No stranger to remakes only a shareholder could really love, Tim Burton has delivered ambitious misfires (Planet of the Apes), indisputable trainwrecks (Alice in Wonderland) and misfits weird enough to work (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Some would say Burton bastardized Willy Wonka back in 2005. I’d argue he waited until his live-action Dumbo to do so, as his pitch seems to be “Come with me … and you’ll be … in a world of corporate obligation!”
On paper and if Disney must, Burton isn’t a terrible choice to adapt one of the studio’s stranger animated outings if for no other reason than to just make it stranger At least Dumbo hasn’t been typified and Hot Topified in the way of, say, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. But the imperative to introduce humans and harm into Dumbo’s world just renders it twice as long as the 1941 film and not even half as interesting.
Enjoy the intrusion of influenza epidemics, war injuries, dead parents, animal cruelty and murderous capitalism into the story of an adorable, floppy-eared flying elephant. Oh, and flames. This might as well be called When I See an Elephant Cry … Every 10 Minutes and Preferably With Its Tears Reflecting Some Scary Fire. Quite frankly, it’s exhausting — especially when elevated to IMAX presentation. Dumbo’s sweet trumpet and composer Danny Elfman’s battalion of brass achieve a volume just shy of Gabriel’s horn, and the visual enormity swallows whole whatever small semblance of sweetness is able to escape. Also: No knock on Michael Keaton’s age, but no one needs to see that much detail on anyone’s wrinkles.
Then again, perhaps Disney sought to strike fear in adults akin to the kids they’ve brought, like those who expressed audible fear at a preview screening during the rare moment of quiet in Dumbo. As Dumbo flies, his flopping ears trigger a subwoofer response equal to a pteranodon in Jurassic World, and the staging is often terrifying — vertiginous, violent, enclosed in tight spaces. If this is Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (who really could have left his Transformers touch behind here) saying Dumbo really needs to be free, well … that’s a choice.
Also a choice: This Dumbo’s inclusion of the pink elephant parade as seemingly sentient soap bubbles, to which Dumbo bobs his head with a numb, capitulating smile. The film hopes you’ll do the same, preferably not noticing that, with a “no booze near the baby” joke (referencing Dumbo’s original drunken vision of the parade), there will be nothing distinct to see here beyond Burton’s long-genericized PG sense of “Dark”(™).
Even the opening sequence cruelly teases us with the greatest thing possible about this film — Danny DeVito (bless him, forever and ever) playing twins who run the Medici Brothers Circus. Although there is, alas, only one DeVito, he’s as delightfully agitated and sweetly conflicted as you’d hope. You sense that maybe Burton understands all too well the struggles of a showman clinging to principles in a climate increasingly inhospitable to wonder. But it’s always sunny with Devito via legitimate laugh lines like “Never do anything I tell ya without checkin’ with me first!”
Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is a trick rider in Medici’s circus who lost his left arm and his entire spirit on French fields in World War I. Influenza has killed his wife because Disney. It’s been a long time since Holt has seen his son and daughter, who are played by two fatally uncharismatic child actors. It’s not their fault. This is the dead-eyed response you get when you ask kids to look sad while hugging a man in a motion-capture suit and figure effects farms can fix it in post.
Holt is both the most meaningless role of Farrell’s career and perhaps the most welcome his professional presence has ever felt. Once Dumbo more or less shoves Medici to the side, Holt is the only character exuding any believable warmth, or the strive for warmth. He’s derisively mocked as a Tom Mix wannabe by a character so evil we see him crushed in a PG-rated movie. But the petition for Burton to direct a 1920s-ish Western starring Farrell — with this same haircut and demeanor — starts here.
Anyway, Holt’s kids are the ones who discover Dumbo’s power of flight and not Timothy Q. Mouse (given the most perfunctory computer-generated shoutout). The best thing about this change? It might spark curiosity for the scientific method among kids. May their experiments be more successful than what Burton and Kruger concoct to fill Dumbo’s second hour after burning through the initial story.
After Dumbo’s flight enlivens Medici’s otherwise milquetoast milieu, the millionaire V.A. Vandevere (Keaton) swoops in — dangling dollars to ensure Dumbo becomes the star at his new park, Dreamland. The place is the sole expression of Burton’s visual splendor, a fascinating bit of gee-whillikers production design that looks like Tomorrowland and the World’s Fair taking up entire neighborhoods of Gotham City. You can tell he and Kruger think what they do to it is so subversive, man, you don’t even know.
Known as the “Columbus of Coney Island” and the “emperor of enchantment,” Vandevere has over-leveraged himself to build Dreamland and needs Dumbo as his main attraction. “Who’s been dreaming like I’ve been dreaming?” Vandevere psychotically shouts at people as Keaton drops diction into Beetlejuice territory here and there, as inconsistent as anything else here.
Vandevere dangles shares in Dreamland like promissory notes on everyone’s potential, including French aerialist Colette (Eva Green), who learns to ride, and later to love, Dumbo. The flights in Dreamland are lit like propaganda rallies, complete with Michael Buffer shouting “Let’s get ready to Dumboooooo.” It’s no surprise Vandevere turns out to be a rotten bastard willing to let people and animals die for profit. And so it is Burton’s vision of a new Dumbo is to send him to war against capitalist rot, joined by his Medici Circus crew and soaring through fire like the cutest version of John Woo’s doves.
Indeed, the sight of Dumbo’s “magical” feather turning to ash before his eyes near the end makes sense for a film more torching than touching. As a character played by Alan Arkin in his umpteenth bored post-Oscar turn says: “This is a disaster! Come on. Let me buy ya a hot dog!”