I’ve been writing a lot about movies lately. But that’s kind of my thing. And I’m happy to get to Tim Burton again… haven’t done that since I wrote about Dark Shadows what feels like a hundred years ago.
There’s lots to say about Dumbo, which I don’t have time to get into right now. But let’s just all agree that this one really needed to happen. The original Dumbo is just unpleasant to watch, has lots of plot and continuity problems (most of which probably could have been solved if Disney had had more time), and has overall aged terribly. The remake, while not perfect, fixes pretty much all of the original’s mistakes.
But to get to the point… I want to talk about how the movie handles dreams. Children’s movies focus on them a lot, and it’s tricky to do. Everybody’s going to hate how you handle it. But I think of the past few year’s crop, Dumbo does it best.
Let’s go back to Zootopia. In the first few minutes of the movie, Judy’s parents tell her to give up on her dreams and settle, like they did. The movie, rightly, portrays this as not great, although Judy doesn’t listen to them and is ultimately vindicated by her actions. But the movie still got flack for framing the “just settle” message unfavorably (looking at you, Cinemasins). Now speed ahead to Coco, which goes in the other direction. Family is more important than your individualistic dreams. You can make an argument for that, and do it well, but Coco… doesn’t. Even though Miguel eventually gets to enjoy music with his family, he still had to promise to give up music in order to live. And everybody seemed fine with that. It’s amazing that he loves Hector that much, but seriously, Imelda… that was a cruel thing to do! And it kind of messes with the overall theme of the movie.
How does this relate to Dumbo? Well, Milly wants to become a scientist like Marie Curie, but her dad, Holt, tells her she needs to do something practical to help in the circus (something immediate, and which does not require years of expensive education). And it’s a frequent point of conflict throughout the movie.
Enter Michael Keaton as the flamboyant, sinister V.A. Vandevere. He immediately sympathizes with Milly’s dream, assuring her that she can be anything, but the audience very quickly realizes he doesn’t mean it. As soon as there’s a problem, she’s no longer a wonder-in-the-works, and it’s “why are there children in my office?” It works thematically with the movie (also setting up Vandevere’s villainy a bit), and it’s also quite realistic. Who remembers being told “you can be anything” by authority figures who clearly didn’t believe it, or got upset with you when you said you wanted to be the wrong thing?
But Milly and Holt come to a compromise. Before Dreamland burns down, father and daughter have a quiet moment in the Worlds Fair type exhibit, where he finally acknowledges that she might be able to discover things like she wants. And in the end, she does something practical for the circus, but is still satisfying her interests in science and new technology… running the circus’ nickelodeon. It’s helping with the need for new acts in the short term, but Milly is still young enough that education might still be in her future. Especially since the circus now has a permanent residence.
The movie doesn’t say don’t dream. It doesn’t say your dreams will always come true. But it shows a practical middle-ground, work and compromise, and keeps a door open for improvement.
In a way, Vandevere is right. Nothing is impossible… but you should still listen to the electricians when they say don’t throw that switch.