There’s a pungent irony to Disney remaking Dumbo, a tale of smaller companies being gobbled up by a cash-loose corporation in aid of exploiting a particular attraction. Whether it’s Star Wars, X-Men or, in this case, a flying elephant, the unfortunate timing of this addition to the spate of ‘live-action’ remakes inhibits its pure charm.
Tim Burton is at the helm of this reimagining, a connoisseur of gothic whimsy and, on paper, the correct choice; he’s known for injecting his auteurist wickedness into fairytales and ghost stories. Similarly to the bulk of Disney’s animated classics, which often disguise the grim under the guise of the dazzling.
But, keeping with Burton’s general slip in quality since the turn of the millennium (with a few exceptions; Big Fish and Sweeney Todd, for example), there’s not only a contradictory itch, but also a lack of real ambition. From the opening schlocky montage of Max Medici’s (Danny DeVito) circus travelling cross-country, à la Indiana Jones’ map transitions, and into the abrasively green-screened world, it takes a while for the thing to really draw you in.
The 1941 tear-jerker is, remarkably, only 64 minutes long. Burton beefs it up to a fatter 112 minutes, and as such, there are some added trimmings; equestrian performer and World War One veteran Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns home to the circus, which is financially struggling. Their luck changes, though – Harrier’s children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) discover that a new baby elephant with abnormally large ears can fly. This attracts the eye of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a flamboyant but mysterious entrepreneur who buys out Medici to have Dumbo perform alongside French trapeze artist Colette (Eva Green) at his massive amusement park, Dreamland.
Here’s the thing; the extra human drama simply falls under the feet of the cutest elephant in showbiz. Ehren Kruger’s script does the cast no favours, with DeVito’s admirably energetic performance troubled by how unbalanced his arc is. Farrell feels rather out of place, stumbling and mumbling through a number of set-pieces – although one thing the script does well is highlight the hypocrisy of the circus in asking him to cover up his amputated arm. And the kids are offered up some of the driest, wooden, most on-the-nose dialogue (Parker says very early on: “I want to be known for my mind” before any sort of long-standing pressure against that ambition is established).
Green brings that ever-effective air of mystique, but isn’t afforded as much to really grapple with. Though, Keaton has some gleefully malicious fun with the role, a real hissable villain and a delight to see a role-reversal of sorts with his fellow Batman alumnus, DeVito.
But the fact of the matter is any scene that doesn’t involve Dumbo is a ticking clock. The CGI work on the titular creature is impressive, particularly in a recreation of the heart-breaking ‘Baby Mine’ scene (this time beautifully performed by Sharon Rooney). The hardship that befalls him does physically hurt you; it is a tale of suffering after all, and the several crying infants in my screening testify that Dumbo is a joyous, but intensely sad affair.
In the transfer to live-action, there are pros and cons. Burton’s world-building is transportive, with the aid of Ben Davis’ stunning, silhouette-adept cinematography which sends the heart soaring when Dumbo takes flight. There’s an enchanting bubble sequence that, albeit momentarily defies the grounded feel prior, feels like an ode to the wonder of Fantasia (the music from Danny Elfman, a frequent collaborator, is toe-tappingly excellent but lacks in walkaway power). But the same magic isn’t there. Dumbo is, in fact, an aerodynamic impossibility, there’s a scene where we’re supposed to believe Green’s character can’t see an airborne elephant around her, and Dreamland is a telling indicator that Disney have never heard the phrase, “check yourself before you wreck yourself”. And most hilariously of all, how can you really take a film seriously that has world-famous boxing announcer Michael Buffer shout “Let’s get ready for Dumbo”?
In-film posters ask circus attendees to “Believe” in Dumbo. The problem is, I couldn’t.
Directed by: Tim Burton
Cast: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin