In Defence of Tim Burton’s Dumbo

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Tim Burton’s Dumbo flew into UK cinemas this weekend, and many early reviewers have been scathing in their write-ups. With a reported production budget of $170 million and underwhelming opening weekend box office takings of $45 million, many critics are quickly writing off the movie as nothing more than a failed update. While Burton certainly took on a challenge when he agreed to man the helm of this live-action remake, did he really bite off more than he could chew? FinalBoss doesn’t think so.

Watch The Official Trailer for Tim Burton’s Dumbo

A Fine Return to Form for a Beloved Storyteller

Those of us who grew up in love with Burton’s dark, twisted and magical worlds remember dancing with Winona Ryder in the snow, singing about Halloween with Jack Skellington and waiting for Batman in The Penguin’s subterranean lair, green water soaking into our shoes.

There was something about those early Elfman/Burton projects that transported you to a place where time stood still. A place where weird and wonderful characters lived, characters that you felt simultaneously attracted to and alienated from.

2000 – 2015 Burton: The Period We’d Rather Forget

Then from 2000 onwards we entered the Burton era That Shall Not Be Named, where most of his films were overblown, awkward misfires such as cough Sweeney Todd, and, dare I say it, Alice in Wonderland, that tour de force of hair dye and coloured contact lenses that screamed onto the big screen in 2010.


Could Eva Green be any more badass in this movie?!

In 2016 Burton gave us Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, his second film with the ethereal Eva Green, which was far more reminiscent of his earlier work.

We saw in Miss Peregrine a beautiful blending of magic, romance and gothic ambiance that we hadn’t enjoyed in a Burton movie for many years.

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Now in 2019’s Dumbo remake we see Burton take a more restrained approach to his world-weaving, creating believable characters and placing them in dirty, gritty settings with splashes of his beloved styling added to the costumes, settings and soundtrack.

A more realistic setting with dirt, grit and definitely no glamour

Burton’s 1919 American circus isn’t glamorous. People don’t sit around all day singing about how liberating it is to be in said circus while bursting out of corsets (sorry Greatest Showman). This circus is sawdust-filled and woodchipped. Even the painted “Dumbo” sign in the opening title shot of the movie is already peeling. When Burton does bring his movie into a more fantastical setting, it is during Dumbo’s incarceration in Dreamland – a world of make-believe run by Michael Keaton’s tyrannical amusement park owner. The luxurious surroundings, bright lights and rollercoasters mask what is really a world of exploitation, animal abuse and cynicism.

Nothing is as it seems in Dreamland

What Was Acceptable in 1941 is Not Cool in 2019

For those critics complaining about the deviation between Burton’s reimagining of Dumbo and the original version – we need to remember what Burton was working with. The 1941 original version of Dumbo includes themes that would not be possible or desirable to show in a kid’s movie today, including repeated child abuse, offensive racial stereotypes and the depiction of drunken hallucinations that gave generations of children nightmares (I’m looking at you, Pink Elephants on Parade).

The 1941 Pink Elephants on Parade Song was a hallucinatory nightmare.

Burton’s Sociopolitical Message

Anti-Disney Rhetoric

Burton’s Dumbo is set in 1919, the same year that Walt Disney returned home from war and started drawing pictures for a commercial art shop – a first step towards becoming owner of the world’s biggest animation studio and theme park franchise. Dumbo’s villain Vandemere, adeptly played by Michael Keaton, is an unscrupulous entrepreneur bent on making his Dreamland theme park empire bigger, regardless of the cost to those around him.

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Keaton’s Disney-esque villain

As if in defiance of Disney and commercialism itself, Burton burns down Dreamland, and an attraction called Jollywood bursts into flames as Dumbo makes a break for freedom. It’s a bold statement of artistic integrity and a brave way to reinforce the movie’s central themes of self-liberation and empowerment.

Anti-Circus Rhetoric

Burton has openly stated that he is opposed to the running of animal circuses and does not believe in keeping animals in captivity. So much so that he insisted all the elephants in Dumbo be CGI, despite it being a live action movie. Twice this message is directly reinforced by Dumbo’s stellar cast of actors; once when Holt’s daughter says that Vandemere doesn’t deserve to have Dumbo, and Holt responds “no circus does”. The second message comes from Danny Devito’s Max Medici at the end of the film, when the ringleader states that the Medici circus does not believe in keeping animals in captivity anymore.

Burton’s Dumbo does not end with the beloved baby elephant and his mummy living on a first class circus train. In Burton’s universe, the two have broken free of their shackles and are living in freedom with others of their kind, where they belong. Some reviewers have complained that there weren’t enough circus thrills in Dumbo, but this was kind of Burton’s point – there’s nothing thrilling about exploitation and abuse.

Self-Empowerment and Liberation

In Burton’s Dumbo, liberation is not just limited to the titular baby elephant and his mother. Milly, daughter of elephant trainer Holt, pushes for the freedom to become a scientist, despite her father’s obvious skepticism. It is Milly’s scientific experiments that help Dumbo to fly and to set himself free. At the end of the film she is in charge of her own circus act and has invented a mechanical hand for her wounded veteran father, thus setting him free to perform his own act again and move on.

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The Mother and Child Bond 

Central to Burton’s Dumbo is the mother and baby bond. Mrs Jumbo is a much stronger and more powerful character in this modern retelling, fighting for her baby and empowering him to rescue his friends when they are in trouble. Interestingly, while incarcerated in Vandemere’s nightmare theme park she is dressed up as Kali, destroyer of evil forces – a nod to Burton’s belief in the power of the mother/baby bond.

10 Key Differences Between Burton’s 2019 Dumbo and the Original

  • Dumbo is liberated from the circus at the end
  • The humans talk and the animals don’t
  • There are central human characters that develop as the story continues
  • Dumbo befriends human children, rather than Timothy the mouse (Timothy is there, but not as a major character)
  • The singing crows have been removed
  • There are no songs – apart from snippets of baby mine
  • Dumbo doesn’t get drunk
  • Dumbo flies carrying people on his back
  • Dumbo rescues his friends from a burning tent
  • There is an actual real villain

Final Thoughts on Dumbo from FinalBoss

While it may not have as many circus thrills as the original, and there are no talking mice, Burton’s Dumbo is beautifully nuanced, thoughtful and dreamy. It’s the Dumbo we needed in 2019, and speaks to a modern audience. In Burton’s own words: “It’s about trying to find yourself and overcome whatever physical or mental issues you have – and ultimately finding a certain joy, freedom and your place in the world in some way.”


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