As told by Tim Burton, Disney’s Dumbo is a glossy kiddo-approved spectacle piece sure to entertain the youngins in the audience while offering no reason for its existence beyond the plain-faced cry for box office chowder. Adapting the 1941 story of a circus elephant whose oversized ears enables him to fly, Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Ghost in the Shell) co-opt the basic premise of the original tale and fluff out the barebones story with a cast of uninteresting human characters and a corporate subplot that offers a kids a warning about bad employers and carefully reading contracts.
From the onset of his career, Tim Burton expressed major interest in the outcast. From Pee-Wee Herman to Edward Scissorhands, Batman to Beetlejuice, Burton found quarter with society’s dejected characters. The gothic auteur has defined his career telling the stories of those among us that stick out like a sore thumb and the doe-eyed deformed pachyderm at the center of Dumbo seems a suiting fit for Burton’s oeuvre. Had he only tapped into his imagination, what wonders might have been in store.
Alas, Dumbo rides in on the wings of Burton’s lesser storytelling instincts and the touch of the once-auteur is near indistinguishable under the Disney pastiche. Gone are the dark flourishes, creepy tone, and oddly lovable characters, replaced by wide-eyed children, a sterile narrative, and a total lack of creativity. There is nothing here that suggests a deep connection to the material, that invokes a sense of great imagination, or that suggests an attempt to elevate. This is filmmaking as product-making, as content creation. Every story beat, musical swish, and doughy dialogue is cookie-cutter consumerism bleched back at itself.
While the circus setting is theoretically befitting Burton’s style, the filmmaker fails to capitalize on the opportunity afforded by the inherent strangeness of the circus, doing little to make this world his own. Rather, Burton dutifully translates dated iconography to screen with modern effects, which in themselves have notable limitations.
Dumbo ought to come with a warning: no animals were used in the making of this film. Down to the mice, all the animals in Dumbo are CGI, some more realistic than others, with a wide gulf between what is and isn’t believable. The titular character is appropriately rendered and emotes enough to form a “lovable” display of code but there’s an uncanny valley poised between the computer-animated and live action components that are at times difficult to navigate, especially when the child actors work is, to put it gently, unconvincing.
Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) are children of circus performer Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell adopting a Heartland drawl), who has just returned from war less an arm. His wife too died while he was away, the horses from their duo show sold off in an effort to salvage Max Medici’s (Danny DeVito, basically playing Danny DeVito) struggling circus. Left to tend to the elephants, Holt and his kids discover Dumbo’s ability to fly as entertainment barren V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton a’crunching on the scenery) plots to buy up the one-of-a-kind-act for himself. Eva Green features as a French love interest.
The original Dumbo clocks in at a measly 64 minutes and so there’s much more to be found in Burton’s version of the story but little of it manages to say much, mean much, or have any real lasting reverberations. This Dumbo is all affectation, no effect. It’s Artificial Banana Flavor: The Movie. The cheaply sentimental pandering is driven home like a nail in the skull with Danny Eflman’s cloying score. Throughout the whole enterprise, I found almost nothing to connect with, quickly falling into a disinterested stupor, chilled by the utter dearth of imagination.
From a purely technical standpoint, Dumbo impresses. Burton finds a few moments of visual pop in the space-age-inspired Dreamland and tucks into his darker visions in a pitstop in Nightmareland but the fact that the sets often have more character than the actual characters is a troubling reality that Burton never seems to up-end. When Dumbo takes flight, the film delivers its first and last dose of moviemaking magic, an elixir in startlingly short supply for a film that should be boiling over with exactly that.
CONCLUSION: Sentimental but emotionally vacant, Tim Burton’s live-action rendition of Dumbo makes the story of the flying elephant longer without adding much. Bad child acting, an artificial hue that leaves the film feeling soulless, and a total lack of imagination park this with the lesser breed of Disney’s recent live-action remakes.
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