Tim Burton's darker take on the Disney classic boasts a gorgeous star whose screen time is sadly abbreviated.
March 28, 2019
Of course Tim Burton did a Dumbo remake. How could he not? For a director who's built his career around tales of misunderstood misfits, outcasts and oddities, an orphaned and absurd-looking circus elephant must've been all but irresistible. 'Edward Aero-Ears', if you will. And yet, this is more of a reimagining than a remake, melding modern themes of gender equality, animal welfare and anti-corporatisation with Burton's trademark touch of the macabre.
The first notable difference between this version and the animated original from 1941 is its timeline, set now in post-war 1919. Burton certainly doesn't shy away from the bleak realities of the WWI era. His protagonist, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), is a traumatised veteran who's lost an arm to the War and a wife to influenza. Finding work scarce and his injury an added obstacle to employment, Holt rejoins the old circus where once he dazzled as a horseback entertainer, but now merely shovels elephant manure.
It's there, though, where he and his children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) discover Dumbo, the baby elephant with enormous ears, whose appearance sees him mocked by audiences and dismissed by the circus owner (Danny DeVito). In one of the film's more heartbreaking scenes (and there are few; this is definitely a tissues-at-the-ready situation), Dumbo's mother Jumbo is wrenched from her son and hauled away after she kills her torturous trainer and handler (a suitably loathsome Phil Zimmerman). It's not the only grim moment in the film, either.
With his mother now gone, and amidst grief and despair, Dumbo's miraculous ability to fly becomes apparent, launching him into stardom and attracting the interests of an unscrupulous Walt Disney-esque theme park owner named V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton). From there, predictably, the circus's seemingly golden ticket reveals itself to be a far darker deal from which escape offers up all manner of perils.
The live-action remake is Disney's new cash card (as if it needed one). Having already made bank with Beauty and the Beast, the studio is now poised to release both Aladdin and Mulan, followed later in the year by the Lion King, which will doubtless eclipse all manner of box office records. Where Disney has been successful so far is in melding human actors with their digital counterparts, and Dumbo, if you'll forgive the pun, soars in that respect. His enormous blue eyes and delicate expressions imbue him with almost more emotion than any of the actors given speaking parts, and when he flies so too does the film.
Sadly, however, too much of the remainder feels entirely lacklustre, despite its exaggerated colourful palette. The characters, aside from DeVito and, to a lesser extent, Farrell, are woefully underwritten, while the performances are borderline pantomime. And in a movie named after him, not nearly enough focus is placed on Dumbo himself.