FILM REVIEW: While Entertaining for Teens and Adults, Dark Themes of New Dumbo Film Too Much for Youngsters


Tim Burton’s Dumbo’s dark themes make it a more somber viewing than the Disney original.

For as long as I could remember, my only memories of the 1941 Disney classic Dumbo were an image of a small, big-eyed baby elephant with adorably large ears. When I saw director Tim Burton’s modern take on the timeless movie, my whole perspective on the animated classic changed, and I realized why my child-like brain at the time didn’t comprehend what I saw.

Set in post-World War I America, the 2019 version of Dumbo tells the heartfelt story of a baby circus elephant with massive ears who becomes separated from his mother, but learns how to fly. The movie essentially is divided into two parts: the first part loosely based on the original film (which itself only had a running time of one hour and four minutes) and the other part is completely new material, seeming to continue the events of the 1941 classic.

Burton’s 2019 Dumbo thrusts the audience into gloomy, and at times, uncomfortable places by enhancing the dark themes present in the previous film and adding even more to top the cake. The already dark subject matter of a disfigured baby elephant being separated from his mother evident in the 1941 movie is highlighted in Burton’s Dumbo combined with yet even more adult topics such as a single father coming back home from World War I with one arm, children growing up without a mother, and of all things, animal cruelty.

As someone who saw the original movie and could only remember what the main character looked like, this movie is not recommended for children under the age of ten; however, for teenagers and adults who grew up on the Disney tale or have never seen it at all, it’s worth a chance. In fact, the film was thoroughly enjoyable, despite its dark themes. Yet, I don’t see a young child understanding the premise of the film nor being entertained by the long, gloomy conversations between the many adults in the movie.

On the subject of humans in the film, Burton’s Dumbo concentrates on the human perspective of the Dumbo story, rather than focusing on animal relationships as the original movie did. In fact, in the original movie, Dumbo’s fellow circus animals take center stage – the female elephants provide the role of bullying him, and the black crows teach him how to fly. Yet, in the new movie, grieving children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) are the ones that teach him to fly, and people replace elephants as taunting bullies.

Overall, the movie lacks the distinctive Disney charm – a charm that captures audiences of all ages. Unlike the original film, which involved singing and talking animals, including an upbeat, encouraging mouse friend for Dumbo, Burton’s Dumbo rids itself of what makes Disney movies unique. The movie captures a morose tone throughout its entirety – the only parts mildly changing the somberness were the sections that actually included the adorable CGI baby elephant.

Yet, even parts that did incorporate Dumbo were glum as well. For example, the infamous scene of Dumbo being forcefully separated from his mother could easily bring tears to any audience member’s eyes. Additionally, as a nod to the original film, the lullaby “Baby Mine” is heard as Dumbo sneaks out of his barn to find his mother who is shackled in chains inside a cell that reads “Mad Elephant.” There, they intertwine trunks, with Dumbo’s mother (Mrs. Jumbo) stretching to reach her baby son, separated by the bars of the cell in which she is held prisoner.

All in all, the film seems to miss its target audience, evidenced by the lack of reception by both critics and some audience members. The movie has received a depressing 47 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, with an opening at $45 million versus an expected $50 million. Yet, even though this may be true, the live-action Dumbo, was still an entertaining movie, just not for the people that it was intended for.

For adults and teenagers, the movie is relatable and heart-warming. Teenagers receive an image into what it is like to lose a mother, and adults can truly understand and put themselves into the characters’ shoes. The film certainly speaks to the brutality of animal cruelty – depicting a mother being chained to the wall, and animals being forced to perform acts they do not wish to do. The movie also encourages a sense of empathy as it gives a voice to those who that may be different or fall outside the lines of convention.

In final consideration, the picture serves to provide an educational message to young adults, and for this viewer at least, it was a very entertaining movie, capturing my interest from the very beginning with the adorable CGI elephant and historical setting (as the original movie did not give a set time period). Older children and adults will be able to comprehend the scenarios that transpire throughout the film and should enjoy it because it speaks to their generation and breathes new life into an otherwise short, but sweet Disney classic.