SHOULD I SEE IT?
As part of Disney’s live-action remake initiative of animated classics, fans of the original Dumbo will be intrigued to see what director Tim Burton does with the time-honored story of the elephant who could fly.
Like most of Burton’s films, Dumbo has a stunning visual presentation, and perhaps one of the most endearing CGI/motion capture characters we have seen so far.
Nestled in between three PG-13 superhero movies opening around it, Dumbo is the one new release all family members can go see. Except…
Burton has crafted a melancholy take on the Dumbo story, and some scenes involving animals in peril may prove a bit disturbing for the youngest viewers in the audience.
Feels like two wildly different films from Hour 1 to Hour 2, and I am not convinced young children are going to understand the greedy capitalist subplot that takes over the film’s back half.
Dumbo, the elephant, feels like a supporting character in his own film. Much of the potential feels wasted as the script constantly forgets why we came to the theater in the first place.
I will grant you this: Tim Burton’s Dumbo features one of the most wonderful, charming, endearing CGI characters we have ever seen.
In terms of an artificially created main character, composited from CGI mixed with motion capture, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, with pooling, kind eyes, a sentient smile, wide-eyed innocence, giant floppy ears, and confusion and elation on being able to fly, proves to be an absolute delight.
That the CGI elephant is the most tender and endearing element to Burton’s often listless remake of the Disney 1941 animated classic is disappointing, to say the least. Dumbo has gorgeous production design and costumes, two likable young actors, but it also saddled heavily with a rather bleak and gloomy story with many characters who seem miserable from the moment they walk on screen.
It’s 1919 and Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is one of the Medici Brothers, proprietor of a traveling circus roadshow, whose attractions and special exhibits are not drawing like they have in the past. We will learn that a recent influenza outbreak caused illnesses across the country and took the lives of many - including the wife of returning World War I soldier and horse-riding circus star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell).
With Holt returning home from World War I, sans his left arm, his awkward reconnection with his two children - Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) - sets in motion a steady stream of emotionally vacant interactions between many of the main characters.
Everyone looks despondent, shoulders hunched, pained looks across faces. Medici is almost out of money. Holt is unable to emotionally engage with his children.
Eventually, a renowned carnival entrepreneur, V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) staggers into the proceedings, granting the Medici Bros. circus troupe the opportunity to ply their wares at his sprawling circus utopia-slash-amusement park - Dreamland.
Truly, this should be all about the baby elephant born Jumbo Jr.. Christened with his “Dumbo” moniker when a sign falters during a performance under the big tent, screenwriter Ehren Kruger at least considers making the movie about the elephant for a little while. Full of warmth and kindness, born with those ground-dragging oversized ears, he learns to fly by believing that if he simply sniffs in a “magic feather” into his trunk, all becomes possible.
With Dumbo’s abilities discovered by Milly and Joe, Medici rushes the young pachyderm into performance, which results in Dumbo’s mother freaking out and being sent away.
Through much of Dumbo, Burton and Kruger seem to making a statement about the cruelty in having animals perform for customer entertainment. Despite the pachyderm’s connection to Milly and Joe, Holt, and later, Vandevere’s wife and eventual performance partner Colette (Eva Green), the moment Dumbo hears what he believes might be his mother’s distinctive cry, he forgets everything in the hopes of reconnecting with his mother.
As that is all Dumbo really, truly wants, separation is a recurring theme throughout the film, as is the spectacle of circuses and sideshows and the impact it can have on animals being held against their will.
However, much like other ideas and thoughts introduced by Kruger’s screenplay, Burton seems unable to know how to wrangle all of this into anything emotionally engaging. For much of the film’s second half, Burton focuses on Vandevere and his business dealings. With Keaton given a very paint-by-numbers character to play, the Oscar-nominated actor has nothing really to do. Ultimately, we have minimal interest in him and the film simply grinds to a halt when he takes center stage.
Because Kruger’s characters are so underwritten, or obvious as to motivations and intentions, the only mysteries happening on screen are left to be solved by younger viewers who might actually be surprised by how all of this will play out.
Even with a rousing conclusion, Dumbo suffers from a consistent trend with Burton’s recent output: Dazzling presentations, but an absence of an emotional core living underneath the surface. Though there are a few nods and winks to the Disney original, this version of Dumbo feels grounded by the very person who should be pushing this story, and its iconic character, to the highest of heights.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Danny DeVito, Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Roshan Seth, Lars Eidinger, Deobia Oparei, Sharon Rooney, Phil Zimmerman, Joseph Gatt, Sandy Martin, Michael Buffer, Edd Osmond.
Director: Tim Burton
Written by: Ehren Kruger
Based on the Walt Disney film “Dumbo”, written by Otto Englander, Joe Grant, Dick Huerner
Adapted from the novel “Dumbo”, written by Helen Aberson, Harold Pearl
Release Date: March 29, 2019
Walt Disney Pictures