A film review by Craig J. Koban April 8, 2019

DUMBO (2019) jj

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






It's utterly 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. 

Max eventually 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. 

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