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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Dumbo, Review: Have ears, will fly

Dumbo, Review: Have ears, will fly

When they first thought of a new Dumbo, perhaps the best decision Disney and Burton made was to remake their 1941 animation film in live action, adding 3D for the heightened reality effect. The first Dumbo rescued Disney from financial disaster arising out of three previous expensive films. Its 2019 avatar has a different storyline, though the name and the basic premise—that of a baby elephant that can fly--are retained. Abounding in the usual generic tropes, it is a feel good film that will appeal to the natural goodness of hearts and minds, rising above diverse cinematic sensibilities.

Horse trainer and circus star from Kentucky, Holt Farrier returns from World War I to discover that his wife is dead, a victim of severe influenza, but their two orphan children, Milly and Joe, are being looked after by the circus’ owner, Maximilian Medici. A traumatised Holt, who has also lost his right arm, and his children, are assigned the task of looking after elephants, including one who is pregnant. Soon, she gives birth, but the blue-eyed new-born elephant is the laughing stock of the troupe, on account of his gigantic ears. Looking at a sign that mistakenly spells Jumbo as Dumbo, the circus players name the baby elephant Dumbo. But when Holt's children discover that Dumbo can fly, Medici is thrilled to bits, because the new attraction might help him recoup huge losses incurred during the depression of the war years.

Word spreads, and in comes glib-tongued entrepreneur from Coney Island, amusement park owner, V.A. Vandevere, along with his ‘Queen’, spectacular French aerial artist Colette Marchant, and the duo swoop in to make the little elephant a star, by combining her aerial act with a flying elephant ride. Vandevere’s properties include Nightmare Island, Wonders of Science, Rocket to the Future and the Colosseum (any similarity to Disneyland is entirely incidental). Medici is made executive Vice-President of the company, Dreamland, and its star performer is the precocious pachyderm, Dumbo. Dumbo can only fly when a feather is inserted into his trunk, (which has one finger, Dumbo being Indian), and his friends, Milly and Joe, always do the needful, on cue. As Dumbo takes off, flapping his massive ears and encircles the tent, the audience explodes in wondrous amazement. And then, suddenly one day, Dumbo begins to miss his mother.

A one-trick pony (elephant) might have sufficed for a 64-minute animation venture, like Dumbo (1941, based on the novel by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl). Not enough for a 112-minute 3D extravaganza. Ehren Kruger, who has written the Transformers films and The Brothers Grimm, substitutes the original mouse with a boy and a girl. That is clever, appealing to children of either gender. Other clever ploys include making Holt lose an arm, having his wife killed due to disease, leaving the two children deprived of motherly love, the baby elephant so much in love with its mother that when they intertwine their trunks, you have to hold back your tears, the French street-artiste who is now the master of the trapeze but has strong sympathetic, womanly traits nevertheless, a broke circus-owner who is conned by an unscrupulous cheat, who, in turn, wants to impress his moneybags investor, and more. Not very original thinking, but enough to weave a plot with both human and animal appeal.

With an oeuvre as vast and diverse as that of Tim Burton, comparison with his earlier work might be superfluous. However, it might be relevant to remember that Burton began his career as an apprentice with Disney, and was no newcomer to animation when he began his independent career. Gothic to macabre to exorcism to fairy tale to biography to superhero to sci-fi…you name it, he dunnit! In Dumbo, he turns to two of his favourite actors for the main roles, Danny De Vito and Michael Keaton. Keaton starred in Batman and Beetlejuice, while De Vito played the villain, Penguin, in Batman Returns, besides featuring in Mars Attacks! Comedy comes naturally to De Vito, so the rotund ‘jolly good fellow’ casting could be seen coming. In casting Michael Keaton as the villain Vandevere, he reposed great faith in the artiste once again, an artiste who had graduated from a sitcom and comedic film image to a super-hero in Batman, thanks to the insistence of Burton. By the time Dumbo was made, Keaton had played some of the most terrifying villains in a host of films, including the RoboCop remake and Spiderman: Homecoming. Eva Green, another Burton regular, finds place too. To make the live action option count, Burton adds two other names: Colin Farrell and Alan Arkin.

Since the action is set in 1919, it gives ample opportunities to the art and costume team to recreate the period as faithfully and effectively as possible. It will be difficult to find fault in either department, what with the glorious railway scenes, the big top and the Dreamland sets. Kudos to Art Directors Andrew Bennett, Dean Clegg, Gregory Fangeaux (vfx art director), Mark Harris, Chris Lowe (supervising art director), Oli van der Vijver, Loic Zimmermann (Set Decoration by), John Bush, Cosmo Sarson (scenic artist) and Costume Design by Colleen Atwood. Oscar nominations are a distinct possibility.  Yet, if I may dare to say so, the VFX and animation leave something to be desired. There is a kind of mechanical jerkiness in the way Dumbo flies around in circles, and a greyish overtone to the picture quality, which, I must clarify, might be entirely due to insufficient luminosity from the projector. Music by Burton regular Danny Elfman helps fine tune the mood and the ambience of the film, while Chris Lebenzon’s editing, though competent, could have been sharper in the first thirty minutes or so. Ben Davis' camera captures the period and the performances with panache.

Even before the film takes-off, the weather-cock above the Disney logo castle lets you know that it is elephant time: an adult and a baby elephant are clearly seen on the metal rod. Burton’s elephant does not talk, but as the film progresses, he begins to understand what Milly and Joe say to him, though it is not explained how this works. Yes, they love him a whole heap, but how does that translate to linguistic comprehension? Dialogue has nothing memorable to offer, with lines like “This is a disaster,” “I think I’ll go get a burger”, “Just when I thought I'd seen everything...,” “Fly, Dumbo, fly,” “You can do it Dumbo; show  ’em,” and “He doesn't look like magic to me.”

In his element, Danny De Vito will roundly endear himself to the audiences once again. Michael Keaton, with an awkward wig, is an affected villain, with no histrionics demanded of him. Colin Farrell as Holt comes into his own near the climax, while Eva Green as Colette easily slips from an acrobat to a caring heroine. Nico Parker makes an emotive Milly while Finley Hobbins is a cute Joe. Indian actor Roshan Seth, known for playing Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, but hardly visible these days, features among the circus crew as a snake charmer named Pramesh Singh. Almost a walk-on part makes Alan Arkin’s Wall Street tycoon, J. Griffin Remington, superfluous and wasteful.

Dumbo has the Burton auteur and brio stamped all over it, but it could have been helped by more inspired writing. There is joy, sorrow, birth, death, motivation, greed, sentiment, noblesse, moralising and spectacle, all in plenteous measure, and, in the end, the inherent goodness of a few souls wins over the evil elements. Neither the good guys nor the bad folks have any super-powers or unusual gifts, besides that one elephant. A one-handed horseback performer, his two children and a members of a troupe who have just had their livelihoods snatched away from them prevail over the avarice of a showman, who does not hesitate before removing the nets when his trapeze exponent goes up for a death-defying act. Little surprise then that she joins hands with the hoi polloi to show him his place.

This Dumbo is a sweet-heart and your heart goes out to him. The movie is not exactly a masterpiece, but we must allow some leeway for the fact that it is aimed at audiences of 8 years+. I feel good enough to suggest that you should watch it. Did I say “feel good” again?

Rating: ***


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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