Struggling circus owner Max Medici enlists a former star and his two children to care for Dumbo, a baby elephant born with oversized ears. When the family discovers that the animal can fly, it soon becomes the main attraction — bringing in huge audiences and revitalizing the run-down circus. The elephant’s magical ability also draws the attention of V.A. Vandevere, an entrepreneur who wants to showcase Dumbo in his latest, larger-than-life entertainment venture.
Initial release: March 27, 2019 (Indonesia, Nigeria)
Director: Tim Burton
Budget: 170 million USD
Producers: Ehren Kruger, Derek Frey, Justin Springer, Katterli Frauenfelder
Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Tim Burton Productions
Tim Burton’s remake of “Dumbo” — a live-action and CGI version of Disney’s 1941 classic about a flying baby elephant — is more an expansion of the original than simply a souped-up retread. For one thing, it’s nearly twice as long as the earlier, sweet-but-slight film, which was itself inspired by a mere handful of unpublished sketches made for a scrolling picture-book series called “roll-a-books.”
For another, the new story is decidedly, deliciously dark, veined with thin layers of Burton’s trademark macabre sensibility, which adds texture and tartness to the inherent charm of the story (at heart, one about the parent-child bond and the possibility of the impossible). Working from a new screenplay by Ehren Kruger, who wrote the first two American “Ring” films and other creepy tales, Burton has made a movie that does Disney proud, honoring the simple appeal of the source material while finding new emotional resonance in the narrative.
“Dumbo” doesn’t waste any time drawing our attention to the shadows, opening in 1919 in Sarasota, Fla., where the ragtag circus at the center of the film spends its winters. Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is a returning veteran who has not only just lost an arm (in the Great War) and his wife (to influenza), but his old job as well. No longer able to work as the circus’s trick Western rider, Holt is reassigned by the owner/ringmaster (Danny DeVito) to take care of the elephants, a demotion that involves shoveling, well, you know what. But soon, real trouble arrives: the female Indian elephant Jumbo, who has just given birth to a calf with comically oversize ears, accidentally kills — yes, kills — a sadistic animal trainer (Phil Zimmerman), and Mom is sold off as a “mad” animal, leaving Dumbo, as her son has been nicknamed, disconsolate.
Kudos to the team of digital animators. Dumbo is as expressively adorable as any human actor in the film, which includes many nearly wordless turns by supporting characters as circus performers (especially Sharon Rooney as the maternal “mermaid,” Miss Atlantis, who covers the classic tune “Baby Mine”). The digital pachyderm is a fully formed character, even though, as in the original film, he never speaks a single word of dialogue. None of the animals do, even the tiny, uniformed circus mouse who replaces the first film’s chatty sidekick Timothy Q. Mouse.
Disney’s live-action remakes have been a solid source of box office dollars for the studio. It’s the reason we’ve been seeing so many of them in recent years. However, it’s possible that we might be seeing the first crack in that armor, as Dumbo has certainly not been performing as expected, which could result in the film not making a profit for Disney, and certainly not making the sort of profit the studio is used to seeing.
Dumbo brought in less than $20 million over this past weekend, its second weekend in wide release. That’s over a 60% drop from its opening weekend numbers. While it’s fairly normal to see major blockbusters drop 60% or more from opening weekend, it’s less usual for Disney family films. Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella both dropped less than 50% in their second weekend, Maleficent fell on slightly more than 50%.
Dumbo’s domestic total is now at $76 million. With Laika’s Missing Link, another movie with family appeal, as well as other tent pole releases on the way, it seems Dumbo may struggle to break the $100 million mark domestically. Previously, that goal seemed to be much more likely.
Globally, Dumbo is doing a little better, but still below expectations. The movie currently sits at $213 million which isn’t the worst number in the world for a film with an estimated production budget of $170 million. That number doesn’t include marketing costs, so the total budget for the film is probably somewhere around $200 million or more.
Even if Dumbo is able to pull out a bit of profit over the next few weeks, it looks like Dumbo will likely end its run on the bleeding edge of breaking even. It might lose a bit of money, though probably not much. It might end up making money, though probably not much.
Financially struggling is not the standard state for a Disney remake. While they don’t always make $1 billion the way Beauty and Beast did, Disney’s remakes tend to have no problem making money. They do this despite the fact that they don’t all get glowing reviews, so the fact that Dumbo didn’t blow over the critics likely isn’t the reason it’s not doing well.
Perhaps Dumbo went a little too deep into the Disney back catalog. It’s the oldest of the animated features that Disney has remade and maybe the original story just didn’t resonate with fans the way some of the more recent Disney classics have done.
If that’s the case, it means things likely look brighter for the other two Disney remakes set for this year. Aladdin and The Lion King are both films from the 1990s and perhaps that means they’re more likely to do Beauty and the Beast numbers.
Ironically, the original animated Dumbo was one of the studio’s few success stories in an era of financial difficulties. The original movie was released during World War II when most overseas theatrical markets were closed to the studio. Pinocchio and Fantasia were both flops, but Dumbo somehow beat the odds and became a hit. Now, it looks like Dumbo might end up one of the low points on what will otherwise certainly be a huge box office year for Disney.
The new live-action Dumbo refocused the classic narrative about the young elephant to include the humans with whom he interacts. While the movie focuses a lot on the one-armed, former horse performer Holt (Colin Farrell) and his attempts to reintegrate after returning from World War I, an arguably more important part of the plot looks at his children: Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins).
However, there’s a big problem with that plot: neither Milly or Joe gets the depth they should. Joe in particular adds nothing to the plot, and there isn’t anything to his character that makes him stand out. In contrast, Milly is a fundamentally compelling character, and she deserved more exploration in the film. If the script had cut Joe and given his scenes to Milly, she would have been more fully fleshed out and an all-time great kid character.
Milly is, at her core, a fascinating character. As a little girl raised in the circus trying to educate herself so as to become a scientist, she’s a twist on the classic trope of a child running away to join the circus. Her father even comments on her wanting to go to school instead of becoming a circus performer.
There are a lot of interesting comparison points between the purposefully boisterous acts of the circus and her scientific inclinations. While ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) yells hyperbolically about almost everything, Milly is fascinated by the concept of using the scientific method to uncover more about the world around her. She frequently proves herself clever and a quick-thinker, although her own scientific ideals could have been explored in depth if the film had taken more time to focus on her and her experiments.