2.5 out of 5 stars.
Out of all the Disney films, the story of “Dumbo” has the most room to grow. The 1941 animated classic clocks in at only 64 minutes long, and is the simple story of a baby circus elephant ridiculed for his large ears—which he had actually use to fly. The loving relationship between Dumbo and his mother Mrs. Jumbo, as well as his friendship with a mouse called Timothy, who gives him the confidence to fly, form the core of the story, with the human characters taking a backseat to the animals. The new remake of “Dumbo” (which features live actors working with CG animal characters) directed by Tim Burton, however, brings a group of new human characters to the forefront, adding a new element of the story that is occasionally intriguing, but ends up diminishing the impact of Dumbo’s story.
The film opens shortly after the end of World War I. Former equestrian performer Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns home from the war to find that his wife has passed away, his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) have trouble connecting with him, and that the Medici Brothers’ Circus where he worked is having financial problems. Max Medici (Danny DeVito), the owner of the circus, puts Holt in charge of training his new elephant Jumbo, who is about to give birth. But Jumbo’s new baby is born with extraordinarily large ears—he’s nicknamed Dumbo, and teased mercilessly by almost everyone. But after spending time with him, Milly and Joe realize that Dumbo can use his ears to fly, and when the secret gets out, he becomes an immediate sensation—and attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), the scheming owner of the theme park Dreamland.
If you think that the reunion of Tim Burton with some of the actors he has done some of his best work with will result in a return to form for the director, think again. No one is working at the top of their game here. DeVito and Farrell are passable in their roles, as is Eva Green, who portrays the French trapeze artist Colette. Even Alan Arkin shows up as Dreamland investor J. Griffin Remington. But their roles are all shallow, and the actors given little good material to work with. That especially goes for Keaton, whose villain is of the generic mustache twirling, Scooby-Doo variety, and who also sports a wavering accent that is truly bizarre. These characters are here to add to the story, or in some cases take the place of characters that were animals in the original film (Milly and Joe, for example, fill much the same role that Timothy mouse had). But the problem is that they don’t add anything meaningful. The film starts out with some potential, as we see Holt (who lost an arm in the war), struggling to make life the same as it was before the war, but that thread is largely dropped as the film progresses. It’s really after the introduction of Vandevere about halfway through the film that things really start to go downhill, and the film becomes increasingly cold and mechanical.
Because these new characters do take up a good deal of space, a lot of the focus is actually taken away from Dumbo. The design of the Dumbo character is sweet and loveable, and he shows a lot of emotion in his eyes. But even scenes that should be heart-wrenching feel oddly cold and distant. There’s something to be said for the simplicity of the original film, which really builds on the relationship between Dumbo and his mother and places the character on such an emotional journey. Here, he often feels like a side character in his own story.
“Dumbo” does boast Burton’s visual flair. There’s a nice transition between the warm fields of Missouri where the Medici Brothers’ circus is set up at in the beginning, and the more industrial art deco look of Dreamland later in the film. The different finale also gives Mrs. Jumbo and Dumbo a better ending to their story while embracing modern sensibilities about circuses and animal abuse. But it largely follows in the vein of Burton’s last few films: it looks great on the surface, but largely feels hollow inside. There is a bit of magic in the film every time Dumbo flies, and his joy and the looks of wonderment and delight on those watching him translates to the audience watching the movie in real life. Sadly, the heart and spirit of the original movie is otherwise largely missing.
Runtime: 112 minutes. Rated PG.