WARNING: Spoilers for both versions of Dumbo.
Dumbo 2019 makes a lot of changes to the 1941 Disney classic animation, not all for the best reasons. The fourth animated feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Dumbo is the company's oldest film yet to be subject to a live-action reimagining and, originally coming in at just 64 minutes, there's going to be a lot of adjustments to bring it into the 21st century and the style of director Tim Burton.
A big-eared baby elephant who, following a series of punishing trials at a circus, discovers he can fly and becomes the premier attraction, Dumbo is in many ways made for Burton; he's a social outsider with a whimsical talent that eventually makes him a hero. And, to his credit, Burton's updated version does keep that at its core, even as the plot is massively expanded to the point that Dumbo 2019 is to Dumbo 1941 as Evil Dead II is to Evil Dead; the same idea in a story that's so much bigger.
Related: Read Our Dumbo Review
Dumbo is the most source-dissonant Disney remake since 2016's Pete's Dragon (and makes Burton's own quasi-sequel Alice in Wonderland from 2010 look positively faithful). As such, rather than being a case where there are simply big differences to point out, there's something greater to be said about the underlying motivation of the intermittently faithful Dumbo 2019. Why have these changes been made and why do some go so granular?
- This Page: Dumbo's Big Changes (& What The Real Remake Purpose Is)
- Page 2: How Dumbo 2019 Tries To "Fix" The Original
The Big Changes Made For Dumbo 2019
The biggest decision with Dumbo 2019 - especially in the context of the Disney - is the choice to remove all songs and talking animals. In place of these staples comes a much more standard performing arts drama led by Colin Farrell's returning World War I veteran Holt Farrier and Danny DeVito's hard-pressed circus owner Max Medici (the only explicitly returning character, being an update of the original's ringmaster). Events are also transplanted from an assumed contemporary setting to 1919, presumably to give some real-world, pre-depression context to decisions regarding the elephant and his clan.
The first act of Dumbo 2019 is pretty much a straight remake of the original - down to the cartoonish train traveling across a map of the American South - with added segues for these new characters, charting Dumbo's life from birth to the unexpected flying reveal. But whereas in 1941 that left him a pampered celebrity, in 2019 the next step and subsequent two acts is considerably grimmer; the remake extends the story to have the circus bought by Edison/Disney parallel V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), Dumbo positioned as the star attraction to his Dreamland amusement park and all other acts fired. This results in a fiery escape plan that sees Dumbo eventually find a new home in his native East Asia.
The Real Reason Dumbo 2019's Changes Were Made
All of these changes are rooted in the 78-year gap between Dumbo movies (notably, there was never a Dumbo II during Disney's late-1990s splurge on direct-to-VHS sequels). While Dumbo 1941, a short film expanded to B-movie length to save costs as World War II began to impact America, was a rather simple tale of discovering talent from unlikely places, the remake arrives in a totally different world. Modern society has a much more complicated relationship with animals in captivity - Dumbo becoming the most popular circus act doesn't supersede living his life in chains - and success in the general sense; fame and fortune comes with so many caveats that it's irresponsible in 2019 to not have Dumbo explore the abuse of his movie-defining talent.
But, as a Disney live-action remake, there's another purpose to Dumbo 2019's changes. These aren't just about retelling a classic story in a new form - just as most of the original animations were doing to fairy tales and out-of-copyright literature - but intentional updates of the mythologized Disney versions. Maleficent revealed the evil queen wasn't so bad, The Jungle Book gave a string of 1960s musical numbers a plot distinct from Kipling and Beauty and the Beast worked through a checkbox of "plot holes".
In that vein, it's immediately clear that many of Dumbo's changes are made with the perception of the brand in mind. It's not just about telling the story, it's about fixing it.
Page 2 of 2: How Dumbo 2019 Tries To "Fix" The Original
- Dumbo (2019) release date: Mar 29, 2019