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.
Simultaneously the greatest strength and fault in revered quirky filmmaker Tim Burton’s live-action adaptation of Dumbo is that it is only retreads ground for roughly the first 30 minutes before settling into something of a sequel regarding the titular elephant’s newfound fame status among carnival acts for being able to fly (using his abnormally large ears with the assistance of sucking up up a feather for courage). The problem is that Tim Burton and writer Ehren Kruger don’t really have anything interesting to do with the scenario.
Backing things up a little bit, Dumbo begins by introducing us to a dying circus act run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito once again collaborating with the director and providing some good laughs here and there) who has banked receiving heaps of good publicity for the mama elephant he has purchased that is about to give birth. Needless to say, his hopes are dashed once Jumbo Jr. is born with gigantic ears, as the baby boy faces much scrutiny and ridicule for being different. Meanwhile, Holt (Colin Farrell sporting a thick southern accent) has returned from World War I. Unfortunately, he has lost one of his arms but he is nevertheless ready to try something, anything, to bring in some business, even if Max sold the horses he could so skillfully ride.
Holt is assigned to watch over the elephants, a task his children are much more thrilled about than he is. Siblings Milly and Joe are not only somewhat estranged from their father due to his absence carrying out patriotic duties, but they also lost their mother during the same timeframe (because what would a spin on a classic Disney movie be without the mother dying). Joe (Finley Hobbins) is pretty much a standard child with not much distinct to note, while Milly (Nico Parker, serving as the only worthwhile human character here and the only one that generates any emotion) is highly inquisitive and driven by scientific research, a fascination that doesn’t exactly pay the bills according to Holt. It’s no surprise that the children develop a more meaningful bond with Dumbo (much like in the original version, the mean-spirited joke replacement name given to him sticks around) once Max splits up mother and son doing his best to recoup the costs of purchasing Jumbo. These kids may not be able to get their own mother back, but they can create an animal reunion, especially once they stumble upon Dumbo’s flying ability and how such a seemingly magical talent could bring in money, which of course no adults initially believe.
Although it seems like this new adaptation shoehorns in human characters hard as a replacement for talking animals, there are still some great quiet and touching moments that utilize both Dumbo and thoughtful visual imagery. There is a moment in his lonely isolation behind bars where Dumbo observes some birds flying around, and while it’s clear that we are meant to take away that we have an animal that should be just as free as those birds, the moment is still impactful for the amount of sadness and longing for the place where one is supposed to be that Tim Burton gets from the scene.
Again, this is much more sequel than remake, so I will say it’s not long before, despite a few accidents performing his acts, Dumbo takes the world by storm. Even the absolutely abusive jerk cleaning over his living quarters meets a cruel fate much sooner than anticipated. Enter Michael Keaton as V. A. Vandevere, a successful businessman that runs an extravagant amusement park containing a built-in circus where he promises the entire crew will find more wealth and notoriety for joining forces together. It’s the kind of shady obvious villain role that Michael Keaton chews up for entertainment purposes, as there’s not much to the character besides tormenting animals with unsuitable living conditions and wearing gorgeous women such as Eva Green’s Colette around his arm to further boost his status. It’s also the kind of setting that allows Tim Burton to overindulge in special effects, Impressive but unnecessarily excessive costume design, and an extended climactic action sequence that feels out of place but is there to meet some blockbuster quota for generic excitement.
Visually, there are some great sequences ranging from trapeze artist acrobatics from Eva Green bonding and learning to fly Dumbo, to an eye-popping show featuring giant pink bubble versions of Dumbo sometimes beautifully framed from the reflection of the actual Dumbo’s eyes (if you have ever seen the 1941 original, it’s basically a creative homage to the part where an elephant and a mouse unintentionally become intoxicated and hallucinate all kinds of weird nonsense). Dumbo himself is brought to life with obsessive detail that goes a long way into making his every action and facial expression adorable. We know nothing bad is going to happen to him, but it’s still easy to become nervous whenever he is placed in perilous situations because a bunch of dumb and ignorant humans is only thinking about making a quick buck off of his abnormalities.
Admittedly, there are things to appreciate in Dumbo from a thematic standpoint ranging from animal rights to keeping families together to exploring general family ties. The characters simply and unfortunately take a backseat to the aesthetic presentation, but I suppose that was always going to be the case with Tim Burton attached. Dumbo is enjoyable as a blockbuster centric take on everything regarding the beloved elephant, but that approach takes an unforgivable amount of heart away from the narrative. Keep the general sequel idea but go in a different direction than Dreamland; all the location does is provide Tim Burton free reign to lose sight of the project. Everything up until then is actually quite pleasing with just the right amount of nostalgia pandering. Thankfully, the ending is able to salvage some of these missteps. During the scene where Dumbo initially learns he can fly, he accidentally smashes right into a wall, which is basically an accurate representation of this film as a whole.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com