Movie review: Tim Burton’s live-action ‘Dumbo’ mopes when it should soar
Mar 29, 2019
“DUMBO” — 2½ stars — Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins; PG (peril/action, some thematic elements and brief mild language); in general release; running time: 112 minutes
Dumbo the elephant may be able to fly, but “Dumbo” the remake struggles to get off the runway.
Almost 80 years after releasing the original, the folks at Disney have produced a live-action remake about the floppy-eared, flying baby elephant.
Of course, “remake” is a pretty loose way to describe Tim Burton’s 112-minute version of the 1941 film — a film that just barely broke an hour. But running time aside, the story’s heart remains intact: An elephant with enormous ears is born to and then separated from his circus-performing mother, then comes of age after discovering he can fly thanks to those same ears.
The extra running time comes from a host of human characters Burton and Co. have introduced to the plot: Dumbo’s keeper is Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a World War I vet who returns to his prewar job at a traveling circus without an arm and must tend to the elephants in order to support his two kids. His daughter Milly (Nico Parker) wants to be a scientist and resents having to live amid the chaos of the entertainment business. His son Joe (Finley Hobbins) is pretty much just along for the ride.
Circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) gives Dumbo his start — until the act catches the eye of a big-time New York showman named V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton). Vandevere convinces Medici to pack up the entire troupe and team up with his Dreamland production on Coney Island, where Dumbo is paired with a human rider, Colette Marchant (Eva Green).
“Dumbo” is the latest Disney property to receive the animation-to-live-action conversion (with a lot of help from CGI, of course), following in the tracks of 2016’s “The Jungle Book” and 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Unfortunately, “Dumbo” feels more in line with recent Disney missteps like last year’s “A Wrinkle in Time” and “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.”
It should be no shock that as a macabre master, Burton’s “Dumbo” has a tendency to be dark and melancholy. But “Dumbo’s” brief moments of elation, like when the little elephant takes flight, aren’t near enough to offset the brooding grit that swamps most of the film. While the story’s darkness might be justified — considering Dumbo’s separation from his mother — the visual experience itself is also a challenge. The film mixes harsh, moody lighting with dank, desaturated colors in a way that suggests the filmmakers wanted the movie to look “authentic,” but forgot that it was also supposed to be fun.
The effects look good — especially the cute little blue-eyed elephant — but an A from your animation class is not the same as an A from the kids who are supposed to be carried away in wonder by your product.
Set in 1919, “Dumbo” also has a habit of applying 21st-century perspectives that feel forced in a film that takes place a century before issues including animal rights and STEM education became mainstream conversations. The revised lens gives “Dumbo” a bit of a “Greatest Showman” vibe, but aside from a handful of brief cues (such as fan favorite “Baby Mine”), Burton’s film lacks the showy musical numbers to whisk its own audience along.
For fans well versed in the 1941 version, it might be interesting enough to see the original story come to life in live-action. But it’s hard to imagine anyone who hasn’t seen the first movie getting too excited by this one, which feels like another reminder of how transcendent Burton’s movies used to be.
Rating explained: “Dumbo” is rated PG for some dark and frightening scenes/imagery and some very mild profanity.