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DUMBO – Danny Elfman

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The recent Disney trend of making live-action versions of their animated classics continues with Dumbo, a re-imagined version of their 1941 film about a baby elephant with ears so big that he can use them to fly. The original Dumbo was short – just over an hour – and so director Tim Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger had to flesh out some additional material to make it feature length. The basic core of the story is the same – a young baby elephant is born in a traveling circus and is ridiculed by crowds for his enormous ears, until he wins over audiences with his ability to fly – but it adds a great deal of depth and back story to the supporting human characters, including the good-hearted elephant keeper Holt (Colin Farrell), circus owner Medici (Danny De Vito), trapeze artist Colette (Eva Green), and unscrupulous businessman Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who wants to take over Medici’s circus for his own nefarious purposes. Interestingly, the new film excises several of the original film’s plot points entirely, including Dumbo’s relationship with the anthropomorphic ringmaster mouse Timothy, and Dumbo’s encounter with the ‘Jim crows,’ although the latter is probably a good thing due to the overtly racist overtones of those characters.

Considering how well-loved the music from those early Disney classics are, I have always felt that the music from the original Dumbo was curiously under-valued. It had a lovely score by Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace, and had several memorable songs, including the energetic “Casey Junior,” the hallucinatory “Pink Elephants on Parade,” the celebratory “When I See an Elephant Fly,” and the beautiful lullaby “Baby Mine,” which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song. Despite their quality none of these songs ever really cemented themselves in public consciousness the way that things like “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “Heigh-Ho,” or “Some Day My Prince Will Come” did, which I always thought was a shame. As such, when it came down to the music for the new version, the fact that composer Danny Elfman intentionally referenced many of those Dumbo songs in his new score made me very happy indeed, as it may re-introduce them to a whole new audience.

Elfman has of course worked with Tim Burton multiple times – this is their sixteenth collaboration together, dating back all the way to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985 – and so was always the first choice to score this film. It’s been interesting to watch how Elfman has balanced his career lately between blockbuster fare and more artsy independent projects: for every Grinch there has been a Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot, for every Justice League a Tulip Fever. I have to admit, though, that Elfman’s recent fantasy scores have failed to inspire me as much as his more experimental work has; I barely remember a note of things like Alice Through the Looking Glass or Goosebumps. Thankfully, Dumbo goes some way to reversing that trend; it’s a fun, tuneful, family-friendly work that draws on the broad emotional strokes that Elfman often brings to films of this type.

Elfman recorded the score in London with an 85-piece orchestra and a 60-voice choir and, naturally, the whole thing is built around a main recurring theme for Dumbo himself. Interestingly, Elfman revealed in an interview with Jon Burlingame for Variety that he wrote Dumbo’s theme more than a year before shooting began. “I was thinking about the idea of a baby elephant and his mother, and the two being torn apart,” he says, “and I just thought of something innocent and sweet and sad. I went into my studio, spent 20 minutes writing it down and making a demo of it, and I stashed it away.” That theme ended up being used verbatim in the final movie; Elfman describes it as “bittersweet” but also “frivolous and light,” and with the capacity to be “triumphant in a really grand way”. The theme has clear similarities to classic Elfman fantasy scores of the past, and long-time aficionados of the composer’s style will find little hints of everything from Batman and Edward Scissorhands to The Nightmare Before Christmas and Alice in Wonderland in the orchestrations, the chord progressions, the sound and texture of the choir, and so much more, even though the melody is clearly different.

The theme is first introduced in “The Homecoming,” heard initially on a gentle celesta, before switching to warm orchestral textures as the baby elephant is born and introduced to the world. It appears frequently thereafter, receiving notably emotional and poignant statements for orchestra and chorus in “Dumbo’s Theme,” “Goodbye Mrs. Jumbo,” and “Photographs,” each of which capture the loneliness felt by the little elephant during and after his mother’s incarceration. However, the theme really comes into its own when it is used as a triumphant accompaniment to Dumbo’s aerial exploits. Cues like “Dumbo Soars” and “First Flight” are quite magnificent, and really capture the ecstasy and freedom of flight, while the bonus track “Soaring Suite” provides possibly the most evocative statement of all, allowing the listener to truly revel in Dumbo’s unique talent.

A theme for the Medici circus is introduced in “Meet the Family,” a friendly but slightly pompous little march that uses oompah-style circus rhythms and flittering woodwind textures that are playful and mischievous. The Medici theme comes back semi-regularly, receiving an especially notable statement in “Happy Days,” where it is arranged for the unusual combination of calliope, balalaika, and brass band. Meanwhile, the shifty and underhanded Vandevere gets his own theme too, a murky piece for slithering strings and woodwinds that first appears in “Vandevere’s Arrival”. The final recurring theme is “Colette’s Theme,” written for Eva Green’s character, a beautiful and gold-hearted trapeze artist who teams up with Colin Farrell’s elephant keeper and his children, and resolves to help Dumbo find his family and save the circus. Her theme is elegant, graceful, almost angelic, and uses yet more choir alongside prominent woodwinds and the rest of the orchestra. Perhaps the one real criticism one can make of the score is that these sub-themes are not particularly well-defined, and pale in comparison somewhat to the main Dumbo theme. Vandevere’s theme is given especially short shrift, which is a shame because a prominent identity for the main villain is often essential, especially when it comes to illustrating on-screen conflict between the good guys and the bad guys.

As for the references to the original film’s score by Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace, Elfman tips his hat to “Pink Elephants on Parade” and “Casey Junior,” while the song “Baby Mine” is sung twice: once in the film by actress Sharon Rooney, and again by Arcade Fire beneath the end titles. “Train’s a Comin’” is a wonderfully vibrant and energetic scherzo that takes Churchill and Wallace’s Casey Junior motif and builds it up to wonderful heights. The chugging of the strings recalls the sound of a puffing steam engine, the metallic clanks mimic the wheels clattering along the railroad, the male voices are the sound of the workers laboring tirelessly to keep everything moving, and the whole thing is just a joy. Later, Elfman adds all manner of peculiar choral textures and his own brand of orchestral psychedelia to “Pink Elephants on Parade,” making the already hallucinogenic scene of a drunken Dumbo having champagne-induced visions all the more surreal. Fans may be reminded of the vocal stylings from scores like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, while those familiar with the most obscure parts of Elfman’s filmography will surely recall the bizarre music he wrote for offbeat movies and animated shorts like Shrunken Heads and Face Like a Frog way back in the day.

In addition to the score, Elfman was also tasked with writing a number of source cues which would be heard on-screen during sequences when the circus’s troupe of clowns were performing. Having had experience of writing circus music before – the Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo were essentially a performance art circus troupe, and there was circus-esque music in the Pee-Wee movies and Batman Returns too – this came naturally to Elfman. “I love weird circuses and the idea of carnivals,” he said. “Those funky clowns stumbling around really appealed to me. It’s fun, and it adds so much color and flavor to the score.” To capture the zaniness of the group, Elfman used calliopes, tuba-and-trombone circus marches, and flamboyant waltzes to illustrate the big top atmosphere. Cues like “Clowns 1, “Clowns 2,” and the bonus track “Carnival Music” are peak Elfman, and a ton of fun.

Elfman also gets the chance to write some fulsome action music too, to accompany several of the film’s more rambunctious scenes. The second half of “Stampede!” is surprisingly dramatic and occasionally quite dark, with growling and brooding brass textures doubled with low-end reeds that explode into energy, and really capture the sense of panic and protectiveness that overcomes Mrs Jumbo – Dumbo’s mother – when her baby is threatened. The use of hammered piano lines and the choir is also especially noteworthy here.

The score’s 20-minute conclusion, which comprises the cues “Nightmare Island,” “Dumbo in Hell,” “Holt in Action,” “Searching for Milly,” “The Breakout,” “Rescuing the Farriers,” and “The Final Confrontation,” is rich and hugely entertaining, as they underscore the film’s pivotal moments where Holt, Colette, and the members of the Medici circus team up with Dumbo to save their livelihoods and thwart Vandevere’s ghastly plans. All the score’s main themes – Dumbo’s theme, the Medici theme, Colette’s theme, and Vandevere’s theme – weave in and out of the score throughout the sequence, with several of them receiving notably exciting statements, although Dumbo’s theme and Colette’s theme do tend to hog the limelight. “Nightmare Island” and “Dumbo in Hell” occasionally make some trips into light horror territory, with the latter of these incorporating an especially funereal statement of Dumbo’s theme accentuated by a ghostly choir. The rampaging pianos and aggressive string writing in “Holt in Action” gives that cue a real sense of purpose and underlying danger, as does the increased use of brass and choir in “The Breakout”. I love the moment in “Rescuing the Farriers” when Elfman uses what appears to be an action arrangement of Colette’s theme, threading the melody through a series of grand and dramatic orchestral strokes. And, of course, Elfman’s Final Confrontations are always satisfying, and this one is no different; Dumbo’s theme cuts through frequently, soaring on heroic brass and strings.

The conclusive “Medici Circus-Miracles Can Happen,” begins with a jaunty, whimsical statement of the Medici theme, ensuring a happy ending for all concerned. As the cue continues it gradually builds to a tremendous climax filled with enormous orchestral and choral beauty and deep emotion; the more exotic instrumentation, including the use of pan flutes, may give some indication of where the film is going, while the repeated statements of Dumbo’s theme, which get more and more glorious with each refrain, end the score on a wonderfully magical high.

It’s been a while since an Elfman fantasy score has impressed me as much as Dumbo did. While it’s clearly nowhere near his top-tier efforts in the genre – it’s unlikely that anything will ever come close to those masterpieces – this is still a hugely entertaining effort that is sure to appeal to his fans. His respectful musical acknowledgement of the 1941 original is appropriate, the thematic density is good enough (but it does take a little bit of effort to really see what Elfman is doing with the secondary themes), and the carnival circus music offers several moments of light relief. The star of the show, however, is Dumbo’s theme, and rightly so. Elfman’s music for this plucky little pachyderm has heart and emotion and is tremendously effective, especially in the finale. After listening to this, even if you’ve seen a peanut stand, heard a rubber band, and seen a needle that winked its eye, you will still believe an elephant can fly.

Buy the Dumbo soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Logos-Intro (0:59)
  • Train’s a Comin’ (2:05)
  • The Homecoming (2:40)
  • Meet the Family (2:29)
  • Stampede! (3:35)
  • Baby Mine (written by Frank Churchill and Ned Washington, performed by Sharon Rooney) (1:44)
  • Dumbo’s Theme (2:31)
  • Clowns 1 (1:01)
  • Vandevere’s Arrival (1:25)
  • Dumbo Soars (1:25)
  • Happy Days (1:00)
  • Goodbye Mrs. Jumbo (1:40)
  • Photographs-First Flight (2:25)
  • Colosseum (0:21)
  • Pink Elephants on Parade (1:48)
  • Colette’s Theme (1:06)
  • First Rehearsal (2:55)
  • Clowns 2 (0:39)
  • Nightmare Island (3:46)
  • Dumbo in Hell (1:10)
  • Holt in Action (0:52)
  • Searching for Milly (2:29)
  • The Breakout (3:08)
  • Rescuing the Farriers (1:40)
  • The Final Confrontation (4:58)
  • Medici Circus-Miracles Can Happen (4:21)
  • Baby Mine (written by Frank Churchill and Ned Washington, performed by Arcade Fire) (2:57)
  • Soaring Suite (2:41)
  • Carnival Music (1:06)

Running Time: 61 minutes 08 seconds

Walt Disney Records (2019)

Music composed by Danny Elfman. Conducted by Rick Wentworth. Orchestrations by Steve Bartek, Pete Anthony, Edgardo Simone and Edward Trybek. Original Dumbo themes by Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin and Dennis Sands. Edited by Simon Changer. Album produced by Danny Elfman.

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