In 1932, a Kentucky man named Tod Browning took the circus artists out of the closet. Not literally of course, but the filmmaker put the spotlight on their suffering, their misfortunes, and what life was like for these desperate creatures when the fat lady had sung. The same Browning, who as a child staged plays in his back garden, revealed the dark and hidden side of the so-called greatest show on Earth in ‘Freaks’. It was the curtain call for the circus’ age of innocence, he had removed the glamor from the performance and replaced it with an obscurity in a film whose Spanish translation was ‘The Monster’s Parade‘ and that, even today, provokes terror and tenderness in equal parts. In features before and after ‘Freaks’, such as ‘The Unknown’, ‘The Devil Doll’ or ‘Dracula’, Browning continued in the same line, showing us … the monstrosity. Browning died heirless in 1962, with no outstanding disciples, no students to take up from where he left off and convey his legacy with modern brilliance and splendor. That was, until 1985, when a weird looking crazy-haired Californian named Tim Burton appeared on the scene and presented his debut feature, ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’, starring the popular comedian, then fallen from grace, Pee-wee Herman, aka Paul Reubens.
With his second feature film, ‘Beetlejuice’, Burton definitively laid the foundations for what his subsequent works would become; a defense of marginal characters, sometimes heroes (‘Batman’), or filled with hopeful anticipation but desperately unlucky ( ‘Ed Wood’), sometimes helpless (‘Edward Scissorhands’), or from other planets (‘Mars Attacks!’) or from this (‘Planet of the Apes’). His heroes and villains include murderers (‘Sweeney Todd’), lost girls (‘Alice in Wonderland’), extravagant philanthropists (‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’) or quirky artists (‘Big Eyes’). In ‘Big Fish‘, the circus monopolized a section of the storyline, but there are plenty of candidates who would fit the circus bill scattered throughout his filmography. In a world where bullying exists side-by-side with extravagance, the fear of being different with a community of singular beings, show business with deformity, cruelty with compassion, it was only logical that Burton would eventually sign up a small elephant with big ears and the capacity to fly to his entourage. Dumbo was destined to join Burton’s adorable parade of monsters.
Burton’s ‘Dumbo‘ takes the original animated film from the Disney factory and ‘burtonizes’ the heck outta it. His version of the story introduces several new human characters, remains loyal in essence to the message of Disney’s 1941 animated classic. The movie reflects on different and opposing ways of seeing the circus as entertainment and also as a business; there’s an unexpectedly modern-day metaphor in there for those willing to pick up on it of course, about how large groups absorb their smaller counterparts. Ring any bells? In ‘Dumbo’, the director continues to admire and fight the corner of the underdog. Criticizing the evil and fencing off the comfort zone of the pure, in order to keep the ruthless at bay, to curtail the interference of those who would find amusement in the ‘shortcomings’ of others. The little pachyderm in Tim Burton’s latest movie confers with his previous work: he caresses the corpse Bride with his trunk, takes a stroll with Frankenweenie, plays with those peculiar children from Miss Peregrine’s Home and runs helter-skelter across the rooftops with Jack Skeleton. It’s clear from the get-go that the movie is about protecting the rights of the elephant and his. That Danny DeVito is the good guy, Michael Keaton is the bad guy and that the apparent toughness of Colette Marchand (played by Eva Green) is merely a front to conceal her helplessness and huge heart.