Tim Burton’s live-action remake of “Dumbo” gives us an adorable baby elephant we fall in love with instantly, but the rest of the film sadly misfires.
While we root for the new human characters who are on Dumbo’s side, the over-the-top villains keep the film from getting off the ground.
The essential story is the same: Circus elephant Mrs. Jumbo gives birth to a baby with freakishly large ears. Dubbed “Dumbo,” the baby elephant is mocked and unloved before his special talent — he can fly! — is discovered.
But Burton has somehow made a movie that’s more cartoonish than the 1941 animated film. The scene where Mrs. Jumbo, furious over the treatment of her baby, goes on a rampage mid-show is ratcheted up to ridiculous levels. The villains here are not just the clueless mean boys in the audience, but a more than usually cruel circus worker who is bizarrely bent on showing up the elephant and his old rival, Holt (Colin Farrell).
Also a bit much: Michael Keaton’s platinum-haired showman V. A. Vandevere, who wants the now crowd-pleasing Dumbo for himself. While it’s a treat to see Burton regulars Burton and Danny DeVito share the screen again with roles reversed from “Batman Returns,” Keaton’s character doesn’t work at all.
Since there are no talking animals in this film — we briefly see a mouse in a red uniform to remind us of Dumbo’s pal Timothy in the original — the film has added several human characters, with mixed results. As noted, the villains are one-dimensional cartoons, including Vandevere’s bald henchman who wears (gasp!) boots made out of elephant skin.
On the good guys side is Holt (Farrell), a former circus rodeo star who is returning from World War I minus an arm. His wife is dead and his act is gone, since Medici had to sell his horses. Now he’s stuck handling the elephants. Despite his distaste for the job, his natural kindness comes to bear and he and his children quickly bond with little Dumbo.
His children, science-loving eldest Milly (Nico Parker) and brother Joe (Finley Hobbins) have become self-sufficient survivors during his absence. They’re the ones who discover that Dumbo will fly when given a feather and begin secretly practicing to create a worthy act. The kids are, at first, standard-issue levels of precociousness, but they grow on you as the film goes on.
In the “maybe” column morally is Vandevere’s aerial star Colette Marchant (Eva Green). Will the snooty glamour girl come to love Holt and the children? Will she help save Dumbo and stand up to her evil boss?
The diverse Medici performers are all charming, especially DeObia Oparei as the circus’s strongman who also doubles as a one-man band and the company accountant, and Sharon Rooney as Miss Atlantis, their resident mermaid. Naturally, all their talents come in handy during the big rescue at the film’s end. And DeVito is at his best in ages as small-time ringmaster Max Medici who sees Dumbo as his ticket to the big time.
The CGI in creating Dumbo and the other elephants is extraordinary: It’s less convincing when Colette first hops on Dumbo for a joint flight. Other than that, the line between the CG and human world is seamless.
It’s a bit odd that Vandevere’s elaborate theme park, Dreamland, is so similar to Disneyland itself. Is Burton (who’s made several films for Disney now) sending up the studio itself by positioning it as an overly mechanical place where money is king?
Or is Burton just paying a fond homage to Disneyland’s past with the “Wonders of Science” hall, which features a recreation of the long-gone Carousel of Progress?
The film ends on a “simpler is better” message (that Burton himself doesn’t seem to heed) And it gives Dumbo and his mother a happier ending than the original film.
While there are many magical moments, such as when Dumbo first takes to the air, the film stumbles more then than it manages to fly.
Dumbo (the character):
Dumbo (the film):