'Dumbo': Film Review

Baby not mine.
3/29/2019

Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito and Eva Green star in Tim Burton's live-action remake of the 1941 Disney animated classic about a baby elephant whose ears double as wings.

It was a big risk taking a film guaranteed to reduce multiple generations to puddles of childhood-memory tears and entrusting remake responsibilities to a director whose track record at summoning genuine emotion is patchy at best. Edward Scissorhands was probably the last Tim Burton film in which the sentimental core felt remotely personal, as opposed to the cloying manufactured charm of, say, Big Fish — though a case could be made that Frankenweenie was a more recent detour into someplace heartfelt. But perhaps what Disney had in mind for its live-action Dumbo was more in the strange-and-fantastical Burton realm, a circus fantasia viewed through a nightmare filter?

That's more or less what they've ended up with, and if it's not going to supplant the eternally beloved 1941 animated classic for the multiple generations exposed to it at a young age, there's likely enough here to keep today's children absorbed. Though it's hard to imagine it haunting their psyches into adulthood like its predecessor did for so many.

The hopes of diehard Burton fans might have been stoked by the recruitment of Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito, totems of the director's more consistent days. But this is another frustratingly uneven picture, with thin characters — human and animal — that fail to exert much of a hold, reclaiming the story only toward the end. Up to then, 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. The central failure to recognize those virtues lies also in Ehren Kruger's cluttered screenplay.

Part of the challenge was fleshing out widely known source material (the original was based on the novel by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl) that by today's standards is positively anemic in plot terms; its running time barely goes over the hour mark. Burton and Kruger certainly show affection for the 1941 film, including at least a nod to most of its more iconic moments and a hint of its handful of songs — even the trippy "Pink Elephants on Parade" — though wisely skipping the jive-talking crows.

The movie opens with a boisterous surge of Danny Elfman's score as a steam train in 1919 chugs from Sarasota, Florida, up across the Panhandle and continues on to Joplin, Missouri. The town is a hive of activity, with the Medici Bros. Circus setting up its faded big top and surrounding camp for another struggling engagement. The enterprise's feisty owner, Max Medici (DeVito), who has no actual brother, believes he has found an attraction to remedy the hard times; he has purchased Mrs. Jumbo, a pregnant Asian elephant, and is already counting the cash her irresistible baby will be bringing in.

Meanwhile, two children, Milly and Joe Farrier (Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins), have been in the care of the circus troupe since the death of their mother, one of many losses suffered by the traveling company to influenza. Their father Holt (Colin Farrell) was part of a double-act with his wife, doing rope tricks on horseback, but when he returns from the war with one arm amputated he struggles to reconnect with his kids.

This is all Disney 101 — semi-orphaned siblings with one remaining, emotionally distant parent inevitably destined to mend his broken heart and earn back his kids' love. Still, while the actors are all perfectly fine, there's little poignancy in the damaged family unit, even with a dad nursing the twin sorrows of widowhood and possible PTSD. A dutiful post-Time's Up tweak to the formula means Milly is a budding scientist. She also has her own mouse circus, though that seems more like a box-checking reference to the earlier film than an essential plot point.

The overnight arrival of a stork (without a bundle in its beak this time) signals the birth of Mrs. Jumbo's baby, but Max is aghast to discover that the little male pachyderm has abnormally large ears, calling him a freak. He puts the reluctant Holt in charge of the animal's care, instructing him to disguise its deformity and incorporate it into the clown act. But a whip-cracking circus hand (Phil Zimmerman) with a nasty streak and a grudge against Holt incites Mrs. Jumbo during the performance, causing mayhem. This gets the mother elephant confined to a prison-like trailer and branded as mad, until Max can offload her back onto the original owner at half price.

It's easy to see the attraction for Burton of the freakish outsider with the special gift, isolated by his difference, a theme amplified by the motley crew of circus performers, some of them also dubbed "freaks," who respond fondly to the forlorn baby elephant. Among the tenderest of them is snake charmer Pramesh Singh (Roshan Seth), whose shared Indian heritage will have bearing as the plot unfolds. And in a sweet touch, the resident circus "mermaid," Miss Atlantis (Sharon Rooney), strums a ukulele by the fireside and sings the original's most indelible song, "Baby Mine."

The trouble is, in a movie where character development is such a low priority, this cluster of peripheral figures without much to do until the climactic action — they're like refugees from The Greatest Showman — just adds to the bloat.

One of the missteps of Kruger's treatment is to reveal the magical element of Dumbo's flight capabilities from the outset. (The elephant earns the name after another mishap in the circus ring, and it sticks.) There's no buildup or surprise. Milly and Joe discover it by way of a black feather and a sneeze, of course, and then set about training the elephant to fly on cue, promising that once he's the star attraction they'll be able to buy back his mother. But a deal between gullible good guy Max and devious Coney Island impresario V.A. Vandevere (a silver-haired Keaton, twirling an imaginary villain's mustache) steers them all off to the latter's New York amusement park, Dreamland.

This is where the remake loosens its ties to the original and becomes a whole different Tim Burton movie — one with enough echoes of the director's vintage work to make you wish it were better. Lugubrious excess kicks in and the character field becomes hopelessly overcrowded, with Vandevere trailed by an entourage led by his girlfriend Colette (Eva Green, reuniting with Burton after Dark Shadows and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children), a Paris street performer turned star aerialist.

A grand parade through the sprawling carnival city, with platoons of fascistic-looking clowns and busy Busby Berkeley-style dance spectacles, plays like a children's film reimagined by Fritz Lang and Leni Reifenstahl — not in a good way. Sometimes more is less. And the adventurous escape that ensues when Vandevere predictably reveals his ruthlessness and Dumbo exposes the cruelty beneath the funfair utopia is too convoluted to be suspenseful.

The climax works to the extent it does simply because the elephant finally becomes the heart of the movie again, and a lovely scene near the end restores the primal emotional connection that made the original Dumbo so affecting. Elfman's score, its soaring choral elements borrowed from Edward Scissorhands, plays a big part in injecting some feeling. There's also a laudable if pedagogic moral lesson about the inhumanity of keeping wild creatures in captivity — a necessary update now that circuses have been rightly shamed into eliminating their animal acts.  

The CGI work is polished, but like Disney's live-action Jungle Book remake, the animals (all nonverbal this time around) fall into an artificial limbo between animation and photorealism — particularly Mrs. Jumbo and her offspring with their huge, cartoonish eyes (a reminder of Burton's deadly 2014 feature, Big Eyes). Max's comic sidekick, a capuchin monkey, is just an unfunny irritation.

In the 1941 movie, Dumbo's sole ally was a talking mouse. Here, he has the Farrier kids, then Holt, rekindling his mojo, then the suddenly maternal Colette and the whole Medici Bros. troupe in his corner. This dilutes our direct connection to the adorable title character, even when his blue eyes brim with tears.

The actors all do what they can, but mostly get lost in the shuffle and end up with too little to do, like Alan Arkin's cynical New York banker. This is a film in which Rick Heinrichs' richly textured production design and Colleen Atwood's beautiful period costumes are the stars. There are gorgeous images, such as the always alluring Green swinging from a giant chandelier in the big top, shedding her skirt before an aerial leap. But when that visual leaves a more captivating impression than a baby elephant spreading its ears and getting airborne like a glider, something is definitely off in the balance. The new Dumbo holds the attention but too seldom tugs at the heartstrings.

Production companies: Tim Burton, Infinite Detective, Secret Machine Entertainment
Distributor: Disney
Cast: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Roshan Seth, DeObia Oparei, Sharon Rooney, Phil Zimmerman, Douglas Reith, Joseph Gatt
Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriter: Ehren Kruger
Producers: Justin Springer, Ehren Kruger, Katterli Frauenfelder, Derek Frey
Executive producers: Tim Burton, Nigel Gostelow
Director of photography: Ben Davis
Production designer: Rick Heinrichs
Costume designer: Colleen Atwood
Music: Danny Elfman
Editor: Chris Lebenzon
Visual effects supervisor: Richard Stammers
Casting: Susie Figgis

Rated PG, 107 minutes