If you had told me 15 years ago that Tim Burton would be directing a live-action adaptation of Disney’s classic, Dumbo I would’ve been overwhelmed with excitement. The director, famed for his unique sense of gothic style and visual flair has directed some of the best films ever made.
Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and Beetlejuice are just a few classics on a resume populated by cracking movies. However, over the last decade Burton has become a director that has focused on style over substance. Charlie & the Chocolate Factory was a pale imitation of the original and his live-action remake of Alice in Wonderland was successful but hollow.
Therefore, we arrive in 2019 with a slight sense of apprehension. Dumbo is a classic Disney cartoon and there’s a risk of a little too much Burton for the little elephant’s good. But is that fear unfounded?
Struggling circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) enlists a former star (Colin Farrell) and his two children to care for Dumbo, a baby elephant born with oversized ears. When the family discovers that the animal can fly, it soon becomes the main attraction – bringing in huge audiences and revitalising the run-down circus. The elephant’s magical ability also draws the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), an entrepreneur who wants to showcase Dumbo in his latest, larger-than-life entertainment venture.
Updating Dumbo for the modern age was always going to be a difficult task. At just over an hour long and with some shall we say, less than PC story elements, the original needed some serious padding and editing to turn it into a fully-fledged feature film and while there are moments of brilliance here, Dumbo suffers from a disjointed and overthought script, flat characters and you guessed it, too much Burton.
We’ll start with the good. Dumbo is a beautiful film, filled to the brim with striking imagery that harks back to some of Burton’s previous work. The cinematography is absolutely astounding with stunning sunsets and vivid colours populating the screen at all points during the 112-minute running time. The opening in particular, a hark back to the original in which a train crosses a map of the US is inspired and nicely filmed.
For the most part though, Dumbo pushes the limits of visual effects to the point where everything feels far too artificial. The baby elephant himself is on the whole very good, and as adorable as you would expect, but there are moments dotted throughout the film that suffer from the limitations of CGI. A scene in which Dumbo gets a bath is terrifying. In fact, there are multiple sequences towards the finale in which the CGI is so poor that it looks like something out of a second generation video game.
Dumbo is a beautiful film, filled to the brim with striking imagery that harks back to some of Burton’s previous work
Elsewhere, the cast is by far the film’s weakest element. Colin Farrell is a disappointingly forgettable and miscast lead. Arriving home after losing his arm in the war, Farrell’s Holt is completely flat, not helped by some poor acting from the usually dependable star. Michael Keaton doesn’t get to do much apart from smile menacingly and Danny DeVito hams it up to 11 as struggling circus-owner Max Medici; oh dear.
There are some positives cast-wise however: Nico Parker as Milly Farrier, Holt’s curious science-minded daughter, is very good, even if the script beats you around the head with the fact that she’s an intelligent girl who wants more out of her life, but this is brought right back down to earth by Eva Green’s horrific French accent.
Then there’s Burton himself. While the shots of Dumbo circling the circus tent in the air are breath-taking, and scenes of the pachyderm covered in clown make-up as he’s abused for profit are as heart-breaking as they are in the original, they’re ruined by unusual story-telling choices. As the film steamrolls to its climax set in a theme-park that’s a third Scooby Doo, a third Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and a third Jurassic Park, Burton piles on his usual tropes far too thick – it just doesn’t fit with the tale of the magical flying elephant.
Some of the more touching elements are handled well however. Dumbo’s separation from his mother is devastating and he feels like a real personality throughout the entire film, but for a film titled Dumbo, it needs more Dumbo!
Overall, Dumbo is a perfectly enjoyable adventure ride that’s spoilt by Burton’s once trademark filming style and a roster of flat and forgettable characters. With the boundaries of CGI being pushed to the max here, some of the film feels a little unfinished and as such, this live-action adaptation is a touch disappointing. One can only wonder what this film would have been like with a different director at the helm.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Tim Burton’s Dumbo, the latest in a long line of Disney live-action remakes, might be the best film he has made since Big Fish. Burton has struggled of late in his filmmaking. While his films through the 80s and 90s were written with wonder and mystique, his 21st-century outings have been more stilted.
The output from this era range from the miscalculated but well-meaning— Sweeney Todd, Big Eyes – to boring – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – to dead on arrival abominations – Alice in Wonderland. That last one particularly is reason enough to doubt Burton being appointed to handle this remake. Despite being one of the worst films ever made, it kickstarted the trend of Disney live-action remakes.
With Dumbo, however, Burton not only successfully avoids making a spiritual successor to Alice in Wonderland but also manages to create his most alive feeling film in years.
This is due, in no small part, to the titular elephant being a perfect Burton protagonist. At a glance, it might not seem so, but upon closer inspection, you realise that Dumbo, with his big ears and singular flying abilities, is the kind of gifted outcast archetype that Burton is naturally sympathetic to. The combination of the two unlocks the kind of Burton alchemy that makes his earlier work so memorable.
Returning also are many of Burton’s classic players. Danny Devito, playing his third top hat wearing Burton character. Eva Green, the latest in Burton’s line of pale-faced leading women is also back, this time as a French acrobat. Most exciting however is Michael Keaton who is reunited with Burton for the first time since Batman Returns to play evil businessman V. A. Vandevere.
Fans of the 1941 Dumbo will notice that Keaton’s character is a completely new creation. He is not the only brand new part of this version. Where the original 1941 film runs only 65 minutes, this new version is a little over two hours long. New story had to be created for this remake.
How can anyone “fix” the flaws of the original without making drastic changes? You can’t. Instead, filmmakers are left to make films that will always pale to the original by their very nature. I have no doubt that a brilliant reimagining of Beauty and the Beast exists, but the 2017 version wasn’t allowed to be that film. I also believe that Guy Ritchie could make a great Aladdin, but that film would in no way resemble the animated classic.
Dumbo, however, avoids that problem completely. By the forty-minute mark, this version of Dumbo runs out of source material from the original film to draw upon. From here Burton and writer Ethren Kruger run wild. This version of Dumbo is far darker. It addresses themes of animal cruelty, the dangers of fame, and the corruptive power of success far more directly than the original.
All that is not to say that Dumbo is immune to the issues of modern era Burton films. The plot becomes meandering and bogged down with inconsequential tangents in places. Some of the performances are mannered to the point of being stilted, child actors Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins (understandably) struggle the most here. And of course, there is the overreliance on CGI that has become trademark of 21st century Burton films.
However, Burton never loses sight of what Dumbo is really about: the story of a child trying to be reunited with his mother. That emotional core textures the film around it, making even the worst elements more tolerable. Dumbo, for instance, is a gorgeous creation, who is oftentimes more expressive than most of the human cast.
The success with which Dumbo is created makes a welcome change from Burton’s past CGI efforts. Certainly, it does not atone for all his past mistakes (Alice in Wonderland is truly unforgivable) but it’s a sign he’s learning from them. This learning curve is present in every area of Dumbo. Even at its most bloated moments the film never loses sight of the mother-child relationship at its heart.
Tim Burton’s Dumbo is in no way a perfect film – overlong and sometimes silly – but it is still miles above most other Disney live-action remakes. There is a sincerity in the way it conducts itself which films like The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast lack. Dumbo is not always the smoothest trip, but when it’s protagonist takes flight, it’s hard not to feel your heart soar too.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½