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Dumbo Review

March 29, 2019 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
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Dumbo Review  

Directed By: Tim Burton
Written By: Ehren Kruger
Runtime: 112 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language

Colin Farrell – Holt Farrier
Danny DeVito – Max Medici
Michael Keaton – V. A. Vandevere
Eva Green – Colette Marchant
Nico Parker – Milly Farrier
Finley Hobbins – Joe Farrier
Deobia Oparei – Rongo
Alan Arkin – J. Griffin Remington

Disney’s latest foray into the realm of live-action remakes for its animated catalog comes in the form of Dumbo, from visionary director Tim Burton. A remake of the 1941 animated classic, Burton struggles and fails to recapture the magic of the 1941 classic, delivering a family film that’s inoffensive, but also fairly bland and mediocre.

Set in the 1910s, Burton’s film has shifted the focus off of the film’s titular elephant and on a family of carnival folk. Holt Farrier, a circus horse rider, finally returns home from The Great War to his young children Milly (Parker) and Joe (Hobbins). Unfortunately, Holt’s wife and the children’s mother passed while he was away at war, and he also lost his arm in battle. The circus they call home, the Medici Bros. Circus, has also fallen on hard times. The ringleader, Max Medici (DeVito), was forced to sell Holt’s horses, but he hopes the purchase of a new pregnant elephant will bring fortune and a new attraction to the group. Holt and his children are given the task of wrangling and overseeing the prospective mother elephant, Jumbo, who soon gives birth to her infant elephant, a cute one who happens to have inexplicably giant ears.

Soon, Holt’s children are able to see that the baby’s large ears let him move high off the ground and fly in the air. Unfortunately, the baby, who is later dubbed Dumbo, is taunted by unruly audience members, leading him to be separated from his rightfully protective mother. Eventually, the children are able to help bring out Dumbo’s gift to use his ears to fly as part of their circus act, which brings some new life and attention to Medici’s declining outfit. It soon gains the attention of V. A. Vandevere (Keaton), a wealthy mogul and business magnate who persuades Medici into a business merger with his Dreamland theme park. Insert your jokes about Vandevere being Walt Disney and Dreamland being Disneyland here because the parallels are fairly obvious and hard to ignore.

Eventually, Holt and the children come to realize Vandevere is a callous con artist who cares not for the wellbeing of Dumbo or his other performers, including his star trapeze artist, Collette Marchant (Green). Of course, that means the Farriers and the rest of the neglected carnival folk have to come together to help Dumbo.

The real tragedy of Ehren Kruger’s fairly lazy and paint-by-the-numbers script is that it forgets about its star character. Dumbo is more or less an after-thought in this film. He’s boiled down to a visual gag and gets little in the way of actual characterization. Instead, the film opts to focus more on the struggling father Holt and his daughter Milly, who dreams more about science and experiments than wanting to become a performer in the circus. It’s a stark contrast to the classic original, where the humans were present but pushed into the background. Here, it’s in reverse. As a result, Dumbo has been marginalized as a character. The one moment where it seems Dumbo gets to show some actual characterization is in a sequence that pays homage to the infamous pink elephant scene from the animated original.

The performances are adequate but nothing to write home about. DeVito is essentially playing his same character from the far superior Big Fish. Keaton puts in an underwhelming performance as the undercooked character, V. A. Vandervere. It’s not even a fun and goofy scene-chewing outing for Keaton like his work in American Assassin. His voice and mannerisms are inconsistent. In some scenes, it appears as if Keaton was still not settled on his characterization for this flamboyantly dressed robber baron. Other scenes have him grunting and mumbling many of his lines as if he was only on board for the paycheck despite re-teaming with his original filmmaker for Beetlejuice, Batman and his costar from Batman Returns.

The always reliable Eva Green puts in a decent performance as Collette, who thankfully does not turn out to be the vapid narcissist her character initially appeared to be. She also plays a very convincing aerial acrobat and trapeze artist. Green looks like she did a lot of her own trapeze work as the character manages to stay on her throughout those sequences without constantly cutting away. Additionally, the rest looks shot in a really grim, dark and murky fashion, which sadly seems to becoming an ongoing trend these days.

As a family film, Dumbo is largely inoffensive. It’s never completely terrible. This is a film families can likely enjoy together and find the antics of the baby elephant cute. As a remake, its attempts to break new ground are a letdown. It severely lacks the charm of the original animated film. None of the classic songs or music are there. It’s another adequate score from Danny Elfman that’s there, but isn’t all too memorable. There’s one reference to a song from the original with “Baby Mine,” but much like Dumbo in the movie, it’s basically an afterthought.

As a director, Tim Burton still has a flair for creative visuals and telling his story through unique visual set-pieces. This can be seen with the production design for the Dreamland theme park. On one hand, perhaps credit is due to Disney for letting Burton depict what appears to be such a negative take on the House of Mouse. On the other hand, it’s equally possible that no one in charge made the connection.

Dreamland and all that surrounds it is probably one of the more interesting ideas of the film, including the way it looks at Disney through a more critical lens. Even if the parallels are only noticeable in hindsight, there’s nothing wrong with a little self-evaluation now and again.

Regardless, it does appear that Burton’s talents, much like the work of Elfman, are in a bit of a decline. His strong sense of visual storytelling is not enough to elevate a very pedestrian script and rather milquetoast lead performances. The Jungle Book was overrated, but it turned out a lot better than this.

The final score: review Not So Good
The 411
Disney's Dumbo remake is a bland, mediocre update of a classic animated film from Disney's library. Burton does create some nice visuals and set-pieces, but the performances are fairly underwhelming. The film looks drab, and Dumbo is pushed to the side in favor of boring human characters. None of the charm that made the 1941 film such an enduring classic is present. It bets the question: Why even remake the film in the first place? As a family film, it's fairly generic and inoffensive fare that kids will likely enjoy for the cute Dumbo moments that are there. But as a remake, it's utterly pointless.