(Welcome to Classically Contemporary, a series where we explore the ways in which new releases echo classic Hollywood or how classic Hollywood continues to influence modern filmmaking.)

In 1941, in the midst of World War II, the Walt Disney Studios put out a movie about a little elephant with big ears. Dumbo was the savior of the Disney Company at the time, swooping in to save them after a huge financial loss after their experimental musical, Fantasia, the year prior. The film became Disney’s biggest hit of the 1940s, producing an iconic moment with the sweetly tempered “Baby Mine” sequence. With 78 years passed, it’s time to remake Dumbo, at least according to Disney, and Tim Burton’s feature owes more to the circus worlds of his own films (Big Fish) and the studio era than it does to its predecessor.

Somewhat similarly to the original, the film follows a playful pachyderm named Dumbo whose large ears give him the ability to fly. He’s helped in his quest to rescue his mother by the precocious Millie Farrier (Nico Parker), a budding scientist, and her father, former cowboy star, Holt (Colin Farrell).

Disney Cannibalizes Itself

Disney has no problem remaking itself, as we’ve seen for past few years. Even before that, the studio was known for recycling old animation to save money, most notably reusing the dance sequence from Sleeping Beauty (1959) for the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast (1991). But they’ve never actively attempted to conjure up images of their past movies in their live-action narratives. Dumbo undoes that, particularly in Dreamland, the theme park run by Michael Keaton’s villainous V.A. Vandevere.

Vandevere is practically a Tethered Walt Disney, creating a theme park that, like the studio’s orange groves in Anaheim, is meant to make the “impossible possible.” Dreamland is one where magic is supposedly found around every corner and safety nets aren’t needed because death and accidents, allegedly, never happen there. It’s truly bizarre how cynically and ironically this plays alongside Disneyland itself, where the story that no one is allowed to die on Disney property is one of the more well-known urban legends surrounding the park. And the fact that one of Disney’s landmark attractions is flying through the skies with Dumbo himself, watching him be threatened and terrorized in this feature is…weird.

Dreamland also draws inspiration from another ‘40s era Disney animated venture, Pinocchio. The fictional park’s aesthetics, coupled with its isolated Nightmare Island draws parallels to Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island, where the little wooden boy discovers that bad boys are turned into donkeys and sent to the salt mines. Are we sure this new Dumbo is a kid’s movie?

Everyone Loves a Circus…Movie

There are several prominent circus movies that Dumbo borrows from and seeks to avoid. Burton’s circus world, much like The Greatest Showman, eschews the typical things you’d probably see in a circus in 1919. Tod Browning’s 1932 horror feature, Freaks, about circus performers played by actual disabled actors, remains a must-see title for a multitude of reasons. In Burton’s world the performers are definitely wacky, but never frightening and far from authentic. In fact, the point is that they’re frauds and that the magic, much like Dreamland, is a facade (albeit one you can root for).

However, Dumbo draws more commonalities with the glitzy circus movies of the studio era, like the 1952 Best Picture-winner, The Greatest Show on Earth. That movie, like Dumbo, focused on spectacle as opposed to story, billowing a small plot into an epic. Eva Green’s aerialist, Colette, also seems similar to Gina Lollabrigida’s Lola in the tightrope-centric drama, Trapeze (1956). Burton, a young man raised on television, would see similarities to these 1950s circus features as they were in competition with the boob tube, attempting to lure audiences in with glitzy costumes and historical nostalgia.

World Wars and Disability Narratives

This is a weird one to bring up, as Dumbo fails to do anything with Holt Farrier’s status as an amputee, but there’s a possibility the movie attempts to hearken back to WWII narratives of the ‘30s and ‘40s, despite this movie being set post-WWI. Holt returns believing he’ll have his same job as a rodeo star but he’s instead forced to take care of the elephants, a job that brings him embarrassment. This mimics a similar story, itself set post-WWI about a vet trying to make an honest living only to be rebuffed: 1939’s The Roaring Twenties. In that feature, James Cagney’s Eddie ends up becoming a baddie because of how the U.S. treated its vets. And Holt thought his job was bad.

There’s also a few shades of William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) in Holt’s attempts to adapt to family life. His wife has died, he’s disabled, and he can’t relate to his kids. In Wyler’s films, two separate stories are used to showcase this disparity and isolation. In one, Harold Russell’s Homer Parrish must learn how to reintegrate into society after losing both hands, while family man Al (Fredric March) seems like an outsider in his own family. Best Years looks at disability in a far more nuanced way than Dumbo, but it seems the script wants to at least touch on the alienation vets faced returning to a vastly changed America.  

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