World War I has just ended. Holt (Colin Farrell) has returned to his job at the circus after losing his left arm in battle. While he was away, his wife died. Since then, his daughter, Milly (Nico Parker), and son, Joe (Finley Hobbins), have been staying with kind circus performers. It is a sad and awkward homecoming for Holt, but things are about to get exciting.
Max (Danny DeVito), who owns the circus, recently bought Jumbo, a pregnant Indian elephant. When the baby elephant is born, everyone is shocked because he has huge ears. Max’s hopes for using the baby elephant as a crowd attraction are dashed because he sees the ears as a deformity.
Milly and Joe are curious and approach the baby elephant. When he inhales a feather through his trunk, he puffs up and sneezes so hard that his ears flop and he rises off the ground. When the children try to tell their dad, he doesn’t listen.
The children persist and Max agrees to let the baby animal perform, but things don’t turn out well. Some kids heckle him, and he flies around and out of the tent, scaring everyone.
V.A. (Michael Keaton) is an unscrupulous impresario on the lookout for a great act for his permanent circus, a precursor of a modern theme park. He talks Max into selling him the circus, and he hires all the performers. Colette (Eva Green) is a trapeze artist who trains the flying elephant, now called Dumbo, and together they amaze the crowds. But when V.A.’s financial backer, Remington (Alan Arkin), comes to check his investment, Dumbo hears the sound of his mother calling and flies off in search of her.
This reimagining of Disney’s 1941 animated classic is directed by Tim Burton and written by Ehren Kruger. This live-action version with CGI animals is told from the humans’ point of view: There are no talking animals here.
However, fans of the original will see all kinds of visual references to it. The lullaby “Baby Mine” adds to the emotional pitch of a film that begins with loss, isolation, and suffering. The film looks at how family is healed, differences are celebrated, and bullies—young and old—learn important lessons.
I found Burton’s chosen saturated color palette too dark for the story. However, in itself, this is a reference to the original. This is an uncomplicated story with entertaining action sequences, despite moments of peril for animals and humans. In the end, benevolence wins. DeVito and Keaton (in a very bad wig) are especially humorous. And Green, who trained with acrobats for two months, gives an impressive, high-flying performance.
Review originally published for St Anthony Messenger. Used with permission.