For better or worse, the new live-action remake of the 1941 Disney animated classic Dumbo is exactly what you would expect it to be considering its director is Tim Burton.
The talented filmmaker, long drawn to outsiders and outcasts, such as Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd, is a natural fit for a tale about a baby elephant with ears so big they initially are a point of shame but ultimately show him to be quite an extraordinary little guy.
Burton s flare for visuals is alive and well in this period piece Dumbo is set in 1919 and he makes this digitally created Dumbo very relatable in what is, for the most part, an entertaining tale. In partnership with screenwriter Ehren Kruger, Burton packs the film with plenty of nods to the original and borrows some story elements from it.
On the other hand, the director has the ability to touch us only so deeply from an emotional standpoint Steven Spielberg, he will never be and so it s unsurprising this Dumbo doesn t hit us quite as hard in the heart as we might have hoped.
Dumbo gets off the ground easily enough, but it doesn t soar.
The film begins with a circus run by its namesake, Max Medici (Danny Devito), traveling from Florida to Missouri for the start of a new season. Atrain emblazoned by images of the circus performers chugs and smokes across the country, beautifully captured by cinematographer Ben Davis ( Doctor Strange ).
After the troupe has arrived in the town of Joplin, it is joined by a familiar face that of Colin Farrell s Holt Farrier, who returns from serving in the Great War minus his left arm. Having lost his wife to influenza while he was away, he learns Max sold the horses that were key to his and his wife s act. Because he still has two healthy children, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, making their feature-film debuts), for whom to provide, he begrudgingly accepts Max s offer to work as the elephant keeper.
And Max is excited about that aspect of his circus s offerings because he has acquired a pregnant African elephant and expects the coming baby to be a big draw to his struggling show. When the Baby Jumbo appears, however, its oversized ears infuriate Max, the owner going as far as lamenting how he doesn t need another freak in his circus and immediately retracts an order to alert the press about the newborn, only to learn the calls have gone out.
Never do anything I told you without checking with me first! Max admonishes an underling.
Of course, the small elephant, after screwing up in a performance (and earning the name Dumbo ), soon enough proves his worth. With the help of Milly and Joe and a feather that makes him sneeze he discovers he can fly by flapping his wings.
Max wisely incorporates the flying pachyderm into his show, and it s such a hit that the circus draws the attention of opportunistic businessman V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who convinces Max to fold his smaller company into his and move the troupe to his colorful- and-glitzy Dreamland attraction, which includes a bigtop.
However, Vandevere isn t the trustworthy type, treating everything in his life as a mere commodity, from circus animals to his girlfriend and aerialist Colette Marchant (Eva Green), whom he envisions riding Dumbo in his show.
And the fact that he also isn t exactly a safety first kind of guy imperils the lives of both Dumbo and Colette. That Dumbo is populated by cartoonish villains there s a minor one who precedes Keaton s and a by- thenumbers story is to be expected considering Dumbo is, ultimately, a movie for kids. It s nonetheless disappointing that the script by Kruger ( The Ring, The Brothers Grimm, three Transformers movies) offers almost nothing interesting. Plus, his story juggles a few too many characters. Much more could have been done with Milly, for instance, especially considering the impressive screen presence of Parker, daughter of Westworld star Thandie Newton. While Kruger deserves points for making Milly a smart girl who s interest lies in science, as opposed to performing in the circus, the film may have been wellserved if she had an arc that paralleled Dumbo s.
Instead, she and her brother essentially are forgettable.
The emotional component ties mainly to Dumbo s separation from his mother. That s not nothing some of the movie s most adorable shots involves mother and baby elephants intertwining their trunks in loving embrace but it s not enough.
And despite tht fact that Burton is working with a cast boasting previous big- named collaborators his star of 1998 s Beetlejuice, Keaton, shared the screen with Devito in his 1992 superhero sequel, Batman Returns, and the talented Green starred in Burton s previous film, 2016 s Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children no one is able to stand out here. Sure, Devito scores a few laughs, but the scenechewing Keaton is especially wasted. At the end of the day, Dumbo is everything it needs to be. It honors the original without copying it. (The choice to eschew talking animals is a welcome one.) And it is likely to be entertaining enough for many families. However, it feels like a warm-up act for two higher-profile, live-action remakes coming from Disney this year, Aladdin and The Lion King, slated for May and July, respectively. So even if Dumbo doesn t lift you up all that high, maybe they will.