Tim Burton’s Dumbo will hopefully be the outlier in this whacky parade of recycled classics Disney has set loose: a film whose problem doesn’t come from a money-grabbing, copy-and-paste approach, but rather from a series of creative departures that detract from the original’s children’s tale heart.
Burton’s live-action reimagining of the 1941 Disney classic seemed like a pretty good idea. With goofy oversized ears that act as both an apparent burden and eventual gift, Dumbo stands perfectly alongside the misfit characters the director has highlighted with a kindhearted spirit for decades. But in adding nearly twice the amount of runtime from the 64-minute original (and several underdeveloped human characters to carry that load), Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger somehow manage to lose sight of those enormous elephant ears – it doesn’t take long to figure out who is and who isn’t the star of this show – and in doing so, lose much of what they have to say.
The film starts out with veteran Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returning to the Medici Bros. Circus from World War I without an arm to two torn-apart families. He finds his daughter and son, science wiz Milly (Nico Parker) and young Joe (Finley Hobbins), without their mother – she died of illness while he was away – and his fellow carnies – among which he used to be a famed trick horseman – discouraged by economic hardships.
In order to keep the circus alive, the ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) has sold Holt’s horses and replaced them with a pregnant elephant. He believes the baby will bring in the crowds they desperately need. We know that it will, eventually, but when the baby arrives with its blue eyes and big ears, everyone is horrified. That is, with the exception of Holt’s kids, who quickly discover that the elephant, with a little help of a feather, can fly.
This computer-generated incarnation of Dumbo is a glowing spectacle of cuteness, and at times, the signal of a promising future for these new-old Disney tales. The problem is that most of those times are not when we want them to be in the Dumbo story. While the design of the pachyderm’s appearance – especially with his eyes and facial characteristics – is nearly flawless, the majority of the flights are made awkward by the passengers the script unfortunately throws onto Dumbo’s back.
MORE FROM THE WEB
The primary one is Colette (Eva Green), a French aerial artist that amusement park entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (a rather uninspired Michael Keaton) wants to pair Dumbo with for an electric main event at his own big top in Coney Island. As the story spins out of control, and turns into a conglomerate escape-and-rescue mission, Vandevere becomes the villain – a switching of roles between Keaton and DeVito from their last Burton collaboration in Batman Returns – though the threat feels dull with a crew of unintriguing characters.
Lost underneath all of these idiosyncratic, yet unappealing plot lines is the adorable little elephant and the powerful story that everyone has come to see. While Dumbo steals every scene that he is in, it’s remarkable to see how many he’s completely absent from. It’s also quite frustrating seeing him being used more as an actual vehicle, rather than a vehicle for emotional insight. He learns his lessons eventually, but ironically for a much longer film, it seems to be a Cliff Notes version
Burton and Kruger, who infamously wrote three of the five Transformers movies, didn’t take a cue from the simplistic nature of their source material – or seemingly any cue for that matter. As far as I’m concerned, they could’ve changed the animal, given it some sort of oddball trait, and created a brand new character; it may have been less infuriating. To put it simply, the only thing throughout the film that keeps the idea of Dumbo in your head are the ears. If that’s the case, something’s surely wrong.
Coupled with an uninvited human story at its forefront, Burton’s chilling style makes Dumbo nearly unrecognizable.