Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
Live-action dramedy
2019, 112 min., Color
Disney / Buena Vista
Rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: D
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Amazon link

I’ll be honest. My family wanted to watch a live-action remake of Dumbo about as much as they’re hoping for an animated version of Old Yeller. Some people just can’t get past the sad parts, so I watched this on my own.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that Disney downplayed the sad moments in this live-action dramedy by quickly moving past them, rather than lingering as they did with the 1941 animated classic. And the focus is less on poor Dumbo and his odyssey than it is on the two children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) and their father that try to help him. Tonally, Tim Burton’s live-action remake comes closer to Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain than it does the original cartoon . . . or anything else that Burton has done, for that matter. You hear “Burton” and you think “weird,” but that’s not the case here.

Set in 1919, with Colin Farrell playing a widowed WWI veteran who returns to his children decorated but without his left arm, Dumbo feels like a throwback homage to the wholesome small-town America that Walt Disney idealized in his early live action films. But with one important difference: Burton also celebrates Disney’s visionary creation of theme parks.

In this film, Danny DeVito plays the owner of a down-and-mostly-out traveling circus that’s forced to finally accept a proposed “partnership” with business tycoon V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton). Vandevere foresaw that the future wasn’t in traveling circuses—it was in building a giant theme park that included a circus, something big enough to bring the people to it rather than going to the people. And knowing what we do now about Disney and his vision, it’s kind of fun seeing this futuristic theme park element joined together with his classic depiction of America near the turn of the century. There are playful allusions to different themed sections of the park, as well as kiosks with stuffed Dumbo souvenirs for sale. But Dumbo is tamer and less strange than most Burton films, no doubt because of the respect he had for both Disney and the original cartoon. Not only do we hear the Casey Jr. song from the first film, but we also hear DeVito’s character singing it.

What’s different? Well, clowns don’t make fun of Dumbo—a few audience members do, and Dumbo punishes them in comic fashion. Instead of pink elephants seen as the result of Dumbo accidentally getting drunk, there’s no drunkenness here—just manufactured shapes in the sky that appear to move and take on identities. And don’t look for talking animals. That’s one decision Burton made that I heartily applaud. There’s no Timothy Mouse coaching Dumbo like Pinocchio’s conscience, and no rowdy bantering crows on a telephone wire. The focus here is on Dumbo and Mother Jumbo’s plight and what people are inspired to do to help them. It may not be as sad as the original, but the 2019 live-action version of Dumbo still takes a backseat to the 1941 animated feature.

And Dumbo himself? The little guy looks pretty believable as a live-action CGI model with ears so big he can’t walk properly—but boy can he fly after he gets those things flapping. Afraid the original might be too much of a downer for your little ones? Ease into Disney’s Dumbo with the live-action film first.