After 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, I considered myself pretty much done with regards to two categories: Tim Burton and live-action Disney remakes. Yeah, I caved and saw Big Eyes in 2014, but… eh. And, as I’ve written about before, I used to be a Tim Burton maniac. I was with Tim all the way, even through Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. I was that annoying friend you had: “Um, actually, this version is more faithful to the book blah blah blah…”
I definitely haven’t had any interest for the post-Alice live-action Disney movies. Here’s the thing. These Disney movies that are getting remakes so far? They’re all the really good ones. Beyond making gobs of money, explain to me the point in remaking The Lion King. That movie was exceptional when it came out, and it holds up today. Moreover, it’s okay for some works of art to not transcend all mediums. Perhaps animation was always the ideal language to bring Disney’s Beauty & the Beast to the screen, and that’s okay! Animation is a kick ass art form that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Even animation specifically intended for children is a kick ass art form that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Did you not see Into the Spider-Verse? What are you even doing here?
So… I just don’t get the live-action Disney remake trend. What is the goal? I don’t want to be cynical and assume that the only point of these projects is to make money. As an artist, I have a hard time going to a place in my brain where money could be the sole determining influence on the work and care I put into a project. I don’t want to believe that anyone’s just phoning these projects in or “selling out.” I want to think better of humanity at large and Disney specifically. But I don’t get it. What are we doing, Team?
All of that said, Disney is kind of making me a live-action offer that I can’t refuse this weekend. Of course, this Friday we get Tim Burton’s live-action Dumbo. And, like, I don’t know if I’m excited or even hopeful, but I am intrigued. Because, with every other live-action Disney remake of recent memory, all I feel is, “But I already know what’s going to happen.” Guys, I’ve watched all the Dumbo trailers. I have NO IDEA what’s going to happen in this movie. Why are you here, Michael Keaton?
I absolutely loved Dumbo when I was a little kid, but I realized this afternoon that I couldn’t tell you “why” to save my life. Beyond the fact that elephants were my favorite animal growing up, I have no idea what appealed to me so much about the fourth ever Disney animated feature film. So, full of anticipation and curiosity, I rented Dumbo this afternoon to try to remember: A) What is this movie even about? And B) Why did I like it so much? And, also, I guess, C) Why do I have this bizarre sliver of faith for the Tim Burton remake? What do I want, and why do I want it?
So, A) What is this movie even about? Guys, the 1941 Dumbo is BANANAS. It holds up… awkwardly? On the positive end of the spectrum, it’s a really beautiful movie. The animation is gorgeous. The music is really beautiful. For my money, “Baby Mine” is the saddest and most beautiful sequence of Disney’s early years. And the movie has a great message, that I judge is best summed up in a quote from Timothy Q. Mouse late in the movie: “The very things that held you down (in Dumbo’s case, his ears) are going to carry you up.” In the movie’s big climactic moment in the Big Top, Dumbo only soars once he learns to believe in himself, and that belief and self-worth carries him to a future of stardom and comfort for himself and for his mother a.k.a Mrs. Jumbo a.k.a The Best Disney Mom.
Yeah, all the problematic stuff is still problematic. There’s more than one point of view out there about the crows, and I recommend going to find what’s out there as there are lots of passionate and eloquent takes about the roles of those characters within the movie’s story. But, purely on the surface, it’s not great. I had completely forgotten about “Song of the Roustabouts,” wherein faceless black workers construct the circus tent in the wind and rain, singing about how they’re going to “throw their pay away” because work makes them so happy. It’s also really tough to watch the Ringmaster attack Mrs. Jumbo with a whip when she goes to defend her baby from some asshole kids. Overall, Dumbo can be pretty bleak.
And “Pink Elephants on Parade” is still absolutely bonkers.
B) Why did I like it so much? I mean, I think it’s tough to resist Dumbo’s overall message about embracing the things about yourself that society might deem as flaws. I’m a big, clumsy kid, so I feel like hell for that little elephant tripping over his big ears. And the relationship between Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo is beautiful. Mrs. Jumbo loves Dumbo absolutely without condition, and never tries to change him or make him feel ashamed for who he is or what he looks like. I’m a sucker for a good Mom story, and I judge that Dumbo is absolutely that. If I ever make it big, I hope I can buy my Mom her own private, fancy train car. But, truthfully, maybe I was just a little kid who really liked that little elephant. I’ve told this story before, but I had a stuffed Dumbo from the Disney Store growing up, and he was pretty much my everything.
And, finally, C) Wherefore the hope, Tim Burton movie? TIM. Tim, let me love you. I’m still such a big fan down in my core, and I secretly and fervently hope that each of your next movies is going to be your “comeback.” Which feels unfair to say, because you didn’t go anywhere. You’re just making movies that don’t appeal as much to me anymore, and maybe I should stop being a selfish jerk. You don’t owe me anything, Tim Burton.
BUT. Boy, what I wouldn’t give to walk out of a movie theatre feeling again the way I felt after Big Fish, you know what I mean?
Dumbo himself absolutely fits the bill as a classic Tim Burton-film outcast. He’s a quiet little dude who gets shunned so hard by the rest of his society that they declare him no longer an elephant! After re-watching the original, I think I see what would appeal to Burton about Dumbo as the Disney movie to re-visit. In the Mark Salisbury book Burton on Burton, Burton says this about Edward Scissorhands, “It was the feeling that your image and how people perceive you are at odds with what is inside you, which is a fairly common feeling. I remember growing up and feeling that there is not a lot of room for acceptance.” I get why Burton would connect to this little elephant struggling to fit in. So, I think the material and the director are a good match.
Also, Dumbo feels like the first time that Disney’s re-made an animated classic where I believe there is legitimately room for improvement, or at least room for exploration. The 1941 version is only 63 minutes long. It breezes by you. There are places to expand. There are also rough, racist, 1940’s edge to smooth out, for sure. But there are also beautiful images and relationships that I think are worth exploration and consideration.
Tim Burton, wherever you are, I’m rooting for you. I believe that you have a wonderful movie about a little flying elephant inside of you. I guess I will just never let myself get that cynical about you, because, yeah, I still remember the way I felt after Big Fish.
So! There are some of my long, rambling thoughts about the live-action Dumbo. Are you planning to see the movie for yourself? Have you seen it already? Was the 1941 Dumbo as weird as YOU remember? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll see you under the Big Top!