The trailer for the remake of Dumbo was, for a long time, one of my favorite trailers. Going to the theater twice a week or more, I saw it frequently, and loved everything about it. From the vibrancy of the circus atmosphere to the addition of human characters to the story, there seemed to be real potential. At 64 minutes, the original 1941 classic is one of Disney’s shortest feature films, yet packed with plenty of material to expand upon. Long story short, I had high hopes for this film.
It fell short.
It wasn’t Dumbo’s ears that weighed it down; rather, it was almost everything else.
It’s 1916, and Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) has returned to his circus troupe from the front in France, only to discover that his wife died in his absence and, money being tight, the circus owner sold his beloved horses. Instead, Max Medici (Danny DeVito, in a performance that starts out incredibly disappointing and rallies slightly by the end) tells Holt that he can take care of the elephants, one of whom is about ready to give birth.
Holt’s children, Milly and Joe, are the only ones at the circus who take a liking to Jumbo Jr., the baby elephant whose ears drag the ground. Apparently there are limits even circus people, most of whom are societal outcasts themselves, will go to accepting the strange and abnormal.
When Jumbo Jr. is made the laughing stock of the circus and christened “Dumbo,” his mother goes berserk, and is subsequently sold back to her previous owner, much to the chagrin of the children. Milly and Joe try to comfort Dumbo, and are delighted to discover that his big ears enable him to fly. The children keep the secret until a stunt goes wrong in the middle of a show, leaving Dumbo stranded at the top of a burning structure. Millie climbs a ladder to deliver a feather to Dumbo, enabling him to fly to safety.
Suddenly Dumbo is no longer the ugly duckling but the star of the show. Word of his talent spreads until it reaches the ears of V.A. Vandevere, owner of Dreamland, a somewhat futuristic amusement park. Vandevere talks Medici into selling him the entire circus, promising to employ everyone at Dreamland and making Medici a partner. To impress a possible investor, Vandevere promises a show on Friday where not only will the elephant fly, but will be ridden by French trapeze artist Colette Marchant.
It’s a tight deadline, but Holt, Milly, Joe, and Colette work together to make the impossible happen. On the day of the performance, however, Dumbo gets spooked by the absence of any safety nets, and trumpets in alarm. His mother, who’s now a beast in the spooky nightmare part of Dreamland, trumpets back, and Dumbo escapes to find her, before being corralled by Vandevere’s surprisingly SS-like guards. In a fit of anger at the whole debacle, Vandevere fires everyone in the troupe aside from Holt and Medici, and makes plans to kill Mrs. Jumbo.
The troupe rallies behind the plight of mother and son, organizing an elaborate escape plan. Holt, who lost an arm in the war (for no apparent reason other than that it raises the stakes of this scene), climbs up the canvas roof of the arena and slits a hole big enough for an elephant, just in time for Colette and Dumbo to fly through. Meanwhile, the rest of the troupe gets Mrs. Jumbo to the docks, where they’ve arranged for a ship to take the Jumbos back to the jungle.
Havoc ensues as Dumbo escapes. Vandevere goes after his price elephant, only to unintentionally start a park-wide fire. For reasons unknown and unexplained, Milly and Joe run back into the blazing arena. Holt goes after them, and flames engulf the exit. They huddle together, prepared for the worst, just as Dumbo swoops in with a trunk full of water, extinguishing the flames enough for the family to escape.
With Dreamland in flames, Medici takes the troupe back on the road as a traveling circus, with someone in an elephant costume being shot out of a cannon substituting for the “flying elephant.” Mrs. Jumbo and Dumbo find a herd of elephants in the jungle, and we presume they live happily ever after.
The cinematography is beautiful, the CGI not half bad (i.e. Dumbo is cute and I didn’t hate the fact that he wasn’t a real elephant), the acting decent, and the directing solid. Unfortunately, none of this can make up for a lackluster script. The dialogue suffers from being stilted and cliché, and there is only so much an actor can do to overcome this. And while the addition of human characters could have been a great asset to the story, they, too, felt like overused and underdeveloped clichés, without any depth or substance of their own—cardboard cutouts serving as placeholders, yet nothing better ever came.
Further, Timothy the mouse, arguably one of the most crucial characters in the original, is almost completely absent from this remake. The only allusion to his character is toward the very beginning, when Milly brings a cage of mice to visit Dumbo, then makes a comment about testing the hypothesis that elephants and mice can’t be friends. Which brings me to perhaps my biggest gripe with the film.
You see, Milly wants to be a scientist, not a circus performer. I couldn’t care less what Milly’s specific career aspirations are. You do you, girl. Follow those dreams. Circus life ain’t for everyone. But what frustrates me to no end is the way this particular element is woven—or, in this case, slapped, splashed, and splattered throughout—the script, with no attempt at subtlety, class, or relevance to the story at hand.
I’m not against women in science. In fact, I think it’s a wonderful thing. It was a woman who discovered radiation and x-rays, forever changing what we know about the human body. It was women who put the first man on the moon. But Dumbois not a story about Milly and her escape from the circus into a science lab.
Milly’s desire to “be a scientist” is undefined beyond that, and presented only at random intervals with comments about testing hypotheses and theories, longing gazes at the science-y part of Dreamland, and a couple chemistry sets tucked in a trunk. What field of science she’s interested in pursuing, or how teaching Dumbo to fly has anything to do with the scientific method, is left unexplored and unexplained.
As much as I love science and technology, and as much as it is a positive thing to see women in fields where once they were conspicuously absent, I fear for a world where we model for anyone, boy or girl, that STEM is the path of value they must follow. I have theories about the reasons for pushing STEM over the humanities in recent years, but those theories are far outside the scope of a site dedicated to film. Perhaps I’ll explore them elsewhere later.
There is a time and a place for encouraging specific career paths. That place is not the remake of a classic film. And even if it is, let’s do it in such a way that it’s specific and attractive, not broadly abstract.
And if we seem to have gotten a bit off course…welcome to the film.
Honestly, the best part may be that Dumbo flies for the first time in the first fifteen or twenty minutes, not the last three.
See below for the trailer (which is, frankly, still magical).