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The following contains MAJOR SPOILERS for the new live-action Dumbo.
It was clear from the very first trailers that the live-action Dumbo was going to tell a very different story than the original animated classic. Throughout the film's promotion, we were introduced to entirely new characters and settings that showed us the new film would definitely not be a standard remake. The original Dumbo was a movie without a villain, and the new version never entirely tipped its hand in that regard during marketing. It seemed clear that Michael Keaton's character was being set up as the bad guy, but details were left to a minimum. Still, I found myself watching the new film in utter amazement this week when I realized that the villain in Disney's newest movie... is basically an evil Walt Disney.
Michael Keaton plays the role of V.A. Vandevere in the new Dumbo. In the film, as soon as he learns of the existence of the flying elephant, he travels to the Medici Brothers circus in order to obtain the spectacle for his own entertainment venue. However, Vandevere doesn't run a competing circus. Instead, he has build an entertainment mecca, a massive complex where people come from all around to see a variety of different shows and experience unique attractions. It's called Dreamland. He built a theme park.
Micheal Keaton doesn't bear any physical resemblance to Walt Disney in the film; the trademark mustache is missing, but the parallels are clear. The character certainly has other influences as well, like Thomas Edison, who by all accounts actually was an asshole like Vandevere. There's maybe a little J.D. Rockefeller and J.P Morgan there as well, but Walt Disney certainly has a lot in common with this entire class. All are titans in an industry that they've largely created themselves. Of course, Disney is the only one who also built a theme park.
The existence of the park isn't the only connection to Disney. When we first meet Vandevere, he convinces Danny DeVito's Max Medici that the days of the circus are numbered. Now, rather than forcing a show to travel around the country to where the guests were, the way to be successful is to build a permanent entertainment installation and make the guests come to you.
This was basically the entire argument that led to the creation of Disneyland in the first place. Walt wasn't necessarily trying to put the circus out of business, but it's absolutely true that he wasn't a huge fan of the carnivals and circuses that were the popular form of "family" entertainment in the days before his theme park. He found them to be dirty, thought many of the attractions to be cheap and felt they were mostly only fun for kids, leaving their parents to sit around, probably drinking, while the kids went on the rids. He wanted a place where parents and their kids could have fun together.
It seems like Vandevere built his park simply because it's less work to build a fixed location complex then one that travels. The rationale is different, but the result is the same. It's these simple twists that make Michael Keaton's character the "evil" version of the real man.
You simply can't have a villain who owns a theme park and not make people think of Walt Disney. The man and the concept are forever linked together. However, things go so much further than that. Vandevere's Dreamland has attractions that are specifically designed to remind guests of early Disneyland attractions, like the Carousel of Progress and Rocket to the Moon. Dreamland is actively trying to make you think about Disneyland.
This decision, needless to say, is remarkable. Walt Disney is still very much idolized within the company that bears his name. The idea that a villain could be created that would even suggest Walt himself is a thing to behold. Walt Disney's reputation has been an important pillar of the entire company for decades, making the idea that he could inspire a villain seem impossible before now. When Walt Disney was alive he was very careful about the reputation he cultivated. He was very open and honest about this, saying once...
I’ve worked my whole life to create the image of what ‘Walt Disney’ is. It’s not me. I smoke, and I drink, and all the things we don’t want the public to think about. My whole life has been devoted to building up this organization that is represented by the name ‘Walt Disney'
V.A. Vandevere has clearly done this too. When he first arrives at the Medici Brothers circus, everybody is in awe of him. When he shows up in his own theme park, he gets noticed. He clearly has his own public persona.
After Walt's passing, the company that carried on his name continued to build up the image of who Walt Disney was. Even as recently as 2013, when Tom Hanks, the nicest actor who ever lived, played the man himself in Saving Mr. Banks, it was a major breakthrough just to have a shot of Disney holding a lit cigarette. Many old publicity images of the man where he was holding a cigarette would actually airbrush it out of the picture. That film never showed him actually smoking it, of course. That would have been a bridge too far, but that's how carefully the Walt Disney legacy is guarded.
Walt Disney wasn't perfect, he was just a person. However, as has happened with many real people who have obtained such massively popular reputations, there has been a backlash. A lot of the negative things that have been reported about Walt Disney are utterly untrue (that's an entirely separate column), but that hasn't stopped many from viewing the man as exactly the ruthless capitalist monster that Michael Keaton portrays in Dumbo. That's all the more reason that this fictional character in this movie is shocking to see.
V.A. Vadevere is an over-the-top cartoon villain. He intentionally screws Max Medici and everybody in the circus to get what he wants. He orders Dumbo's mother killed to eliminate her as a distraction. He pushes his performers to perform in unsafe circumstances to make the show better. All of this is out of a desire for money.
While V.A. Vandevere may be all about watching his theme park make money, Disney once said of his business of making movies...
We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.
V.A. Vandevere clearly has far more capitalistic notions than this when it comes to his theme park. He wants Dumbo because Dumbo will bring him money. That money can be used to grow his business. Greed is a fairly common motivation for villains in Disney movies today, so Michael Keaton's character falls right in line with that, but in Walt's day, painting making money as a bad thing was much less prevalent.
This is because Walt Disney himself was an unapologetic capitalist. If there's a difference between Walt Disney and V.A. Vandevere in this regard, it's only by a matter of degree. This is the same Walt Disney who has successfully and permanently linked his name to centuries-old fairy tales. He took public domain concepts that cost him nothing, and created versions that for many are now the standard, making him and his company rich in the process. Maybe Walt saw financial success as a means to an end, rather than an end to itself, as Vandevere seems to, but both of them were certainly focused on making their businesses financially successful.
V.A. Vandevere isn't Walt Disney, but let's not pretend that nobody on the production of the new Dumbo didn't make that connection, just as I, and many others, already have. That's assuming that it wasn't the goal from the outset. They knew the link would be made, and they went ahead with it. I can't decide if this decision is simply insane or the bravest thing that the Walt Disney Company has ever done. This likely won't change many opinions on old Uncle Walt, for good or ill, but it causes me to look at his company in a whole new way.