Review: Tim Burton's dreary 'Dumbo' lacks both enchantment and wonder
Courtesy of Disney
Tim Burton’s new “Dumbo” lands with a dull thud and lacks the charm, warmth, and heartache of Disney’s pristine animation. It makes the case as to why certain animated classics should never get the live action treatment.
Perhaps the main issue is how screenwriter Ehren Kruger and Burton have turned Disney’s 1941 flick into some kind of steampunk Jurassic Park complete with fixations and scenery that feel recycled from the George Clooney stinker “Tomorrowland.” The film tries to saddle itself with big morales and ideals about the casualty of war, abondamment, and treatment of animals, but instead overcomplicates it's animated counterparts simplicity and gets boring real quick. So much so, the children sitting around me decided to talk amongst themselves.
There’s another issues, Burton can’t decide who “Dumbo” is for. It’s certainly not for young children; sure there’s a cute (and I’ll admit) adorable baby elephant gracing the screen for 80% of the movie, but after you watch Dumbo fly around the circus for the sixteenth time, you’ll grow tiresome. Not to mention, the main arch involves Dumbo getting separated from his mother, takes place in a depressing post-World War I environment, then forces the winsome elephant to perform for a batch of strangers to make money, who then becomes entangled in a scheme by an over-the-top-looney-tunish Michael Keaton (whose vocab consists of phrases like: “Get that elephant!” or “Stop those kids!”) planning to exploit the big-eared flying mammal. I know the movie is called “Dumbo,” but at least other Disney adaptations had something on screen at all times to entertain the youngsters (adding insult to injury, Burton’s version runs a headache inducing two hours, whereas the original clocked in at 67 minutes - much like the tykes around me, I was getting antsy).
In “Dumbo,” there’s no gorgeous scenery to gawk at like “The Jungle Book” or enticing musical numbers from “Beauty and the Beast,” Burton chooses to maroon his film in some type of retro-future escapism (which I’m all for) but instead of making a Tim Burton movie - the weird and obscure kind that defines his name - he makes a pure product placement filler for the biggest studio on the planet. There’s no voice here, only corporate synergy.
Some of the original elements do remain unscathed: the film is, of course, about a baby circus elephant at first named Jumbo Junior whose outsized ears cause him to be cruelly nicknamed “Dumbo” yet they allow him the power of flight. But this live-action take, with a CGI Dumbo - winds up getting buried before the first act is over, dismaying the audience with a pointless setup of a glitzy amusement park and becomes a victim of its own message (don’t be a sell out!) Aside from Keaton, others performances from a mundane Colin Farrell and Eva Green offer no range except to smirk, frown, or grin.
But the biggest offense of this “Dumbo” is that it makes a mess of the most famous scene: the brutally, almost unwatchable, sad moment when Dumbo’s mom plucks some boys from the audience who had been bullying her child and spanks them with her trunk, for which she is shackled and imprisoned in a tiny cart. Poor Dumbo could only visit his mom, at night, in secret, and those iconic moments are what live in the pathos of Disney history (it’s not as sad as Simba’s father, but the fact that Dumbo’s mom was living in a waking nightmare of slave-master cruelty almost takes the cake).
The new and improved “Dumbo,” however, loses sight of those tender moments. There’s no justice to the scene in question, it’s thrown away because the film is keen on imposing bad guys into its coda and in the process removes Dumbo’s best and only pal Timothy the mouse. In Burton’s world, this elephant’s friends are strictly humans with no sense of direction. In fact, the film creates a number of cartoonish villains whose purpose is the cause for a muddy pretext for the punishment of Dumbo’s mother. For the baddies you’ve got a sniveling animal handler, an equally cruel bald henchmen at the shiny new circus Dumbo is doped into signing up for, and the smooth talking entertainment entrepreneur VA Vandever (Keaton). On the good side is the heart-of-gold ring leader played by Danny DeVito (the only actor who feels the best fit for his role), the French trapeze artist Colette (Green) and the widowed, recently returned from war, Holt Farrier (Farrell) whose two children fall in love with little Dumbo. You look at this lineup and narrative background and wonder how it could’ve gone wrong, I think to myself how much more Burton could’ve done with the anguish of Dumbo losing his mother, but instead he gets lost in his own inflated budget and unnecessary visual palette.
That being said, I haven’t disliked all of Burton’s films or remakes. I’m probably one of seven people who actually dug the 2001 version of “Planet of the Apes,” and while his “Sweeney Todd” lacked a strong vocal lead, I still found it interesting; likewise for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” which managed to capture the imagination of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s novel. Even here, there are moments of pure joy beginning with Dumbo taking flight for the first time or a textbook Burton sequence late in the second act that showcases a circus act gone array. There’s no question the man has talent, but he failed to give this lovable and endearing elephant a solid reason to fly.