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Disney’s ‘Dumbo’ remake is stirring at points, misses mark at others

Dumbo is the first of three live-action Disney remakes that will hit theaters in the next four months, with Aladdin and The Lion King being the other two.

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The original was made in 1941. It’s by far the oldest source material of all the Disney remakes, and its plot is also the thinnest: Mrs. Jumbo gives birth to Dumbo, a baby elephant with ridiculously floppy ears.

She’s banished from the circus for trying to protect him. Dumbo is really sad until he realizes he can fly with those floppy ears, and after successfully flying in a circus act, he’s reunited with his mom.

The original Dumbo stretched to a mere 64 minutes of run time, and that included the hallucinatory five-minute “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence, which was brilliantly animated, but entirely unnecessary to advance the story.

One of the biggest hurdles facing a live-action remake, then, was expanding an already-thin hour-long storyline to double its length, all without losing story momentum. Not an easy task.

To that end, this remake decides to introduce a cast of humans almost entirely missing from the original.

Colin Farrell plays Holt, a circus stunt rider who returns from World War I with only one arm. He reunites with his two kids, who are still mourning the loss of their mother, who recently died of influenza.

As if that isn’t enough bad news for any Disney movie, the circus is on its last legs financially. Its last best hope is that a soon-to-be born baby elephant is a hit at the box office. After Dumbo is born — to much ridicule — and his mother banished, it’s up to Holt’s kids to save him.

“What’s happening? Where are they taking her?” one of the kids asks as Dumbo’s mom is carted away

“Take Dumbo back inside,” responds Holt.

“But she’s his mom!” answers the kid.

“Look at me,” she says to Dumbo. “We’re going to bring your mama home.”

Clearly identifying with Dumbo because they’ve too lost their mom, the two kids do all they can to cheer up the baby elephant, and end up inadvertently teaching it how to fly!

The psychological connection between Dumbo and the kids is a legitimate extension of the fairy tale of a story, although the animal characters they “replaced” from the original — Timothy Mouse, and the five black crows — are definitely livelier.

The other storyline expansion involves an entertainment mogul, played very broadly by Michael Keaton, who, after seeing the amazing Dumbo actually fly, buys out the entire circus and ships them to his behemoth amusement park called Dreamland.

He, of course, is up to no good, and it’s up to the circus workers and a baby elephant to save the day.

Having more or less adequately cleared the story expansion hurdle, this Dumbo remake also must at least approach, if not match, the emotional strength of the original.

Even non-fans of the 1941 version acknowledge the emotional power of the mother/child bond depicted in the film, especially during the “Baby Mine” song, when Mrs. Jumbo is locked up, and Dumbo’s only contact with her is trunk-to-trunk through the bars of a hard-to-reach window.

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“Rest your head close to mine, never to part, baby of mine,” croons Betty Noyes, the singer of the original song.

Despite the fact that Tim Burton is this remake’s director, and he is known more for his visual flair than his emotional sensitivity, this “Baby Mine” sequence is especially expertly handled.

Perhaps not as tear-inducing as the original — which splices in lots of other zoo animals cuddling with their offspring, much like Dumbo and mom are trying to do — the Burton version is still quite touching and sweet.

And much of that credit goes to the brilliant CGI work with Dumbo. He’s so convincingly rendered that you’ll forget he’s not real halfway through the movie. And that makes his ability to fly all the more amazing.

Hey, look at the elephant fly!

And I will credit Burton and his screenwriter with one solid improvement of the original. “Stirring” is not an adjective I would ever think to apply to Dumbo, but it’s definitely applicable a couple of times in the remake.

The two circus scenes in which Dumbo actually flies under the big top circus tent are dramatic and thrilling to see. Burton builds the suspense, disaster is definitely looming, and then with a sudden swooping of elephant ears and a whoosh of relief, Dumbo is spectacularly flying and in the most triumphant fashion.

In fact, Burton’s Dumbo is given real agency as he even takes part in his own — and his mother’s — rescue.

In the end, Dumbo not only owns his outsize ears and revels in them as he does in the original, he also uses them to help himself and others. In this remake, Dumbo is his own hero, and that’s quite an accomplishment.

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