Movie Reviews

“Dumbo” (1941) Versus “Dumbo” (2019)

Disney has been on a live-action remake binge over the last few years producing more and more realistic interpretations of their classic animated features. The trend has become so prevalent that they’re literally releasing multiple remakes every year with three such films and one sequel to a previous remake on the slate for theaters in 2019 and yet another live-action remake scheduled for the launch of Disney+. In March we got the first remake on the schedule, “Dumbo”, which sought to modernize one of the studio’s shortest mainstream classics. Both films focus on the journey of the titular elephant whose enormous ears turn him into a pariah and then a pop culture sensation as he tries to reunite with his mother. While the original classic took place in a time where circuses were still seen as popular entertainment and stories were much shorter and less developed the remake was released in an era where animal welfare is a hot button issue leaving circuses closing down and cultural subtext is carefully scrutinized. As a result, these are two very different movies based on the same idea, but which one is the superior version of Disney’s famous pachyderm? I’m here to put that question to the test. This is “Dumbo” (1941) versus “Dumbo” (2019).

For this battle I’ll be pitting the two versions of Disney’s “Dumbo” against each other to determine which one is the better version of the story. In order to determine which film I think is superior, I’ll be looking at five elements, the story themes, the secondary characters, the visual style, the music and accompaniment, and I’ll be comparing the versions of the titular elephant for the final round. Whoever receives the most points wins the battle in the end.

Which “Dumbo” movie do you prefer? Let me know in the comments below. Let the battle BEGIN!

ROUND ONE: STORY AND THEMES

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Let’s start things off looking at how the stories are written and what themes are worked into the different versions. Both “Dumbo” movies focus on a young elephant with a unique deformity of large ears who is separated from his mother, but that’s about where the similarities end. Each movie brings its own story to the table focusing on different themes. While one attempts to inspire confidence in one’s own abilities and identity another is more centered on the treatment of animals for entertainment and the entertainment industry as a whole. So which story is superior? Let’s find out.

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Let’s start with the original “Dumbo” which is the shorter of the two and is basically focused on two intertwining narratives, Dumbo’s attempt to reconnect with his mother and his lack of confidence in himself. The mother story in this film is touching and tear-jerking especially the scene with “Baby Mine”. Of the two films this version puts much more focus on the mother-son dynamic and thus develops that relationship much more completely. As a result, generations of viewers have come to see this movie as a touching story about the bond of a mother and child, but it’s much more than that. Dumbo’s self-confidence is also a major theme especially as he tries to prove his merit in the circus without his mother by his side. With the help of Timothy Q. Mouse and the Crows, Dumbo finds the hidden ability to fly, both figuratively and literally, using a black feather as a placebo to convince himself of his talents before discovering he didn’t need the feather all along. The original Dumbo’s journey is a simple one packed with heart and it has become a timeless classic Disney tale. But being timeless does not mean it can’t be improved does it?

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To answer that let’s look at the live-action “Dumbo”. Tim Burton’s film does include both the mother-child narrative and Dumbo’s “magical” feather that convinces him he can fly but honestly both feel very downplayed compared to the original and are more callbacks to the previous film than the centerpieces of this new adaptation. Because of that, the heart is missing from Dumbo’s story. Instead, the newer “Dumbo” film becomes respectable criticism of the entertainment industry even taking cracks at Disney’s on penchant for absorbing and buying out properties in order to cash in on their popularity. The main villain, V.A. Vandevere, is only interested in his money and fame and it’s revealed that he has taken to abusing animals, including Dumbo and his mother, to draw fans to his circus-like theme park Dreamland. It’s a fitting addition to the “Dumbo” narrative considering the drive for animal rights in today’s society and the recent push for theme parks like SeaWorld and circuses like Ringling Brothers to faze certain animals out of their shows. If you’re going to change things up (and give credit to the remake for at least trying something unique from its predecessor) you might as well make it relevant to the time and I can’t help but respect that. However, as much as I enjoyed the more modern themes the remake does often feel like it’s pandering and never fully delves into the nuances of its narrative the way the original film manages to do.

This was a tough call for me because I respect that the remake has more meat on its bones and a more culturally relevant message to share in today’s world, but in the end I respect the more timeless message that the original had just a bit more. The remake tries to borrow these themes for its own story but never truly owns them as their own which, when you think about it, is only more evidence of how well the first movie’s concepts and story resonated in the first place. Round one goes to the original “Dumbo”.

SCORE: “Dumbo” (1941) – 1 “Dumbo” (2019) – 0

ROUND TWO: SECONDARY CHARACTERS

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For this round, I’m putting Dumbo himself aside and looking at the characters that help him through his journey or oppose him in both versions of the film. What’s interesting is that save for the ringmaster these two films come with completely different casts of secondary characters, one more focused on anthropomorphic creatures and the other comprised entirely of humans. I’ll be looking at which secondary cast stood out more in their journey with Dumbo. Let’s get to it.

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In the original Dumbo there are numerous characters that have stood the test of time…but not all for the best reasons. On the plus side is Timothy Q. Mouse, Dumbo’s closest friend who helps him through his trying times. He is possibly the most iconic secondary character from either Dumbo film and he’s quite memorable considering he gets most of the speaking lines in the movie since Dumbo himself doesn’t talk. Edward Brophy provided a charming vocal performance to bring Timothy to life and he serves as a fun nod to the misconception of elephants hating mice making his friendship with Dumbo all the more endearing. In the way of antagonists, the animated “Dumbo” has a few, the Ringmaster who uses Dumbo for entertainment and is often considered more an unintentional villain, and the other circus elephants who look down on Dumbo for his physical deformity. While the Ringmaster is a pretty basic kind-of-villain, I always saw the elephants as a nice allegory for inter-tribal hatred where members of a specific race, culture or group hate one of their own for not fitting in. But by far the most talked about side characters from this film are the Crows. Oh, the Crows! I always wondered how “Dumbo” continues to be a classic with these characters in place when “Song of the South” was rightfully disowned by Disney over the years. The Crows remain a relic of a darker time in cinema history where racial stereotypes were considered acceptable. While iconic and fun in their own way, and some have defended them as only racist in hindsight and a product of their time, it’s hard to overlook just how tasteless these characters are by modern standards.

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The Crows, or any representation of them, were smartly left out of the 2019 remake. In fact, every major animal character other than Dumbo and his mother were left out of the new movie with only a passing reference to Timothy Q. Mouse through another mouse in a cage. The live-action film actually features all human characters to help Dumbo on his journey starting with war veteran Holt Farrier and his two children, Milly and Joe. Later in the film, they are joined by trapeze artist Colette who becomes Holt’s love interest and together they help Dumbo reunite with his mother and undermine the film’s main villain V. A. Vandevere who is a more straight forward, power-hungry baddy. The larger cast of characters may not be as memorable as the smaller crew from the original movie, but the remake has the advantage of providing characters with more defined personalities and motives and who feel more cinematic. The original capitalized on Dumbo’s loneliness to give us one iconic character to help him and a literal flock of controversial characters to assist. The remake avoids any stereotypes and even allows the side characters to have opportunities for personal growth themselves. While the original version’s medium, animation, made anthropomorphic creatures more acceptable that approach just wouldn’t have worked in the new film so for me it was a smart decision to veer the focus more to real human characters than to talking animals. All around I just liked the larger cast in the second movie better even if they weren’t as memorable and if the movie tended to focus maybe too much on them and not enough on the elephant himself.

So, this round goes to the remake. The characters may not stand the test of time like the ones in the animated version, but they feel more developed and alive as well as making up a more complete cast whereas there’s really only one truly memorable secondary character from the original version. You could call the Crows memorable, but they’re memorable for the wrong reasons and I’d be lying if I denied their inclusion in the animated classic didn’t help sway my decision here. So we’re all tied up with each version having a point apiece.

SCORE: “Dumbo” (1941) – 1 “Dumbo” (2019) – 1

ROUND 3: VISUALS AND STYLE

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It’s interesting when a film makes the transition from animation to live action. Sometimes the visuals are quite simple, just real-life representations of the original product. But in the case of “Dumbo”, the animated film was presented with a visual style akin to a storybook while the live action version embraces the often-eccentric style of Tim Burton. Both movies look very different even if they share a few similar elements so it’s only fair to see which one have the best visual flair. Let’s take a look.

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As I said the original “Dumbo” plays out in a style similar to that of a storybook. This has become part of the film’s identity with neat and lively designs built into everything from the locomotive to the set pieces. It’s definitely one of Disney’s more unique features from its earlier library and packs plenty of imagination and color. However, by modern standards, the animation and style can feel a bit dated. A lot of the characters and art were built to emulate the cartoonish nature of circuses at the time which makes it a nice time capsule capturing the look and feel of a traditional early 90s circus, but it can feel a bit one-dimensional and downright creepy. A few great scenes remain like the storybook-like opening and the famous “Pink Elephants” scene which is as trippy now as it ever was but watching the film today it definitely has its own style to it but it rarely veers away from that specific aesthetic. Aside from a few moments that still standout even by modern standards “Dumbo” sticks to pretty much the same atmosphere for the bulk of the film with only a few variations on these backdrops from time to time.

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The remake has the advantage of its director, the always intriguing Tim Burton. Burton is famous for his dark and artistic backdrops and set pieces and “Dumbo” stick to that trademark. The visual style is a huge selling point for this film mixing family-friendly aesthetic with Burton’s trademark dark and dreary style. Whereas the animated version feels unintentionally creepy, the remake owns its quirky visual nature making it both imaginative and fittingly uncomfortable. The live action circus is admittedly bland and simple with the animated versions circus actually being the superior effort on that front. But once the film moves to V. A. Vandevere’s Dreamland that’s when Burton’s whimsy takes over giving us a representation of a massive, one-the-top theme park that would probably have made Disney himself blush with envy. With the new film, the atmosphere might not be the brightest, but the set designs and visual style stand out incredibly well putting us right smack into a strange and intimidating world of over-the-top entertainment contrasted the brighter and blander garden variety circus we’re thrown into at the start. It forces the viewer to wonder why anyone would want to be a part of such chaos, and yet we pay to enjoy similar parks every day at our leisure. It’s just one more way the remake has much more meat on its bones than the original film even if its overall story felt inferior to the everlasting legacy of the original. As with almost any of his movies Burton makes the scenery and visuals part of the story which is a much harder task to pull off in live action than with animation.

With that in mind, I give Burton and his remake the point here. The live-action version feels like it has more flair and variations in its visual aesthetic and it’s style even works into some of the movie’s themes. The original version can’t be denied credit for being a beautifully animated masterpiece in its own right though, it just feels a bit too dated or me to award it the point. With that, the live-action “Dumbo” take the lead.

SCORE: “Dumbo” (1941) – 1 “Dumbo” (2019) – 2

ROUND 4: THE MUSIC

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As with most remakes, the live action version pays homage to its predecessor with a soundtrack reminiscent of the animated film’s classic accompaniment. Several songs are worked into both films but the animated version is a more straight forward musical while the remake has a few select vocal pieces and mostly works off of an instrumental track. Which soundtrack stands out more…let’s see!

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The original “Dumbo” immediately has an edge in this category because, well, it plays host to several classic earworms that have become legendary in Disney’s collection. “Baby Mine”, “Pink Elephants on Parade” and “When I See an Elephant Fly” have all become timeless, iconic classics from Disney’s filmography while “Casey Junior” and “Look Out for Mr. Stork” have stood the test of time as well. As a straight-up musical the animated “Dumbo” depends much more on its vocal tracks to tell the story and to drive home its charm and it succeeds. The soundtrack also touches on nearly every emotion from bouncy optimism to surreal, inspiring and, of course, tear-jerking melodies making it a well-rounded group of songs that all fit well in the story being told. It’s a classic lineup of classic songs from a classic film.

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On the other end, the live-action film has a respectable soundtrack of its own, just one more composed of instrumentals. The remake still captures a lot of the same magical whimsy as its predecessor just in a different way using instrumental accompaniment to support scenes and drive the emotions instead of vocal tracks. However, “Baby Mine” is still included with two vocal renditions in the soundtrack. The first is sung by Sharon Rooney in the actual movie and is delightfully touching in its own way while the credits version of the song sung by Arcade Fire isn’t as memorable. A few other songs like “Pink Elephants on Parade” and “Casey Junior” are referenced in the accompaniment but they serve as more callbacks to the previous film than anything else. Honestly, this was a round destined to be an uphill battle for the remake and it does provide plenty of its own merits to warrant being considered great competition. However, in the end, the original will always be superior here.

While the remake does offer a neat, fitting soundtrack and some fun callbacks, that’s all the music really ends up being is a reminder of the far superior music that made the original film such a classic. The original “Dumbo” has produced numerous iconic songs that transcend the film’s own reputation making it the obvious winner in this round to tie up the score.

SCORE: “Dumbo” (1941) – 2 “Dumbo” (2019) – 2

ROUND 5: Dumbo Himself

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What better way to settle the tie than with the titular character himself, Dumbo. The namesake of the film is obviously the most important aspect and both movies presented adorable versions of the pachyderm with the giant ears. The animated version produced the design we have all come to know and love but the live action version presented a CGI rendered and more lifelike interpretation that still includes its own imaginative qualities. Which version is superior though? Let’s decide this battle once and for all!

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The animated Dumbo is a Disney icon. He’s the subject of a famous and popular ride, he’s appeared in numerous other Disney properties and he is many fans’ favorite character. Small in stature but possessing giant ears the length of his body that he always trips over, the original Dumbo remains as adorable and popular today as he was back in the 40s which is why he received a remake in the first place. As Disney’s first antagonist without a voice (as in he doesn’t talk) Dumbo had to emote through facial features and other subtle details which Disney artists accomplished flawlessly giving Dumbo a distinct personality and youthful vibe that speaks to his lack of experience in the world and his outcast status throughout most of the picture. Overall it’s hard to deny credit to one of Disney’s most enduring characters and designs as Dumbo has remained mostly unchanged save for some polish since he made his big screen debut.

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The Tim Burton design is much more lifelike even if the CGI ultimately fails to give us a believable elephant in the real world. However, Dumbo is probably the best-rendered computer character in the movie. While this Dumbo is not quite as adorable as the original this is mostly due to the medium as animation allows for more eccentric and unique character designs while live action demands some grounding in the real world. Honestly, this makes the design of Dumbo just an impressive but from a different angle. Burton and his crew worked to make a character that captures the same charm as the original while also feeling like a real elephant. Dumbo relies mostly on facial expressions and, once again, we’re given a character that emotes well and feels fully fleshed out. The live-action Dumbo borrows a lot from its animated counterpart and yet the design of Dumbo is the one thing that feels both truly inspired and respectful to the property’s established legacy. So while it may not be the iconic artwork we’re accustomed to, the live action Dumbo still captures everything we’ve come to love about the elephant as both animals prove to be adorable, memorable, and well-defined characters in Disney’s library.

But, in the end, only one can win. This round was a tough one to call. There are merits to both adaptations. The original is definitely the more iconic but has had time to establish a legacy while the live-action version manages to accomplish the same charm despite lacking the undeniable advantages that animation offers. I enjoy both interpretations, one for its iconic design and memorability and one for its ability to be lifelike and yet maintain an animated charm despite the odds. For me though, the original is still the OG Dumbo and the more imaginative and adorable of the two as well as the more completely developed version of the character. The final point goes to the original “Dumbo”

SCORE: “Dumbo” (1941) – 3 “Dumbo” (2019) – 2

WINNER: “Dumbo” (1941)

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The original “Dumbo” is an undeniable Disney classic with incredible music and a more touching a timeless story and had the advantage of introducing the world to the superiorly designed version of the character that has become a Disney icon. But, this battle was much harder to decide than almost any other Versus I’ve done to date. While I gave the remake a middling review I found there was a lot to appreciate when comparing it to the animated version. The remake provides better side characters and more eye-catching visual flair overall. It still has great music even if it’s mostly background noise and possesses an inventive twist on the story that takes “Dumbo” in a new direction. When all is said and done though you just can’t beat the original classic even if the live-action “Dumbo” may have proven to be the most justified remake in Disney’s collection so far. No matter which version you choose to enjoy there’s something to appreciate. Which one is truly superior might depend on what exactly you’re looking for, but for me, it’s the 1941 classic that will always shine the brightest.

2 comments

  1. I also reviewed Dumbo by Tim Burton on my blog and I don’t know if it’s better than the original, but I certainly agree with you on the characters of the remake not being timeless. I already forgot all of them!

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