When thinking of auteurs to direct a live-action remake of the cuddly story about a flying elephant, Tim Burton isn't the first name to spring to mind. However, a closer look at the filmmaker's career, and Dumbo’s central themes, reveals he’s the ideal choice.
Burton’s body of work varies wildly, but he commonly deals with outsiders who are shunned or bullied. From Edward Scissorhands to The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride to Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, virtually every one of his films features marginalized characters, whether they be friend or foe. Burton’s signature is treating such figures with sensitivity, but without diminishing the aspects of their personalities or appearances that attract negative attention in the first place.
Within that context, he’s perfect for Dumbo. It helps that the story takes place in a circus, which also happens to be the perfect canvas to showcase Burton’s aesthetic. But the treatment of Dumbo’s inherent humanity, as well as that of the misfits surrounding him, is also vintage Burton.
At a press event earlier this month, Burton expounded on his style when asked whether Dumbo, as a story of outsiders, was a direct analog to Edward Scissorhands.
“Not necessarily, "he replied, "Except the fact is that theme comes up because I can’t help it. You know what I mean? It’s like part of your DNA. It’s not that I consciously think about that. But it’s just, once you’re branded that way, no matter how you feel, that’s the themes that keep reoccurring to you.
He also pointed how now central the theme of family is to the story. “I just like the fact that it’s obviously a very simple fable, very simple story. And it’s heart, about family," Burton said. "And what I liked about it was the human parallel story. This character Holt [played by Colin Farrell] who comes back from a war. He doesn’t have an arm. He doesn’t have a wife. He doesn’t have a job … He’s trying to find his place in the world. And all of the characters actually are in that way.”
That’s easily recognizable in stories like The Nightmare Before Christmas, in which two characters start off adrift before eventually finding their way to acceptance with unexpected partners and families.
“Nico’s character," Burton continued. "She wants to be something else. Every character in it. Eva is not... everybody is trying to find their place in the world. Like Dumbo. And using disadvantage to advantage. So lots of nice themes. But in a very simple framework.”
While this particular film doesn’t bear Burton’s now-trademark macabre, slightly demented sensibility, the story fits neatly into the director’s oeuvre. That’s not to say we don’t secretly want to see everyone’s favorite baby elephant get the Frankenweenie treatment, or explore how Burton could have adapted “Pink Elephants on Parade” for a modern audience. But for now, this sweet, relatively lighthearted addition to Burton’s filmography does just fine.
Directed by Tim Burton, Disney's Dumbo stars Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Finley Hobbins and Nico Parker. The film opens today nationwide.