When Elephants Fly

A common occurrence in church for me these days is tears, I say tears and not crying because it’s not sadness s much as it is being overwhelmed. My eyes fill up along with my heart during the worship. There’s nothing I can do about it other than worship without mascara because I don’t want to deal with raccoon eyes. The only thing I want to runneth over is my cup, but I’ll take the tears as a sign that my heart is growing. Last week, I almost cried for a reason other than the energy of worshipping God with a crowd. I almost cried because of Dumbo.

My church is currently doing a series called God at the Movies wherein a different element of the gospel is extracted from a different mainstream movie each week. I knew they were planning to talk about Dumbo (2019, Burton) but I did not know when. The whole church is dressed up like a theater with red carpets and velvet ropes, complete with movie posters adorning the ticket booths, it’s a lovely ambiance. I think it’s a wonderful series but of course I would think so, two of my favorite topics to discuss are Jesus Christ and Hollywood.

WhatsUpHollywood was the original blog I wrote, a platform that focused on the positive in the tabloids. I live to be entertained. I myself am a storyteller and films are simply stories told onscreen. The Dumbo sermon hit me by surprise and as I sat there smiling and misty-eyed from the worship that had just concluded, I had to coach myself, do not cry, you’re sitting close to the front row. Don’t make a scene because you love that little elephant. I was able to keep my composure but on the inside, I was dancing.

The remake of Dumbo opened in late March 2019, starring Colin Farrell (Holt Farrier), Eva Green (Colette Merchant), and Alan Arkin. (J. Griffin Remington). It got mixed reviews. It did not do well at the box office, bringing in over 300 million worldwide when the studio wanted at least 500 million to break-even. Nevertheless, money doesn’t matter most when it comes to quality storytelling. Empire did a splendid review of the film.

The movie was directed by Tim Burton, someone who is not typically thought of when it comes to Disney. Once Upon a time, Burton did work for the cooperation until he was fired. “Nearly 30 years after Disney fired Tim Burton because his short film Frankenweenie was “too scary” for children, the director – who has made a feature-length, 3D stop-motion version of the story – insists he has “never made a scary movie”.”-BBC, 2012

Eventually, the man behind Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Corpse Bride (2005) returned. His stories typically have a dark undertone if not overtone, which is the opposite of what Disney is known for. However, Burton is brilliant and his surrealistic impression of Dumbo interspersed with weightier moments actually dug some much needed, relevant depth into the 1941 classic.

Disney is redoing their films-for better and for worse-and, the cutest of all CGI creations to date is Dumbo by a landslide. Granted, he’s more human-like than pachyderm with his wide eyes, bright and blue positioned towards the front of his head rather than towards the side like a real elephant, the minor adjustments only make him more adorable.

Burton is brilliant and his surrealistic impression of Dumbo interspersed with weightier moments actually dug some much needed, relevant depth into 1941 classic.-Genevieve Rose

The child actors were terrific. A brother and a sister, (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins). The boy was adventurous and the girl was intelligent. It was a masterful idea to allow the children to conduct the heart of the narrative alongside the main character. Timothy Mouse was missed, of course, he does appear in the remake but he does not have any lines and neither do the rest of the animals. From a personal standpoint, having the animals behave as animals do apart from using ears as wings, made the viewer more sensitive to the circus experience on behalf of the animals. It was not easy for them. The people were often unkind and cruel. They were treated poorly, there only for profit. The feeling of mistreatment mirrors that of certain animal attractions and zoos that still operate today. Just because humans are superior to animals does not mean we should misuse and abuse them. Milly and Joe Farrier are effective substitutes for the purity and innocence that was presented through the talking animals in the original 1940s version. It was the children’s perspective that truly kept the wonderment alive. Their point of view was as necessary as it was genuine.

As far as the criticism of the film being over the top with striking visuals, surrealistic colors, and the fanciful Dreamland theme-park being ostentatious, it‘s a story about an elephant who can fly. Reality is nowhere within reach. That little elephant is so easy to love, applause to the actors who were really working with a man in a green suit the entire time. A criticism I do agree with is that Colin Farrell’s parental role coupled with his love interest towards Eva Green was underdeveloped. He could have easily been removed and the children could have been circus orphans. This story is about a flying elephant, not a father back from war who may or may not love a French woman. Eva Green did perform well as elephant riding acrobat, Colette, who was also one of the many “gems” that the cunning Mr. Vandevere toted around. Still, they were all there for one reason and one alone, the star of the show. His giant ears hanging beside him like gray drapes and those light blue eyes. Making these precious noises squeaks somewhere between a puppy and a bird. The new and improved Dumbo doesn’t use words nor does he wear a yellow hat but his endearing sounds make up for his lack of speech.

I cried watching Dumbo. It came out of nowhere. No wine was involved. That baby elephant hit me right in the heart. Dumbo doesn’t feel like what you expect from Disney, which is why it’s fantastic that they had an atypical director create an atypical Disney film. It’s a sad story, a tragic one at times. It’s a story of feeling cast aside, unwanted. Being a freak-show in a literal circus. Feeling unloved and losing those who do love you. Dumbo is what it means to be different and anybody who is different knows the pain of what that life is like. There is pain and there is also joy but those tend to be on opposite ends of the long bridge that is life.

After watching the circus scene, I felt like a freak in the ring. It takes a certain kind of courage to own what makes you different and then an added bravery to go out there and celebrate it. I don’t have that courage or that bravery. In moments sure, but it’s quick to fade into insecurity. I’ve always been hesitant with the disability label because it doesn’t suit me, it’s like an oversized coat when I asked for a fitted leather jacket. I may have balance issues but I don’t believe that’s who I am, that’s just what people see.

Dumbo is what it means to be different and anybody who is different knows the pain of what that life is like. -Genevieve Rose

The original Dumbo (1941, Armstrong and Norman Ferguson) written by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer ran for just over an hour at 64 minutes. The remake, arriving 78 years later, is an extensive 112 minutes. When Michael Keaton ( V. A. Vandevere) arrived is when the previous version ended. It’s an ironically charming add-in that Tim Burton had the face of the sought-after Dreamland resemble that of Walt Disney, and he just so happens to be a villainous character. Keaton and Danny DeVito, who plays Max Medici, owner of the competing Medici Circus that is playing finder’s keepers with their prized elephant, have not shared the screen together since Batman Returns, which premiered in 1992 and was also directed by Tim Burton.

Walt Disney

Michael Keaton as V.A. Vandevere

Remake Repairs

1. Racism

Conscientious improvements were done to the modernized version of the film in regards to the obvious racism portrayed in the original. The worst of it was completely omitted. Not all was erased though. “He [Burton] acknowledges some of these moments without employing racist tropes himself.

That’s not to say the new “Dumbo” is perfect. The circus audience lacked diversity, as did the main cast, which has only two people of color. Perhaps the most famously decried scene from the original arrives when Dumbo meets a group of crows. The black birds are depicted using African American stereotypes of the time, with jive-like speech patterns and jazzy-gospely songs sung in harmony. The main bird, named Jim Crow, was voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards, who engages in the vocal equivalent of blackface. It might seem simple to just cut them out of the new film entirely, but they say the movie’s key lines: “Well, I’ve seen a horse fly . . . Ah, I’ve seen a dragonfly . . . I’ve seen a housefly . . . I be done seen about everything when I see an elephant fly.”

Burton’s version handles the conundrum by having a ringleader introduce the little elephant with a rousing speech (no singing!), nodding at the original words but avoiding the obvious pitfalls.”-The Washington Post

2. Drunkenness

Remember when Dumbo accidentally inhales trunk fulls of champagne and then those pink elephants start dancing? Even as a child, I thought, this is bizarre and quite honestly terrifying. The remake fixes that, making it appropriate for children.

“The original includes a sequence in which Dumbo accidentally drinks champagne. While drunk, he hallucinates a number of pink elephants marching and singing a psychedelic tune. The nearly five-minute bit is probably a reference to the phrase “seeing pink elephants” — hallucinations sometimes seen by alcoholics in the grip of delirium tremens. Again, Burton’s film references the sequence without re-creating it. Dumbo and the children who become his caretakers don’t get accidentally sloshed this time around. Instead, performers create pink, dancing elephants with soap bubbles that gently drift through the air at one point in Dumbo’s circus act, a visual trick that prompts Colin Farrell’s character to murmur, “Pink elephants.””-The Washington Post

3. The Ending

In 1941 Dumbo is reunited with Mama Jumbo and the pair are upgraded to a top-level circus. In 2019, they are both set free in the wild. I could be wrong but Dumbo might have appeared in The Lion King (2019, Favreau). Also, should elephants that are used to living in captivity be released into the wild? Regardless, seeing them free was the point of the alternate ending, a change that was well received.

What does Dumbo teach us?

Being different hurts but it’s also remarkably powerful. Feathers are fun but they don’t make us fly, how we soar comes from inside.

His ears are his best feature and they bring out the greatness in him but that’s not what the crowd saw. The crowd saw a freak. They laughed and jeered. They threw things. Dumbo cried and so did I. Being different is not for the faint of heart. There is also plenty of hope infused into this story of being one-of-a-kind. In addition to being exceptionally talented, Dumbo is also exceptionally heartwarming. Do we see ourselves as freaks in the ring or are we the Ringleader? Everything seems impossible until we believe. When we don’t think it’s possible, we have to go to the One who makes all things possible. When there is no way and it seems like people exist solely to get in our way, we need to consult the Waymaker. The One who turned the Dead Sea into a dry Highway.

Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.-Psalm 77:19

It’s not about feathers, Presidents, Kings, or bosses, it’s about Jesus. The French woman knowingly or not, paraphrased scripture as they made their grand entrance into Dreamland. “We make the impossible, possible.”

Ending with a Lullaby

Baby Mine-Betty Noyes

Baby mine, don’t you cry

Baby mine, dry your eyes

Rest your head close to my heart

Never to part

Baby of mine

Little one, when you play

Don’t you mind what they say

Let those eyes sparkle and shine

Never a tear

Baby of mine

From your head to your toes (Baby mine)

You’re so sweet, goodness knows (Baby mine)

You are so precious to me

Cute as can be

Baby of mine

Baby mine

Baby mine

The music is by Frank Churchill, with lyrics by Ned Washington, written in 1937. Betty Noyes recorded the vocals for the original in 1941. Arcade Fire sung by Aurora is featured in the 2019 remake and it is not the sweet-sounding serenade of animals this time but it is just nurturing to hear it from the circus family. If memory serves me correctly, the full version of the song is not in the movie but we do see the notable trunk cradling scene between Mama Jumbo and Baby Dumbo that’ll make your ovaries hurt. It’s a song every child, young and old should hear.