WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Dumbo, in theaters now.
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.
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She Coulda Been a Contender
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.
On top of being a young girl with an interest in STEM, she's also depicted as an emotionally-conflicted character. She's still saddened by the loss of her mother, which gives her a real empathic connection to Dumbo after he is separated from his own mother. But her emotions don't carry over to the father in the same way. The two's interactions in the film are strained, and they're both pained by the disconnect that defines their relationship but don't know how to fix it.
It all builds to what may be the single best scene in the film. Holt finds a distraught Milly inside the science exhibit at Dreamland. She shows him the kind of things science can do, introducing him to a mechanical arm capable of replacing the one he lost. It's a quiet and powerful sequence of them finding common ground and ends with the pair embracing in front of the mannequins of the kind of "future family" that science could bring. It's a strong moment, but something that could have landed even harder if the film had made Milly a stronger character.
The Problem With Joe
While the movie does focus on Milly a little, it's much less than it could have been. Instead, the film gives her a younger brother that receives almost no real attention. Joe is a bland, cute kid archetype, without anything to help him stand out from similar characters in other films. He contributes nothing to the thematic throughline of the film, adds nothing to the plot and just generally doesn't need to be involved in the film.
If anything, Joe just distracts from Milly. Joe does help discover that Dumbo can fly, but it's by pure accident. He doesn't bring anything unique to the film, instead playing more as background dressing in scenes that would be strengthened by focusing on just Milly. Even when he's in danger, he does nothing that Milly couldn't do on her own. Splitting the focus between both children wastes time that could be better spent on Milly.
By removing focusing more on Milly, the film could have reinforced her relationship with her father, making them the only people in each other's lives, instead of also having a tag-along kid to look cute or sad in certain scenes. Milly is a strong character, but with the additional time that was afforded to Joe the script could have explored her relationships and drives in more depth. Dumbo could have had a genuinely perfect kid character, but it never quite rises to that potential.
Directed by Tim Burton, Dumbo stars Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Michael Keaton and Alan Arkin. The film is in theaters now.