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Reviews are in for Tim Burton’s Dumbo, a live-action remake of the 1941 Disney animated classic that adapted Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl’s novel and introduced the lovable circus elephant with oversized ears to a mainstream cinema audience.
Heading up the cast are Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green and Alan Arkin, with Thandie Newton’s daughter Nico Parker in a featured role. Ehren Kruger (Transformers, Ghost in the Shell) wrote the screenplay.
From reviews that were collected on Tuesday morning, the film currently carries a 48 percent critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney recognizes the risk associated with remaking a well-loved childhood gem, noting that Burton’s track record for “summoning genuine emotion is patchy at best.” He calls the picture “frustratingly uneven,” with a “cluttered screenplay” and “thin characters that fail to exert much of a hold.” Rooney writes that up until the end of the film, “the filmmaker’s overstuffed visual imagination and appetite for sinister gloom all but trample the enchantment of a tale that, at heart, is simple and whimsical.”
With regard to the screenplay, Rooney claims that a misstep was made in revealing the magical element of Dumbo’s flight capabilities — his oversized ears that double as wings — too early, allowing for no build-up or surprise. He recognizes that there are many positive elements of the film, from production design to period costumes and gorgeous visuals, though he concludes that ultimately, Dumbo fails to tug at the heartstrings.
For Rolling Stone, Peter Travers highlights the work of character designer Michael Kutsche by noting that the “computerized Dumbo is a marvel of cuteness and technical wizardry who steals every scene he’s in.” He suggests that the gold standard of this work is undermined by the overcomplicated and predictable script. The critic goes on to praise the cinematography, production design, costumes and musical composition, but decides that the simple, sweet and safe tale fits Burton like a glove — too well.
In the Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips notes that the film offers “less” of many things that the original had, such as wit, charm and songs. He offers a particular criticism of the writer, saying, “Over and over, the movie strands its central, dewy-eyed, flappy-eared pachyderm in a series of unfortunate narrative events dreamed up by screenwriter Ehren Kruger. The writer has been miscast. He brings the same light touch and airy whimsy he brought to three Transformers pictures.” Phillips gives Dumbo 1.5 stars and ends with a hopeful look forward to the upcoming Aladdin and Lion King remakes.
Mashable’s Angie Han writes that the elephant is actually a supporting player in a jumble of interrelated storylines — such as a dad disappointing his children and a small business struggling in an industry dominated by big businesses, — but as the critic notes, those plot lines “never really take off.” Han argues that none of the characters seem like real people, and that the film doesn’t work as a whole, rather as a collection of “odd little moments.” She praises Burton’s depiction of Dreamland, suggesting that the pic could have used an extra dose of that pleasingly weird element to let it stand out.
Peter Bradshaw writes in The Guardian that the few moments in the movie that are reasonable, like Dumbo taking flight, are canceled out by boredom. He calls the story “pointlessly complicated,” grinding along to a “tiresome conclusion.” Bradshaw points out that Burton missed an opportunity to indulge in the dramatic tension of Dumbo being taken away from his mother, an important factor that got lost in a “swirl of exotic visuals.” He goes on to bring to his readers’ attention the many “muddled” scenes that ultimately contribute to the film lacking charm and heartbreak.
For the AV Club, Katie Rife claims that the character of Dumbo isn’t “particularly Burton-esque,” nor is the rest of the movie. She suggests that the lack of Burton flair is one of the pic’s downfalls, though she notes that the director does explore some sinister themes and signature Art Deco elements in the film’s Dreamland theme park. The critic finds Dumbo’s core theme to be embracing the things that make you different, suggesting that it carries some shred of emotional weight despite the concept being a familiar idea from Burton. Of the supporting characters, Rife labels them a “bland family of protagonists,” going on to point out that some are simply there to keep the story moving and “provide awestruck reaction shots as we move from oddly muted spectacle to agreeable callback to the heartwarming happy ending.”
In Time, Stephanie Zacharek argues that Dumbo is “cluttered with Burton-esque details — a parade of creepy clowns, a nightmare-themed circus populated by miserable animals — that are supposed to be cool and edgy but really just get in the way.” She gives light praise to the pic’s cinematographer Ben Davis (who shot Captain Marvel), who used “muted, faded circus-tent colors” as his color palette. Zacharek emphasizes the “misery” of Dumbo, a character who’s “forced to wear humiliating clown makeup and leap from soaring heights without a safety net,” suggesting that the suffering is difficult for an audience to digest. The critic further implies that the computer-generated aspect doesn’t necessarily work in the film’s favor.
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