Directed by Tim Burton
Dumbo, like its young elephant, has a tough time getting going. The opening moments of the film, aside from a deliriously wonderful and very Tim Burton montage, are loaded with exposition, both in the text and subtext. It sets up characters with frustrating flaws if only because they’re so transparent and eager to be shed by the end of the film. These are not so much characters as plot fodder, a bullet point list of outlined flaws, fears and aspirations, all shoved in because it’ll serve a dramatic moment later in the film.
But then the magic starts to envelope the rest of the film, particularly once Michael Keaton gets involved. He plays an industrialist who, drawn to the flying elephant, takes up co-ownership in the once meager circus and balloons it to a Disneyland-esque theme park. This manufactured world is so uniquely Tim Burton, like a greatest hits compilation of all his previous films.
And as a matter of fact the whole movie works in this way. It is an odd blend of gallows humor and genuine awe-infused idealism. Composer Danny Elfman brings back the music that still resonates from Edward Scissorhands, and “Dreamland” feels like a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory type of world crammed into the middle of the gothic landscape of Sleepy Hollow. Beyond that Danny DeVito returns as yet another ring master (following Big Fish), and other actors return from previous Burton films, Alan Arkin from Edward Scissorhands, Eva Green from his previous three and Michael Keaton from Beetlejuice and the Batman movies.
So of course it’s going to work to some extent, just by giving you a hint of the magic of those older movies. The wonder and absurdity is on full display, but it feels like there’s something missing.
Now, any further critiques might be the meandering, petty attempted indifference of a twenty-something who is clearly not the target audience of this movie. This is a fairly okay movie that doubles as a great kids movie. So there.
The world is just so vivid, between the characters, Dumbo himself and the almost inhumane but still recognizable landscape. It’s magical because of that vivid quality, and Dumbo did remind me of the movies I saw as a kid. These were movies with worlds so immersive and everlasting, movies in which you felt like you might get lost should you spend too much time there.
The heroes are clearly good, though not without their flaws (at least the Colin Farrell character), the villains are clearly, cartoonishly bad, and then there’s that one character (Eva Green) who is there to personify the part of ‘bad’ that can turn back into ‘good.’
The movie as a whole is anti-capitalist, and I don’t think that message is ever unwelcome. The small circus run by DeVito and his crew is essentially an untouched, unfunded startup with something up their sleeve. Then the bigger company buys them out and in the process strips them of all agency. You even see this at the end of Mad Men.
I guess that’s something to talk about, the “Dreamland” built by this bigger corporation. It is at once inspiring and intimidating, both awesome and awful. When we first see this world, simply because of how rich and textured it is, you struggle to look at it critically. And yet as a plot development it is so clearly an act of evil, a force so powerful and intimidating that is surely will run amok, like bringing to life Frankenstein’s monster.
In spite of that there is much to enjoy about this world before it eventually goes belly up. It’s hard not to see this as some version of Disneyland or the like, something both enjoyable but yet bought and sold. It’s a spectacle that can only be pursued behind locked gates and a $100 ticket.
But I enjoy Disneyland… though I was raised to enjoy Disneyland, being a kid in America and all.
So Tim Burton’s Dumbo is simple and majestic. It staggers at times but is loaded with so much imagery and imagination that there’s something here to marvel at. For kids it might last in the imagination a little bit longer.
Up Next: In Cold Blood (1967), Capote (2005), Cool Hand Luke (1967)