This article contains spoilers for Tim Burton’s Dumbo.
If anyone was going to make a live-action reboot of Dumbo seem like a deeply personal project rather than simply the latest scheme to wring more cash from a beloved piece of intellectual property, it was going to be Tim Burton. The original Dumbo seems almost tailor-made for a Burton remake. Like Edward Scissorhands, Dumbo is about someone who is exiled for being a freak. Like Ed Wood, its protagonist finds a way to overcome that rejection through showmanship. And like Big Eyes, Dumbo has plenty of big eyes. Most of all, Dumbo is a circus movie, which is something Burton seems to have been itching to make for decades, loading up everything from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure to both his Batman films to Big Fish with clowns and circus performers. And yet there’s not a single second in Dumbo when the audience can forget it’s participating in one of the Walt Disney Company’s many, many multimillion-dollar business ventures, primarily because the new Dumbo features a Walt Disney stand-in whose only purpose is to remind them. It’s supposed to be a joke, but who is it on?
The Walt Disney figure in the new Dumbo is an impresario named V.A. Vandevere, played by Michael Keaton, but Disney isn’t the only inspiration. Burton draws freely from a wide range of historical figures and events, most of which came long before or long after Dumbo’s 1919 setting. Vandevere’s name suggests 19th-century showman P.T. Barnum, while his comically terrible hair and semi-fraudulent finances evoke the 21st century’s Donald Trump. His office is designed in a beautiful Streamline Moderne style straight out of the 1930s. And then there’s the ominous Chekhov’s-gun idea of steering your elephant movie to Coney Island in the first place, which crowds Dumbo’s second half like some sort of gigantic animal that no one is willing to acknowledge.
But the Disney parallels are difficult to ignore. Some of this is apparent from the family-entertainment magnate who enters the frame, professing an obsession with making adults feel like “a child again” and making audiences feel like anything is possible. But then Vandevere takes us to his theme park, called Dreamland. While there was in fact a historical New York City amusement park called Dreamland, Dumbo’s Dreamland bears a strong resemblance to a certain other magic kingdom. It has Disneyland’s central hub architecture, a “Wonders of Science” pavilion whose techno-utopian visions resemble Disney World’s “Future World” attractions and of the Carousel of Progress, designed by Walt himself. Meanwhile, the exterior signage seems to be stolen directly from the Roy O. Disney Building. So while there’s a lot going on in the movie, none of it entirely coherent, the Disney thread runs straight through the film’s mashup of historical eras, just like the chain of title that gives the Walt Disney Company of 2019 the exclusive right to make derivative works based on the 1939 Roll-a-Book prototype Dumbo, the Flying Elephant.
Speaking of milking entertainment properties for all they’re worth, here’s what Vandevere does over the course of Dumbo. Upon discovering that a small touring circus has an elephant that can fly, he acquires the entire circus and merges it with his own. The proprietor (Danny DeVito) is promised a partnership—but then given a do-nothing vice president position. The rest of the circus employees are given jobs in Vandevere’s company and relocate across the country, only to be unceremoniously laid off a month later. In the meantime, Vandevere does everything he can to extract value from the new property he’s bought, building a lavish act around the flying elephant and even breaking into merchandising, selling plush toys of Dumbo that are dead ringers for Disney’s 1941 Dumbo. It’s more than a little reminiscent of the time the Walt Disney Company purchased Twenty-First Century Fox and immediately and unexpectedly laid off an entire division. That happened just this month, so Dumbo’s timing can only be coincidental, but, while there haven’t always been immediate layoffs, it’s also more than a little reminiscent of the time the Walt Disney Company bought KHJ-TV, the time it bought Miramax, the time it bought ABC, the time it bought Infoseek, the time it bought Fox Family Worldwide, the time it bought Pixar, the time it bought Marvel Entertainment, the time it bought Lucasfilm, and the time it bought Maker Studios. Worse yet, Vandevere parades around saying things like, “Who’s been dreaming like I’ve been dreaming?”—which is a lot to put up with from a boss, especially when he’s firing you.
Tim Burton has some familiarity with what it’s like to get fired by the Walt Disney Company. He started his career as an animator there but was let go in 1984 after making Frankenweenie, a live-action short that the studio thought was too dark to release in front of a Disney feature. Over the years since, Burton has repeatedly returned to his old stomping grounds for a second crack at the works-for-hire he left behind. In 1990, fresh off the success of Edward Scissorhands, he made a development deal with his old studio that let him produce The Nightmare Before Christmas, a feature about Jack Skellington, a character Burton first gave a cameo to in another short film Disney had barely released. In 2012, he went back to Disney again to give Frankenweenie another go as a stop-motion feature. At various points along the way, he also helped Disney and other studios wring a few more dimes from a wide portfolio of other people’s ideas, including Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, and, most successfully, Topps’ Mars Attacks! trading cards. So Burton has never been precious about making new money from old ideas, which makes it all the more difficult to reconcile his latest film, which is a parable about never trusting businessmen who promise to extract more value from your elephant, with, well, his latest film, which is an extravagantly funded attempt by untrustworthy businessmen to extract more value from their elephant.
The answer is that we’re not meant to reconcile it as much as we’re meant to forgive it. The Vandevere subplot in Dumbo is not a sincere critique of the business practices of the Walt Disney Company—how could it be?—nor does it have anything much to say about art under capitalism, or even Tim Burton’s feelings about his once and future employer. The climactic sequence, in which the recently fired members of DeVito’s circus steal Dumbo and his mother from Vandevere, sort of works as a metaphor for Burton returning to Disney to rescue Frankenweenie and Jack Skellington, except that Burton didn’t steal them back: Disney paid him money to try to make the company more money from ideas it didn’t think it could make any money from back in the 1980s. The nudges and winks in Dumbo about Disney’s predatory practices are an invitation from filmmaker to audience to share a knowing chuckle over the essential soullessness of the entire enterprise. It’s the exact same toxic irony David Foster Wallace was writing about in “E Unibus Pluram” in this passage about a grimly Pavlovian Pepsi ad that flatters its audience by hanging a lantern on what it’s doing and how it’s doing it, while simultaneously still doing it:
The commercial invites complicity between its own witty irony and veteran-viewer Joe’s cynical, nobody’s-fool appreciation of that irony. It invites Joe into an in-joke the Audience is the butt of.
The idea that you’re somehow not the butt of a joke if you’re savvy enough to laugh along is considerably older than that essay or that Pepsi ad. You know what movie had something to say about people who invite you to believe they’re laughing with you?
Now that’s timeless cinema. Someone should probably remake it.