REVIEW: ‘Dumbo’ soars with its animation, positive messages

March 29th, 2019 / By: Michael Foust / comments

REVIEW: ‘Dumbo’ soars with its animation, positive messages

Credit Disney.

Holt Farrier is a dispirited father who lost his left arm in battle and his wife to influenza.

Yes, he still has his two young children and his job in the traveling Medici Brothers Circus, but things have changed since he returned from World War I. His relationship with his daughter has suffered. His job -- as a horse-riding stuntman -- has suffered, too. Circus owner Max Medici sold the horses.

This means Farrier has a new task: taking care of the pregnant elephant.  

“It’s a big job,” Medici tells him.

That’s because the elephant’s calf will become the center of the show. Newspapers will cover it. Most importantly, Medici will sell more tickets.

Yet something strange happens when Medici’s pregnant elephant gives birth. This new calf has most of the features of an elephant -- a trunk, a large head and a body the size of a boulder -- but it has larger-than-normal ears, too. They’re so big, in fact, that they cover its face.

Medici is incensed.

“I already got fake freaks in the freak show. I don’t need a real one in the center ring,” he says.

This new baby elephant, labeled “Dumbo,” gets insulted wherever it goes. Soon, though, it displays a unique talent that transforms it from “freak” into an attention-grabbing phenom.

Disney’s film Dumbo opens this weekend, giving us a live-action remake of the 1941 animated classic that was nominated for two Oscars and won one. It stars Colin Farrell (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) as Farrier, Danny DeVito (Throw Momma from the Train) as Medici, and Michael Keaton (Spider-Man: Homecoming) as V. A. Vandevere, a theme park owner who purchases Medici’s circus.

The movie stays true to the core story of the original while giving it a third act beyond Dumbo’s discovering that he can fly. Like the original, it also includes plenty of positive life lessons for children.

Warning: minor/moderate spoilers!

(Scale key: none, minimal, moderate, extreme)

Violence/Disturbing

Minimal. The film opens with the two children, Milly and Joe, meeting their father at the train station and discovering he lost an arm in World War I. We then learn their mother died from influenza. Holt later punches a man who is mistreating Dumbo’s mother. A circus tent pole falls on a man, who dies. (It’s not graphic; we then see the coroner.) One of the sections of Vandevere’s theme park Dreamland is “Nightmare Island,” where the “most dangerous beasts in the world” are kept. (It houses wolves and an elephant named Kali the Destroyer, but will trouble only sensitive children.) Several times in the film, Dumbo and other circus artists perform high-wire acts that place them in peril. Later in the film, a tent catches fire, endangering a family.

Sexuality/Sensuality/Nudity

None.

Coarse Language

Minimal. H-ll (3), misuse of “God,” and an unfinished “bull----.”

Other Positive Elements

Dumbo’s mother protects her son, and he loves her in return. It’s touching. Milly and Joe love and encourage Dumbo in the midst of the taunts.

Other Stuff You Might Want To Know

Medici encourages Milly to learn telepathy (she doesn’t). A Hindu man, seeing Dumbo fly, say his people believe “gods can take animal form.”

Life Lessons

Our social media-crazed, hyper-critical society needs Dumbo, simply to help children understand and respond to bullying. It’s painful to watch him get insulted. Yet it’s wonderful to watch him overcome the taunts and to discover his unique ability. It’s also uplifting to watch Milly and Joe encourage him. Like Wonder, Dumbo helps us empathize with the character being bullied. It also gives us a positive example of responding to it.

The film provides not one but two characters with disabilities (Dumbo and Farrier). It also presents multiple characters who are battling a loss (Dumbo and Milly and Joe).  

Of course, the movie teaches us to have courage. After all, the feather Dumbo trusted had no magical power.

Worldview/Application

Dumbo isn’t a Christian movie, but its core message -- all of us are unique and loved -- is founded in Christian principles. We are all made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) and we are all valuable to Him -- disabled and non-disabled. That’s a message all children need to learn from Dumbo.  

Sponsors

Spirit Airlines and The Giving Keys are the primary sponsors.

What Works

The interaction between animation and real-life characters. Yes, it’s a normal part of movie magic, but it never grows old. The film’s animal-human parallel -- Dumbo and Farrier -- is a nice touch, too.

What Doesn’t

Farrell’s Southern accent.

Discussion Questions

  1. What did you learn about bullying from watching Dumbo?
  2. What did Dumbo teach you about disabilities?
  3. What can you do to encourage others who are different?

Entertainment rating: 3 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language.