Theme: The Restoration of Glory
Disney’s latest live-action fantasy adventure is a remake of the 1941 animated classic Dumbo. Directed by Tim Burton, the story of the baby elephant with oversized ears and an enormous heart has disappointed some critics and received lower than expected box office returns. It is unfortunate that some might miss seeing the movie based on revenues and reviews, for hidden within Disney’s Dumbo is a story older than time and one the audience of 2019 needs to learn anew.
The opening scenes of the movie set the story in its context. The year is 1919 and the Medici Brothers Circus is leaving its winter quarters in Sarasota,Florida, and beginning its new season traveling to small southern towns before arriving in Joplin,Missouri. The train has the individual circus acts painted on its cars like a cast of characters. The advertisements are faded and worn which speaks to the condition of the inhabitants inside.
The hard times and great losses suffered by the Medici troupe are best exemplified in Holt Farrier. An equestrian star, he has just returned from WWI minus one arm to find his wife dead, his horses and possessions sold, and his children distant and uninterested. Once the star of the show, he is reduced to shoveling elephant excrement as he takes the only job Max Medici has to offer. It is sunset and his daughter Millie tells her brother Joe, “He is stuck here like we are.”
These opening scenes are about faded glory for both the humans and the animals. This is a world after The Fall and the Great War with God. Human beings who were created in the image of God to exercise benevolent dominion over the zoological kingdom are now using the caged and captured animals as a means of exploitation. The egret flying free, which Mrs. Jumbo sees from her barred window, is a remnant from another world and another time.
Even the circus members themselves are in bondage. Cast out from society for their “freakishness”, they become a company of forced entertainers to those who laugh, mock, and diminish them all for the price of an admission ticket.
The audience of 2019 sees these opening scenes and thinks they are about an old time traveling circus when in reality they are about the human circus.1 The tragedy of The Fall is that humans are acclimated to it and know only the faded glory.
Into the mess of animal kind (humans included) comes a miracle. In the darkest night the Asian female elephant Max Medici invested in to save his circus gives birth to a calf. Cast out of the train car in the morning and uncovered exposing enormous ears, the dream baby of Jumbo becomes the “ear baby Dumbo”. In trying to protect her new born from the worst of the human circus, an evil man with a whip, Mrs. Jumbo brings down the tent accidently killing him. Labeled a mad killer by the newspapers,Mrs. Jumbo is sold and baby Dumbo now identifies in all ways with the humans surrounding him, motherless like Millie and Joe, disfigured like Holt, and cast out like all the other performers. At the lowest point for all a miracle happens. With the smallest and lightest of things . . . a feather, combined with the faith of two small children . . . an elephant learns to fly.
It doesn’t take long for news of a flying elephant to spread beyond the confines of Joplin, Missouri. No sooner has Dumbo become the star of the show than the Emperor of Enchantment, the Architect of Dreams, the Master of Mystique arrives at the circus with the Queen of Heaven on his arm. V.A. Vandevere wants to capture the hidden glory and use him as he does other gems to reflect light back onto himself. And so he uses the technique that goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden . . . temptation.
Learning the children are Dumbo’s trainers, he gathers up the entire troupe and whisks them away to Dreamland. If they will just get Dumbo to perform here then he will make their wildest dreams come true. The wounded solider is to be made a war hero and returned to his saddle. The brother, less Medici,will get a full partnership with a coliseum to replace the shabby circus tent. The children will live in a mansion resembling the Taj Mahal and Millie will get her dream come true of studying science.
Blinded by the fake glory of Vandevere, they begin to train Dumbo to fly with Colette, the former street performer, never suspecting what a giant hoax Dreamland is; a knock off Paradise with a hidden secret, Nightmare Island, the equivalent of Hell and Mrs. Jumbo its chained captive.
The Price of Glory
What the adults in the story do not know and the children do is the reason why Dumbo flies. Millie and Joe made an agreement with Dumbo in the beginning, a covenant of sorts. If Dumbo would fly the circus would sell more tickets, more tickets would equal more money, and more money would mean they could purchase Mrs. Jumbo back; they could redeem her. Dumbo flies to save his mother.
In Dreamland he won’t perform for all the pink elephants they provide. He falls from the pinnacle until he hears his mother’s cry and then, then only he flies.
All Hero Journeys follow the hero on a descent into an ordeal into the very inner most cave, the climatic moment of the story. Dumbo’s discovery of his mother chained in a prison on Nightmare Island unveiled as a grotesque caricature of a once noble creature is the film’s denouement.
The picture of Mrs. Jumbo shows the horror of the fallen world. Man created as a reflector of God’s glory to the creation (to protect and provide as God would), when in his pomp turns to the Tempter begins to re-image the creature subjecting the entire creation to his own bondage to decay and death (Romans 8:19-22).
The Glory Extended
After being fired by Vandevere (who never intended to keep them), the Medici troupe gather one last time to say good-bye to their little friend. Sotheby, Vandevere’s servant, arrives and reveals the plot he has overheard to kill Mrs. Jumbo. Led by Holt Farrier the performers come together as one troop on a mission to rescue the two elephants. The love of Dumbo has set all their hearts free, and what was once thought their “oddity” is now transformed by sacrificial service into their own unique glory.
The Glory Restored
The movie ends not with a new show or circus but with a new creation. The old things have passed away and all things have become new (Revelation 21:1-5). The destruction of Dreamland was a purging of all evil.2 In the new creation where love is the atmosphere, animals are not held captive but set free in the habitat they were created for. The wonders of the world are human beings now fully alive exercising their creative gifts.3 It’s a world where anything is possible (elephants can fly with birds), wars have ceased to exist, and families, human and animal are fully restored.
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. - Isaiah 11:6-9
1. Circus: noun, informal; a public scene of frenetic and noisily intrusive activity.
2. The sign Dreamland becomes “reamland” . . . ream means to clear out or remove something.
3. “The glory of God is man fully alive.” - St. Irenaus