With the recent announcement confirming that Tim Burton will direct a live-action rendition of Dumbo, the venerable animated Disney tale about a young circus elephant whose big ears allows him to fly, expectations were certainly formed in the minds of a lot people. While the new Dumbo may be a computer-generated concoction (unless Burton's coaching elephants on acting), the news seemed to incite the animal organization PETA to express some expectations of their own regarding a certain aspect of the story. Apparently, the vintage Disney film’s ending is not meshing with their views, and the group is asking that it be changed.
In a letter addressed specifically to director Tim Burton, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have latched on to the film’s plot centered on elephants in the circus to make a point about what could be done in the update to create a possibly more enlightened, desirous denouement. As the organization’s letter reads,
We're hopeful that in your adaptation of Dumbo, the young elephant and his mother can have a truly happy ending by living out their lives at a sanctuary instead of continuing to be imprisoned and abused in the entertainment industry.
The 1941 animated film ends with the seemingly satisfying outcome of the once-ostracized elephant becoming a celebrated, pampered star and continuing to perform in his circus. However, PETA points out the abuses to elephants that have taken place over the years; notably with a long, sharp metal instrument called a bullhook, which is designed to control the gargantuan pachyderms with the threat of stinging pain. The idea is now even acknowledged as cruel by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, who recently retired elephants from their traveling acts, due to the array of ethical concerns.
Of course, next to nothing is known about how Tim Burton will approach the upcoming Dumbo rendition. His dark-humored, sometimes-sprawling, sometimes-insular, neo-expressionist style can often lead his characters towards having eccentric motivations. In the case of Dumbo, for all its childish silliness and pre-war antiquated sensibilities, the primary motivation of the young elephant had always been finding acceptance from his peers. In the film, that happens to be represented by the anthropomorphic animal characters of the circus, itself. The glamorous, show-biz-like depiction of the circus seems just as incongruous to reality as the idea of storks bringing big-eared flying baby elephants to circus tents. Yet, the concept simply exists in the fantastical world that the film depicts.
Thus, PETA’s request probably depends on the level of realism that Burton’s film could portray. Will it depict talking animals as the primary characters working in a glamorous show-business-like circus? Or will it, as rumors suggest, operate in a more realistic "big world" in which the ethical implications of animals enslaved to the circus is an overarching factor? Dumbo’s motivation in the traditional story is "acceptance," not "freedom." Changing the ending as PETA suggested means introducing the idea that Dumbo’s circus is abusive, in addition to the mockery he receives from his animal peers. Such a theme could weigh the film down with seriously problematic baggage for a project that one would assume is still geared towards children.
We would have to hear more about what Tim Burton plans to do with Dumbo before we could even form a solid opinion on whether changing the ending would be workable. At this point, the film has not even locked down a production date, much less a release date. We don't even know what role Johnny Depp will play.