbo represents is Burton’s career as a filmmaker. We watch as Dumbo, a weird elephant who is unlike any other, works for no money and is happy within his own world. However, when he is moved to the big stage with the flashy lights and the big money guys are there, he can’t perform like he used to and isn’t happy there and it shows in his performance. There is actually a moment where Dumbo is attempting to take flight for the first time in Dreamland and slips off his platform and can’t gain his footing back, an almost symbolic gesture as Burton slipped during Planet of the Apes and just couldn’t get his footing back as a director. Though he is trapped in a place he does not want to be, Dumbo knows his skills and does fly, much like Burton knows he’s a good director, so he does And with Dumbo being a Disney production, you can tell that Burton still doesn’t have full control and isn’t fully in his own world. Yes, he casts some old regulars, like DeVito, Keaton, and Eva Green, who seems to be his new muse of sorts, he puts together some exciting set pieces, and the visuals are great, especially when Dumbo takes flight. But this isn’t Burton in his true form, not just yet.
It’s no spoiler that the film ends on a happy note, much like the original film, but what does it mean for Burton as a director? Does this mean Burton feels like himself again and is ready to get back to his roots? Unfortunately, we won’t know until his next film, but there is a hope that is Burton is anything like Dumbo, he will soon be happily flying back to his old ways.
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