By Pallavi Yetur
After last year’s release of Disney’s live-action Dumbo, responses were mixed. As Dumbo topped its weekend box office, critical reviews still dominated the press, landing the reboot at 47% on Rotten Tomatoes. Some critics admit they “got a little teary eyed” at the trailer (because who didn’t when seeing an adorably sad big-eyed baby elephant set to Aurora’s echo-y Lana Del Rey-esque “Baby Mine” cover?) and appreciate the perfect fit of “whimsicality mixed with darker drama” that characterizes both Burton’s work and the original Dumbo. One viewer had this apropos summary of the film: “It’s sweet with a little touch of the eccentric.” But then there are others, those who have said that Tim Burton has “lost his mojo,” or “Time to hang it up, Tim,” or deeming Burton the man who “created such awful pieces of awful like…Alice in Wonderland, and Charlie & The Chocolate Factory.” Upon seeing Dumbo, a critic for Rotten Tomatoes wrote: “The two forces in Hollywood most associated with unnecessary remakes-Tim Burton and Disney-have joined forces to produce one of the most unnecessary remakes of all.”
While none of Burton’s work, or anyone’s for that matter, is beyond criticism, the responses to his films of late have felt personally motivated, driven by a bias about his washed-up-ness, his transition from artist characterized by originality to director doing Disney’s bidding. As evidenced by the opinions of the viewers and critics cited above, Tim Burton’s work is polarizing, garnering a cult-like following while also being subject to trivializing ridicule. And with the release of Dumbo, people continue to be skeptical. This is the 1941 beloved animated classic from Disney’s A-list canon. It’s also a film that doesn’t really top lists of personal favorites, which, when attached to a director whose last four films met disappointing box office and critical fates, makes it easy to dismiss. But that seems the sole reason it is being targeted.
Burton’s early original hits are usually not in question when he is criticized—people have unabashed love for Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands—but his adaptations of true stories, books, and plays have been disregarded or even disdained. It is probable then that negative attitudes toward Tim Burton’s adaptations are largely out of an attachment to an initial interpretation or a wish for an orthodox representation of the primary work or story. That Burton reimagines them with depth, bringing a little something new and exciting to the table, seems intolerable for some.
If we use the “awful pieces of awful” mentioned above as examples, I’ll get the opportunity to put something to bed: Charlie and Chocolate Factory (2005) was NOT a bad film. Audiences despised it, accusing it of perverting their memories of the beloved 1971 version, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder. It’s difficult to argue with nostalgia, but as a work of storytelling, the 1971 movie does not work well, despite its having been co-written by Roald Dahl. It is unclear how involved Dahl actually was in the screenplay, but he maybe should have just banked on book-writing, as the screenplay’s choices are convoluted and purposeless (and the consensus is that the “Cheer Up Charlie” number is universally reviled). For instance, that burping bubble gas scene in the 1971 film, in which Charlie and Grandpa Joe get into a predicament with some fizzy soda was not in Roald Dahl’s book—in the book, the gas room is only mentioned peripherally, and no one ever actually goes in there. More importantly, the scene makes no sense, as it essentially undoes the stakes of the entire plot in which the most well-behaved kid is the one left standing—why would Willy Wonka just hand the prize over to Charlie when he screwed up just like the rest of the brats? If Charlie weren’t the protagonist, he’d have been turned into a giant fart balloon and floated away. Gene Wilder’s Wonka goes off on a rageful tirade about this and then magically changes his mind by revealing that the true test was how the kids reacted to some tangential guy pretending to be a spy and trying to enlist each golden ticket holder to help him steal Wonka’s secrets. This is a violation of Screenwriting 101: don’t unnecessarily complicate the plot. The book’s plot is clean. It is the unexplained magic of the factory that is meant to weed out the unfit children.
If we’re talking about unexplained magic that’s a little suspect and definitely terrifying, a certain director comes to mind. Burton’s film, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, sticks exactly to the book (down to the title). Much of the dialogue comes verbatim from pages in the book, because it already worked. Even the Danny Elfman-composed Oompa Loompa songs get their lyrics straight from Dahl’s words, unlike the 1971 film’s Doompa-Dee-Doo-Puzzle-For-Youfoolishness that explains nothing. The intent of Burton’s film matches that of the book: to tell the story of a paranoid chocolate factory owner who needs a successor and the child who proves to be the most deserving. Arguably, Tim Burton does Roald Dahl better than Roald Dahl.
The places where the Tim Burton film does take some added liberties do not function as kid-pandering gimmicks like the aforementioned burp scene, and instead only serve to strengthen the meaning behind the film. For example, Burton’s film, penned by screenwriter John August (Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie), gives us an origin story for the mysterious Willy Wonka. Everyone loves an origin story, especially a Freudian one—just look at Batman Begins, or Citizen Kane. The Willy Wonka character is basically luring children into his factory and torturing them into disfigured little beasts, but no one, not even Dahl, had ever dealt with why. Fortunately, portraying conflicted inner worlds is where Tim Burton shines. Where there is a predator, there is trauma, and Tim Burton’s film gives us an affecting account of a little Willy Wonka who fetishizes candy as a representation of his lost childhood innocence. Candy is his Rosebud. And then his distrust of people, which stems from disappointment in his father for misunderstanding and abandoning him, is cemented when competing candy makers steal his secrets. It is an ingenious conception of a layer of the story we should all be wondering about. People have complained about the Oompa Loompas and Johnny Depp’s acting choices making the whole thing feel contrived and silly. But Tim Burton’s sensibility, albeit with sometimes cartoony choices, still evokes a Roald Dahl darkness that the original misses—it’s perceptibly creepy, which makes the 1971 film actually feel like the cartoony one (also, which is really the worse Oompa Loompa choice: CGI clones of an Indian actor or making a bunch of little people do stupid dances, after the same had already been done for the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz? Burton at least calls attention to Dahl’s racist images of colonialism but has Wonka offering the workers something of value, a deal they accept in exchange for their labor).
Tim Burton took a different tack with Alice in Wonderland, which had already been imagined and reimagined numerous times in film, animation, television, and theater. Thus, he changed the story, made Alice grow up, and gave her a challenge to overcome. Some have said that it was a formulaic application of the famously unformulaic book by Lewis Carroll. But in avoiding doing a straight adaptation—he’d already done several with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sleepy Hollow and Sweeney Todd—Burton rejected the expected, making him intrinsically unformulaic.Tim Burton tried something with Alice. The result is a feast for the eyes in an all-CGI style we hadn’t seen from Burton before, and an inspiring message to all those who doubt themselves, particularly young women, that you can be empowered to change your fate (plus Danny Elfman called the Alice in Wonderland score his favorite of all he’d composed).
Tim Burton’s bread and butter has been that he makes stories about characters on the fringes, those with disabilities or obsessions or who have for whatever reason been cast out from normative society. His own experience as a misfit informs his characters, all those who don’t belong, those stuck between two worlds: one dark, chaotic, the inner; one sunny, social, the outer. In Tim Burton films, both worlds are seductive—the gothic and the idyllic are equally stylized, lending a certain discord to the work as a whole. For instance, Edward Scissorhands is about a recluse from a dark manor navigating a nosey suburbia. The circus as home to the outsider also emerges as a major theme. Big Fish features a long circus sequence among those that the protagonist recounts in his effort to show that his life was important and remarkable. Circus imagery in Big Fish is complete with stripey tent and Danny DeVito as circus master, as in Dumbo and Batman Returns. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure also uses circus imagery. Burton could basically reuse the same set.
Therefore, Dumbo happens to be both things in Burton’s wheelhouse: it is an adaptation, and it is about a circus outcast. And Burton does not disappoint in letting us in on the inner world of yet another beloved classic character. In perhaps the most anticipated reference to the original, that weird, trippy “Pink Elephants on Parade” musical sequence, Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, the dream team of the macabre, illustrate the inner complexities in the mind…of a CGI elephant. The elephant-shaped floating bubbles overhead mesmerize the little flying pachyderm, reminding him of his lost mother, and momentarily make him feel he is not the sole elephant in the building. In his trance-like state, before he is exploited again and made to attempt a never-before-achieved feat before a circus audience, Dumbo is a little bit less alone, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when the bubbles pop. Burton keeps “Pink Elephants on Parade” within the context of the story, rather than as the strange liminal scene in the 1941 original in which the protagonist, a BABY elephant, gets drunk and hallucinates??
While several novel ideas have sprung forth from his mind, Tim Burton has a track record of thoughtfully and creatively dealing with source material, bringing his signature gothic style to adaptations. There is a reason he keeps getting commissioned to take these on—people are always going to be curious as to what he does with them and how they will look. Fans are addicted to both the visual and to the narrative vindication of the outcast. Because of his treatments of Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, when the Tim Burton Dumbo was first announced in 2017, aside from the visual motifs we knew would be there—bright colors, spirals, stripes, huge eyes—the prospect of Burton’s touch on a familiar tale felt exhilaratingly unpredictable, for better or worse.
With popular television and streaming content now becoming the media more associated with risk-taking than popular film, what we keep getting in theaters are franchises and reboots—more of the same old. And with such massive studio budgets at stake, popular artists have less incentive to go off the map, particularly when the internet is awash with people’s opinions. Thus, entrusting yet another Disney live-action reboot to Tim Burton—the man whose mind dreamed up the painfully original worlds of Beetlejuice and Jack Skellington, the man who created places like the Netherworld Waiting Room and Halloweentown and creatures like Frankenweenie, bringing them to life without any guarantee that a wide audience can meet him where he is—in itself guarantees a subversion of the conventional formula in favor of the beloved Burton formula. How many Marvel’s Avengers movies have there been, will there be? We can’t let the man who brought Batman back to the screen from the 60s pop graveyard have his well-deserved version of Dumbo? I suppose it doesn’t matter what the critics say though, because from Mars Attacks! to Ed Wood, whatever Tim Burton makes, I’ve been here for it, and I’ll continue to be.