The Popcorn Periodical
Dumbo is the ‘Prince of Elephants’ in Tim Burton’s new Disney live-action remake
It’s shaping up to be another stellar year for Walt Disney Studios as the production company can now confirm two high-flying #1 motion pictures by the end of March. Both Captain Marvel and Dumbo debuted at number one at the box office on their respective opening weekends and the set of films account for two of the current top three earning titles this past weekend (March 29-31). Dumbo is now the number one movie in the world, pushing Jordan Peele’s Us down to number two, and while Captain Marvel surpassed $1 billion, it’s sitting in the number three spot.
Soaring high above its competition and grossing $45 million, the Tim Burton-directed adaptation of Dumbo is as nostalgic as anticipated. And it’s only the first of four 2019 Disney classic live-action remakes – Dumbo (which opened worldwide on March 29) will be succeeded by Aladdin (May 24), The Lion King (July 18), & Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (October 19).
Until then, director Tim Burton has curated an entirely new movie for the kids of this generation. Burton pays homage to the most memorable moments of 1941’s Dumbo before making the story his own. He also omits all hints of the original Dumbo‘s unfortunately racist components, specifically the murder of crows, who were very clearly based on a controversial caricature of the early 1830s named Jim Crow (portrayed by white actor Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice). The character of Jim Crow, who was seen as a clumsy, dimwitted Black slave, propelled Rice to stardom as he performed his routine across the country.
A most cringe-worthy reference hidden in a respected children’s movie, no doubt, but the animated crows in the original Dumbo were seen as positive representations of African Americans in the southern United States at the time. It’s true, one of the crows was even named Jim Crow, but unlike Rice’s unflattering and problematic depiction, Disney instead gave the African American-representing crows witty dialogue, memorable one-liners and a beloved musical number to the popular song “When I See An Elephant Fly.” All of which are brought to life in a completely different yet unique way in Tim Burton’s Dumbo.
So has the new Dumbo movie acknowledged it’s racial discrepancies by making reparations to its questionable depictions of African Americans? Unfortunately, no. Not really. Perhaps to an ignorant child, the new Dumbo world is diverse, but for those of us who grew up watching the original, it’s clear that a perfectly good opportunity to elevate African American representation was disappointingly wasted on an almost entirely Caucasian cast. Especially when the crows (who were obviously made to represent Black people in 1940s America) inadvertently played a big part in the original movie. It’s not to say the lead actors didn’t sparkle in their newfound Dumbo roles, because everyone in this new movie is fantastic, but the decades-long racial controversy surrounding the original Dumbo is entirely glazed over – or seemingly “fixed” – with a lacklustre inclusion of PoC extras. One of the main characters, Milly Farrier (played by Nico Parker, the daughter of Westworld’s Thandie Newton) is the only lead actor of colour, as she is of mixed race, but Disney could have handled this much better (to say the very least).
In all fairness, actor Will Smith (Bad Boys 4) was eyed for the role of war veteran Holt Farrier, but when an opportunity to play the iconic blue Genie in the upcoming live-action Aladdin arose, Smith declined the offer to be a part of the legendary big-eared elephant’s return. So with Tim Burton, Danny DeVito (who has been cast in the upcoming untitled Jumanji 3), and Michael Keaton (Spider-Man: Homecoming) reuniting on the set of Dumbo (twenty-six years after filming Batman Returns together), it was actor Colin Farrell (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) who stepped up to play Holt Farrier, instead of Smith. It probably would’ve been a better idea to reserve the role for another Black actor, but I can’t say hiring Farrell was a complete mistake solely because of how genuinely good he is in Dumbo. Farrell adds quite a bit of charm and spirit to the movie as Holt Farrier, so besides the adorable new CGI Dumbo, it’s hard to say which new human character steals the show.
The overall takeaway from this 1h 52m magical fairytale is nothing short of harmonious as it highlights the importance of animal rights and the preservation of their natural habitats. Tim Burton lends his eccentric visual aesthetic to this already larger-than-life fable and solidifies yet another live-action Disney classic; Dumbo 2019 will make your heart sing and your eyes well up. With some fresh new storytelling by screenwriter Ehren Kruger, the deep sadness you felt watching the original Dumbo is only mildly revisited as Kruger lightens up the mood but never tarnishes the message. And extraordinary settings like the whimsical Dreamland amusement park and the Medici Bros. Circus proves Burton’s still got it! He manifests Dumbo’s sweet innocence in a way that is sure to keep you smiling (from ear to ear, of course) every time the famous baby elephant shows up on screen.
All hail the Prince of Elephants!
“The one. The only. Dumbo!”
3.75 Popcorn Kernels / 5
About the Author
Joey Viola is the Co-Founder of MoJo Toronto and an LGBTQ community leader who utilizes his passion and flair for the art of writing by bringing a fresh perspective in reviewing entertainment and advocating for equality, tolerance, and social/political justice.