The pairing of Tim Burton and Dumbo is the perfect match of director and material. Starting his career at Disney as an animator, storyboard artist and concept artist, the California-born visionary also kick-started the studio’s renaissance by successfully reinvigorating its animated back catalogue in live action with Alice In Wonderland – to the box-office tune of $1bn. This time round, he’s back with a stellar cast and stunning visuals to tell a personal and timely tale of kindness, courage, and belief in others and in ourselves.
Inspired by the 1941 animated classic, the story of a newborn elephant who becomes the star of a circus also gives Burton full rein to unleash one of the most spectacular visual imaginations in modern cinema. His interpretation of the famous “Pink Elephants On Parade” set piece — a hallucinatory sequence of a pink elephant marching band — promises some of the most inventive, indelible images of his career. This time, however, his outlandish sense of the absurd is put to the service of a small-scale story that’s filled with humour and, most of all, heart.
For Dumbo also plays into one of the film-maker’s favourite thematic concerns: a fascination with, and feeling for, outsiders. Dumbo, born with abnormally large ears, becomes separated from his mother and is shunned by the other elephants. As he is introduced to the circus crowd, and his large ears come loose, the public boo him. Burton has long been drawn to those marginalised by society, from his early work, like Beetlejuice, to more recent offerings, such as Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. He takes characters who might be traditionally deemed weird, and invests them with compassion, often moving us to tears with his empathy. He might be a baby elephant but young Dumbo is a classic outsider in the vein of Edward Scissorhands or Jack Skellington.
As much as it celebrates individuality, it’s also a film about togetherness. Dumbo finds a new clan in former horse showman Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). Coming back from World War I a widower, and having lost an arm, Holt is also facing hardship, returning to a circus – run by ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) – on the verge of economic ruin. It’s a story that thrives on the joy of discovering family and friendship in unlikely places. It seems that Dumbo will provide Holt and his children with just as much solace and support as they will give him. You’d better come prepared with plenty of handkerchiefs!
At its heart, Dumbo is a celebration of uniqueness. The lovable elephant’s big ears enable him to fly, which draws the attention of impresario V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who buys the circus from Medici. Dumbo becomes a big draw, alongside aerial acrobat Colette Marchant, played by Eva Green. As such, the film revels in a simple idea: what makes you different also makes you special.
Dumbo is filled with circus imagery — such a feature of both Batman Returns and Big Fish — and once again it amplifies the wonder of the big top. Dreamland, the name of Vandevere’s spectacular attraction, could also stand as a description of Burton’s whole career. Working here with Marvel cinematographer Ben Davis, the film-maker has given his new work a beautiful, burnished, storybook feel that still has one foot in reality. “You have something very rare… You have wonder, you have mystique, you have magic,” Vandevere assures Medici. He might as well be talking about the film itself.
Dumbo is out 29 March.