Movie Review: Dumbo
By Matthew Huntley
April 11, 2019
The best thing about Tim Burton’s live-action version of “Dumbo” is that it reminds us what was so charming and indelible about the 1941 animated classic: it was actually about Dumbo, the adorable baby elephant with abnormally large ears who discovers he can fly. Though Dumbo never talked, his big blue eyes and captivating facial expressions relayed the most heartfelt of emotions and we were right there with him, every step of the way, as he endured a series of misadventures to not only become star of the circus but to finally reunite with his beloved mother.
Burton’s rendition, on the other hand, puts its human characters at the forefront, and they’re unfortunately not as charismatic or sympathetic as the cartoon pachyderm. It also doesn’t help the film’s production, as a whole, feels cold, dreary and hollow, almost as if it was shot and rendered with a semi-opaque filter that prevented light from breaking in and livening things up. The movie lacks an essential life force, which is key to these now-annual, live-action Disney remakes succeeding, and, in turn, having the ability to stand on their own and justifying a remake in the first place.
To be fair, some of these modern Disney reworks have ranged from good (“Cinderella”) to great (“The Jungle Book”), but there are also others that have outright failed (“Beauty and the Beast”). No matter their quality, though, each has been a huge win at the box-office, so it’s no wonder “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” are still forthcoming. Therefore, I can accept these big-budget reiterations are here to stay, at least for the time being; I only hope those yet-to-be-seen offer a more magical, absorbing experience than “Dumbo.”
For the record, I wasn’t seeking the same experience as the animated version, but I was yearning to make the same kind of emotional investment. I mentioned the new film’s murky production, but I think its underlying issue rests with the rather mundane and passionless storytelling. One of the lasting elements of the animated film was the relationship it established between Dumbo and his mother. In just a few short scenes, in a limited amount of time (the film runs only 64 minutes), the filmmakers got us to really appreciate Dumbo and his mother’s special bond, and so it tore us when the two get separated after a circus show mishap. Our feelings of heartbreak and pity culminated with Betty Noyes’ rendition of “Baby Mine” on the soundtrack as Dumbo and his mother touch trunks through metal bars.
That kind of pathos isn’t found in Burton’s film. There are human relationships, including parent-child ones, but none of them are especially profound. In fact, Ehren Kruger’s screenplay, working from the same book by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl that inspired the original, only seems to include them as part of a “family movie checklist” instead of making us believe these people really care for each other. Meanwhile, the digitally-rendered Dumbo, who is legitimately cute and lovable, gets relegated to a more supporting role, while his mother is all but absent, so the film doesn’t give us enough to latch onto emotionally, which is sort of the point of a movie like this.
The plot is nothing to write home about either, as it merely provides an adequate rather than inspirational platform to stage the action. It takes place in 1919 and revolves around the innerworkings of the traveling Medici Brothers’ Circus, which has been hit hard financially amidst World War I. Owner and manager Max Medici (Danny DeVito) has a had to cut several acts due to low attendance, and that includes selling his horses, which were trained and performed on by Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his wife.
Holt returns from the war an amputee after losing his left arm and greets his two kids at the train station—daughter Milly (Nico Parker), who has a knack for the sciences; and son Joe (Finley Hobbins), who would love nothing more than to show you his handstand. But Holt’s wife is nowhere to be found, and Max relays the sad news she passed away. I found this particular aspect of the screenplay callous and unsettling because of just how little time it devotes to Holt processing such devastating news. He barely sheds a tear, nor does he seem all that interested in how his kids have managed the past few months on their own.
All Holt seems to care about is getting back to work, but with no horses to tend, Max makes him the caretaker of his newly acquired pregnant elephant. Mrs. Jumbo, as she’s known, soon gives birth to a calf, aptly named Jumbo Jr., who comes out with unusually large and floppy ears. Max initially tries to conceal the baby’s supposed deformity from the public, but when Jumbo Jr.’s inaugural performance under the big top goes awry, the people catch sight of his secret and a tragic incident ensues. Max has no choice but to sell Mrs. Jumbo, while the two Ferrier kids, comforting the now-named Dumbo after being abandoned, discover his large ears actually enable him to fly.
Soon enough, Dumbo the flying elephant becomes a national sensation, and this catches the eye of the greedy entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who schemes to take control of Medici’s Circus and, resultantly, Dumbo. Vandevere also demands his French trapeze artist, the elegant and kind-hearted Colette Marchant (Eva Green), raise the bar of the show and ride Dumbo as he glides through the air, even if it means risking her life in the name of spectacle.
It doesn’t take much brain power to predict where the rest of the story is headed, which, like the original, essentially boils down to a modest fable about the importance of family, loyalty, and expressing kindness and compassion to all creatures big and small.
Despite having such simple and familiar themes, though, movies like the original “Dumbo” still have the power to engage us through the honest and heartfelt means by which their told. The problem with the new “Dumbo” is that Burton doesn’t seem to know how to do this. The director has proven he certainly has a knack for creating strange and bizarre worlds, often with weird constructions and oddly-shaped figures and landscapes, which can be intriguing on a visual level. But his films rarely strike us emotionally, and that’s because his characters, though colorful and odd, tend to be shallow, monosyllabic or just plain unbelievable. This inevitably puts us at a distance from them, so it’s hard to really care about what they’re doing or what motivates them. This was the problem with “Batman,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Big Fish,” and now, sadly, “Dumbo.”
Though the humans occupy most of the screen time, Burton spends little time developing them beyond their roles in the plot and we never get a sense of who they are as people. This is especially true of DeVito’s Medici and Keaton’s Vandevere, who are painted as such one-note, over-the-top caricatures that it angers us Burton would let DeVito and Keaton’s inherent talents go to waste. The same can be said of Farrell, Parker, Hobbins, and Green, none of whom is given a chance to express themselves and become multi-dimensional. They exist just to peddle the plot rather than create meaning in what we’re watching, no matter how simple the overall message of the story may be.
Then there’s Dumbo himself, who, just like his human counterparts, comes across as more of a checkbox than a fully realized character. His lack of depth is mirrored by the new movie’s ho-hum version of “Baby Mine,” which is painfully short, as well as the psychedelic “pink elephants” sequence, which was creepy and vibrant in the original but here gets so toned down and is made so nondescript that I wonder if younger viewers will even give it a second thought.
The point of any filmic re-imagining is to create a new but hopefully just as good, if not better, experience, both for those unfamiliar with the original and those who simply want a different take on familiar material. What’s troubling about Burton’s “Dumbo” is that it does the opposite. I left it feeling as though my memories of the original were now tainted, because if I was to ever go back and watch it again, I would know in the back of my mind a paltry, unnecessary remake came out nearly 80 years later. It hurts to think about all the time, money and resources that went into this languid production. Burton and his team worked hard on it I’m sure, but they didn’t seem privy to what made their inspiration so special in the first place, namely that it had a heart and soul. They may have technically brought a live-action version of “Dumbo” to the big screen, but in doing so, they failed to bring it to life.