PG, 112 mins.
2019, PG, 112 mins.
Colin Farrell as Holt Farrier / Michael Keaton as V. A. Vandemere / Danny DeVito as Max Medici / Eva Green as Colette Marchant / Finley Hobbins as Joe Farrier / Nico Parker as Milly Farrier / Alan Arkin as J. Griffin Remington
Directed by Tim Burton / Written by Ehren Kruger
ironic that we can essentially thank Tim Burton for the recent batch of
Disney's live action adaptations of their own cherished animated classics.
The studio's recent and highly dubious business practice as of late really began with Burton's own large scale and lavish live action iteration of their own ALICE IN WONDERLAND, which managed to make over a billion dollars at the box office and helped pave the way for future easy cash grab adaptations to come.
Now, this is all ironic
because Burton began his career as an animator for Disney back in the
early 80s, and his macabre aesthetic sensibilities simply didn't blend
well together with the family friendly stylings of his employer, which led
to him leaving. Considering
how Burton managed to make a name for himself as an filmmaker with an off-kiltered
and dark sensibility that bucked status quos (and was kind of everything
Disney was not), it is, yes, ironic, that he would make a full
circle career turn and helm not one, but two massive live action
adaptations in ALICE IN WONDERLAND and now DUMBO.
Of course, that
latter mentioned 1941 animated film - based in turn on a 1939 book by
Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl - has become the stuff of iconic legend in
the annals of genre and Disney history.
It told the heart warming - and oftentimes devastatingly
heartbreaking - tale of a misunderstood circus elephant, initially mocked
and ridiculed because of his odd and outlandishly large big ears (which
helped solidify his nickname) that also had a highly unique ability to fly
using said ears as flapping wings. Aspects of DUMBO have certainly not aged well, but even
today the film has a purity of heart and powerful dramatic simplicity
that's hard to overlook. It's
also hard to overlook how genuinely unnecessary making a live action
update of such a hallowed classic really is, and this new version of DUMBO
most definitely boasts that quintessential Burton-esque visual flair (on a
level of art direction and production design, the film is a bravura
technical accomplishment), but
emotionally is a pretty hollow and empty endeavor.
It's a blockbuster of sumptuous sights and sounds, but very little
lasting dramatic potency.
I will concede,
though, that at least Burton is trying to do something a bit different
with the inherent source material as opposed to (as the recent BEAUTY
AND THE BEAST lazily did) just slavishly and methodically
rehashing it beat for beat. The
original DUMBO was all about the animals, but here for this go around we
have the titular outcast character surrounded by human characters, which
means that this isn't as pure of a remake as past efforts from Disney.
Unfortunately, the actors assembled give performances ranging from
robotically wooden to middling at best, and none of them truly inhabit
characters that are the slightest bit compelling on the page.
It's noteworthy that the most relatable character in DUMBO is,
well, Dumbo himself, but it begs the question as to what's the
point of assembling such fine acting talent if you're not going to give
them well rounded and developed personas to play?
As DUMBO opens we
are introduced to the semi-struggling Medici Brothers Circus, a traveling
act that journeys all over post-World War I America.
One of the circus' star attractions, Colt (Colin Farrell,
disappointingly flat and bland), has been overseas serving in the war and
has finally returned home, albeit mentally and physically broken (he also
lost an arm in combat). His two kids - Nico Parker and Finely Hobbins - can't wait to
see their father again, especially seeing as they all just recently lost
their mother due to the 1918 flu pandemic.
The circus owner in Max (a committed and spirited Danny DeVito) is
elated to see one his main attractions return home. He desperately needs his aid as an elephant wrangler for his
latest attraction, dubbed "Jumbo", but when she gives birth to a
little baby elephant with freakishly long ears and is later forcibly
segregated from him after she went on a temper tantrum, poor little Dumbo
feels alone and dejected in the world.
sells Dumbo's momma and keeps him, but as he and everyone in the circus
learns of the elephant's extraordinary ability to defy gravity he becomes
an overnight sensation during a profitable tour.
Dumbo catches the eyes of an unscrupulous promoter, V.A. Vandervere
(Michael Keaton), that will stop at nothing to ensure that this
fantastical animal is his and his alone to use as he feels in his own
massive circus. Part of the
hypnotic allure for me in seeing DUMBO is that it represents a BATMAN
RETURNS reunion film of sorts for Burton, DeVito, and Keaton (the latter
having also appeared for the director in BEETLEJUICE), but the resulting
film gives the pair so very little to do in playing effectively off of one
another. DeVito has an infectious enthusiasm playing his character
that goes a long way, but Keaton here is chronically wasted in his one
note villain role. With a
peculiar wig and problematically distracting accent, Keaton provides one
of the most off-puttingly weird performances of his career.
Again, one of the
failings of DUMBO is its lack of an intriguing human element and
performances that feel equal to the task of selling this film's
extraordinary sights. Then
there are the multiple story elements dealing with dead mothers, the
horrors of war, crippled fathers, and so forth that distracts away, I
feel, from the core appeal of DUMBO as the film's main hero.
Dumbo himself is sort of the pitch perfect embodiment of the
typical Burton protagonist - a quirky and strange outsider that
uncomfortably has to walk though life dealing with ridicule - and the
visual effects are indeed convincing at selling us on the idea that this
bizarre animal could plausibly inhabit the real world.
Yet, DUMBO lacks a serious amount of sincerity and heart when
compared to the original, mostly because the hand animated elephant was so
endlessly loveable, but here he's a meticulously rendered CGI creation
that's more coldly distancing. And
when it comes to trying to re-package some of the original's most tear
inducing moments (like the 1941 version's tear-inducing scene featuring a
chained mother elephant interlocking trucks with her worried baby, one of
the saddest scenes in motion picture history), Burton's efforts come off
as more dutifully workmanlike, mostly because he's simply crafting a
facsimile these memorable instances.
Here's another thing: The original DUMBO was just 60-plus minutes long, which seemed relatively perfect (it was Disney's shortest animated feature). Walt's ambitions with such a scant running time was to keep everything succinct and simple, yet draw out big emotions from his viewers (he was undoubtedly ingenious for his creative economy in making DUMBO). Burton's version feels way, way too long and far too padded with too many dull and uninspired characters in an obvious effort to elongate this version to something appropriating feature length. This DUMBO is twice as long, but no where near twice as effective of its antecedent. This is not a hopelessly lost enterprise, though, because Burton (along with production designer Rick Heinrichs and longtime costume designer Colleen Atwood) is given all of the financial resources from Disney to let his madcap imagination run vividly alive; this movie is a technically dazzling showstopper. Everything else built around this exquisitely pretty visual facade, however, lands with a thud when the film should have joyously soared to the heavens.
1941's DUMBO was selected by the U.S. National Film Registry two years ago for preservation as a work of "cultural, historical, and aesthetic" significance. It's a film that has lingered with audiences for multiple generations and is rightfully worshipped as a result. I highly doubt that most filmgoers will remember Burton's DUMBO remake in a week's time.