Directed by Tim Burton.
Starring Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Finley Hobbins, Nico Parker, Sandy Martin, Joseph Gatt, Deobia Oparei, Roshan Seth, Lars Eidinger, Zenaida Alcalde, Douglas Reith, Phil Zimmerman, Miguel Muñoz Segura, Sharon Rooney, Michael Buffer, and Alan Arkin.
A young elephant, whose oversized ears enable him to fly, helps save a struggling circus, but when the circus plans a new venture, Dumbo and his friends discover dark secrets beneath its shiny veneer.
Director Tim Burton excels as a purveyor of absurdist quirk and visual distinction, but 2019’s live-action Dumbo choreographs a tamer routine. You could swipe Burton’s name for multiple churn-and-burn studio directors beaten into regurgitated blockbuster submission without second guesses. Big-top carnival theatrics, animals dressed like humans, clear parallels to Disney’s recent corporate acquisition of Fox and the aftermath that’s ensuing in real time – you know the story, and you’ll see it played out via green screens once again. Never faring as well as Jon Favreau’s native remodeling of tropical primality in The Jungle Book – first to beg the question “Do we need these updated Disney retellings?” and the best answer of “Yes!” – but still storybook-splendiferous Tomorrowland imagineering (nearly remodeling Disney’s own futuristic park region).
Medici Brothers one-ring circus employs all the staples of an early 1900s attraction. Owner Max (Danny DeVito) travels his troupe by train, strongmen double as accountants, and monkeys are stashed in desk drawers “just in case.” Unfortunately for Medici brothers – and showmen like Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) who’s just returned from war – entertainment industries have fallen on hard times. Holt begs for a position since Max sold the cowboy’s prized horses – how else is he to provide for daughter Milly (Nico Parker) and son Joe (Finley Hobbins) – which lands Mr. Rodeo overseeing African elephants. In particular, a pregnant mama named Jumbo who gives birth an enormously-eared baby first abhorred by Max – until “Dumbo” proves what those wrinkly flappers can do.
Dumbo’s talent of soaring like an eagle catches the attention of “Dreamland” park architect V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) and his muse, ballerina of the heavens Colette Marchant (Eva Green). Vandevere seeks a big-ticket act, Max owns a miracle animal. Max needs money, Vandevere has plenty of it. Cue Vandevere (and Keaton’s European Colonel Sanders accent) sweet-talking his way into owning Dumbo, which comes at an unfortunate price for Medici’s cast of faker freakshows when they’re no longer needed. Vandevere exploits Dumbo’s innocence, as Max falls victim to the arrogant entrepreneur’s slick silver tongue.
Writer Ehren Kruger exhibits extensive liberties in her retelling of this classic Disney cartoon, running Dumbo double the length (130 minutes) and flipping the narrative onto “Big D’s” handlers. Dumbo himself still headlines as a miraculous soaring pachyderm, but without Timothy Q. Mouse’s management. Milly and Joe step in as Dumbo’s motivators, tethering unto a larger story of Holt’s post-war disfigurement and lifestyle of performance fame distracting from following paths of personal fulfillment. Animals are merely beasts for show, even though Kruger and Burton pay homage to sentient locomotive Casey Junior, Timothy’s drum major attire, and Disney’s “March Of The Pink Elephants” sequence (minus drunken underage Dumbo). Positively no less magical once Dumbo takes flight – especially with Eva Green’s ariel accompaniment – but a bit more period Hallmark Channel dramatization than bubbly Disney warmth.
Performances scatter like darts chucked blindfolded at a playing board – some bullseyes, some planted into backboard wood. DeVito doesn’t have trouble playing a cheap ringmaster and paternal figurehead, nor does Farrell balk at southern workman’s living in a circumstantial rut (long stares and inner strife). Keaton and Green lay on thick high-class sophistication both in flashy performance attire and eccentric eyewear, but also drive over-the-top metamorphic caricatures who clash with more down-to-reality counterparts. Then supporting players enter frame – including kiddos Parker and Hobbins – who’re comparably cardboard cutouts compared to big swingers like Keaton’s horrid Howard Hughes? It all blends together unevenly – Alan Arkin essentially playing himself, same for legendary fight night announcer Michael Buffer who repurposes “Let’s get ready to rum-bleeeeee!” (twice) – collecting performances from seemingly different tonal asks.
Burton still has many sights to show us in Dumbo – middle America countrysides and Vandevere’s predictive futuristic playland – none more detailed than Dumbo himself. From the moment he tumbles down a train car ramp covered in hay, those big blue pearly eyes gazing upward, audible “awwww!” reactions are close to follow. Disney’s animators laboriously detail every tiny ridge across his leathery skin to the point where CGI transposition doesn’t separate reality from digitization. Green’s trapeze artist getups, Dreamland’s gargantuan coliseum, the grand spectacle of showmanship – Burton doesn’t fail wonderous minds excited for photorealistic Dumbo. Maybe not *all* the creature’s flying swoops are crystal clear, but have you seen pouty-faced “Clown Makeup Dumbo” yet?!
Dumbo is as sweet and sincere a Disney film you can ask for, turning “imperfections” into superpowers as an ode to outcasts and those who are “different.” Length may be an issue and Tim Burton’s certainly been organically weirder, but his penchant for storybook exploitation fits a skybound elephant’s case for stardom. Never the main marquee event, but still a larger-ticket item that’s sure to please crowds of children who’ll have a Dumbo take all unto themselves. Ditch the nostalgia and enter with an open mind – Disney’s doin’ what the House Of Mouse does, just not at their undefeatable best.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Matt spends his after-work hours posting nonsense on the internet instead of sleeping like a normal human. He seems like a pretty cool guy, but don’t feed him after midnight just to be safe (beers are allowed/encouraged). Follow him on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd (@DoNatoBomb).