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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Dumbo is director Tim Burton's live-action take on Disney's 1941 animated classic about everyone's favorite flying elephant. This version -- which stars Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, and Danny DeVito -- keeps the original's spirit while expanding on its storyline and kicking things up in the scariness department thanks to Burton's signature intensity. The movie's vibrant, colorful world is peppered with dark, creepy sequences/elements, including a cruel animal handler, a character who's crushed to death by a collapsing circus tent, armed henchmen who pursue both animals and children, characters in peril/falling from heights, and an amusement park attraction that's aptly named Nightmare Island. There are also some very sad parts, like when Mrs. Jumbo is separated from baby Dumbo, which might prove upsetting for younger/more sensitive viewers and foster and/or adoptive families. Characters also discuss loss (the main kid characters' mom died from influenza). Language is minimal ("hell" and one incomplete "s--t" are about it), and this version of the film thankfully doesn't have the racially stereotyped crow characters or a drunk, hallucinating Dumbo. And it has themes of teamwork, compassion, and empathy and promotes the idea that our differences help make us special.
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What's the story?
Directed by Tim Burton, DUMBO is set in 1919 at the end of World War I. Veteran Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), who was a famed horse trainer/rider before the war, comes home to his two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), who live with the traveling Medici Brothers Circus, which is run by irascible ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito). Because Holt is now an amputee (he's missing an arm) and his beloved wife died during the 1918 influenza pandemic, Max tells Holt he can't return to his horse act. Instead, Holt is asked to take care of the circus's latest acquisition: Mrs. Jumbo, a pregnant elephant who's about to give birth to a baby that should prove a profitable draw for the troupe. But when Mrs. Jumbo's baby is born with enormous, floppy ears, everyone laughs and calls him "Dumbo." What no one knows is that Milly and Joe have discovered that the little elephant can fly. When Dumbo makes his soaring debut, New York amusement park impresario V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) swoops in to convince Max to move to Coney Island and become part of his fabulous Dreamland destination.
Is it any good?
Burton's colorful reimagining of Disney's 1941 classic is visually impressive and stars an adorable CGI flying elephant, but the plot and characterizations are underwhelming. Shot entirely indoors, the film uses a ton of special effects, from the digital removal of Holt's arm and the creation of the entirely CGI baby Dumbo to the elaborate backdrops of Dreamland and any outdoor sequence, including the sky itself. The movie's technical aspects -- including the art direction, the costume design (by four-time Academy Award winner Colleen Atwood), and the special effects -- are all outstanding. Music by frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman incorporates the touching song "Baby Mine" and other pieces from the original, here rendered as instrumentals rather than with words.
But while there's a certain joy in seeing Burton veterans like Keaton and DeVito reunite, the plot mostly focuses on the Farriers and their interaction with Dumbo. Siblings Milly and Joe have a sweet relationship, but the young actors don't have much familial chemistry with their on-screen father. (Eva Green, also a Burton regular, can effortlessly evoke mystery and danger at this point in her career and is well cast as Vandevere's star performer, Colette.) And it's a shame that the diverse ensemble that makes up Max's circus isn't used more. Still, the movie's main draw is less the cast than the opportunity to ooh and aah at flying Dumbo -- who, in Burton's vision, gets a happier ever after than in the animated original.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Dumbo's violent and/or scary scenes. How much scary stuff can young kids handle? What was more upsetting to you: the parts with peril and danger or the sad separations? Why do you think that is?
Discuss the differences between this version and the original. Why do you think certain aspects of the first film needed to be changed? Is there anything missing that you'd have liked to see?
One of the movie's messages is that our differences help make us special. Do you agree? How do you see that reflected in your own, everyday life?
How accurately do you think the movie portrays early-1900s circus troupes? Why has the circus become a controversial form of entertainment in more recent decades?
- In theaters: March 29, 2019
- On DVD or streaming: June 25, 2019
- Cast: Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Michael Keaton
- Director: Tim Burton
- Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
- Genre: Family and Kids
- Topics: Brothers and Sisters, Misfits and Underdogs, Wild Animals
- Character strengths: Compassion, Empathy, Teamwork
- Run time: 105 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language
- Last updated: November 13, 2019
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