Milly Farrier: You can do it, Dumbo; show ’em.
Beware: Spoilers may follow
Disney’s fourth movie Dumbo in 1941 wasn’t anything groundbreaking but it was still unique and unusual with all the angles, colors, movements, and overall surrealism. Well now we have a live-action version of the classic movie from the mind of Tim Burton. This seems like a good choice for a director since Burton has often had an affinity for portraying weird things in his movies. However, this re-telling may show an elephant fly but struggles to get off the ground in many aspects.
The story involves circus owner Max Medici (Danny Devito) enlisting former star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) to look after a newborn elephant known as Dumbo due to his unusual large ears that make him a laughing stock. However it’s revealed when Dumbo is given a feather he can fly. This gets the attention of entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) who wants to showcase Dumbo in his amusement park.
The best part of this movie is Dumbo. Much like the original movie he doesn’t talk but the CGI on him is done very well and he’s quite cute and expressive. However, whereas the original Dumbo culminated towards the end with him learning to fly, here it happens pretty early on. It looks great and fills you with awe and wonder the first time. But from there even when they try to build suspense with his flying, it still happens the same way and it gets rather underwhelming in subsequent attempts.
The story follows the original with Dumbo being born with big ears and being mocked, Mrs. Jumbo causing a ruckus and getting locked away, and him learning to fly. All of this is done by the first third of the movie and after this point Dumbo pretty much becomes a secondary character to the humans. It has a nice message about having faith but it’s nothing we haven’t seen in other Disney movies.
The original Dumbo didn’t focus much on the titular character but still provided an unusual world of the circus for him to observe and for the audience to experience. Here we have some of those things for a bit but most of the movie’s focus is on the human characters. Most of the actors the movie got are good choices and have done good work in other movies. However the writing doesn’t allow for their characters to offer much to get emotionally invested and their performances are rather awkward and stiff. This is primarily because the character of Dumbo is pretty much a means to an end for all of them with not much else to fall back on. Even though it was nice to see Dumbo and his mother free in the wild at the end, it also shows the circus in a new light but there’s almost no reason to care for this because the human characters are not very interesting. This movie was a mini-reunion for Michael Keaton and Danny Devito who had worked together on one of Burton’s other projects way back in 1992, Batman Returns. And while Devito’s performance is enjoyable enough the same can’t be said for Keaton’s performance. His performance was a little too over-the-top with almost no nuance. Alan Arkin plays an investor and he gives a nice gruff performance to his character as he does in most movies.
As is with most Burton movies the visuals are well done. The world of Medici’s circus and the world of Vandevere contrast well in terms of scale and as stated before when Dumbo is on screen he is cute. And it does do well in showing the hardships of the circus. But these visuals aren’t capable of making up for uninteresting story and characters.
Of course with the movie being a remake there has to be some resemblance of the original and sadly the movie doesn’t do well in those areas. We do see Timothy Mouse in the movie but he’s pretty much a cameo and forgotten just as quickly as we meet him. The Baby Mine song, which is easily the movie’s most emotional moment, is reduced to a mere couple of seconds resulting in any emotion that the original drew from all the animals getting to be put to sleep by their parents and Mrs. Jumbo unable to do so getting underplayed. Even the Pink Elephants sequence, which was so weird it seems almost perfect for Burton to adapt is underplayed with it just being a bunch of bubbles taking various shapes. The sequence in both movies was filler but this one is shorter only using bubbles and not much else. In fact it doesn’t even come from Dumbo getting drunk. Even though the original didn’t serve much purpose there was so much creativity in the scene that it was hard not to get entranced by all the colors, shapes, and designs of the elephants. It feels like the remake glossed over the scene and it feels pointless.
The black crows aren’t in this movie at all but that’s understandable. They were horribly seen as racist back then and wouldn’t fly (pun intended) in today’s society.
Dumbo can have some level of appeal for kids as the title character is cute and the flying scenes can entertain them. But nothing about this movie captures the strangeness of the original nor does it improve upon any of the other aspects. Dumbo 2019 may get off the ground but he’s not soaring in this movie.