DUMBO – Review – We Are Movie Geeks


DUMBO – Review

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A scene from Disney’s live-action DUMBO. Courtesy of Disney Enterprises

Anticipation was high for Disney’s live-action remake of its classic animated film DUMBO, particularly when Tim Burton was tapped to direct. Burton’s films often look they take place in a magical, circus-like fantasy world, so it seemed like a sure thing for DUMBO. But while the new DUMBO soars visually, with all the color and magical fantasy hoped for, the re-make of the tale of the little circus elephant that flies falls flat, due to a muddled, wandering script that loses the charm of the original in the sawdust.

By far, the best thing about the new DUMBO is how it looks. DUMBO is visually delightful, as Tim Burton creates a gorgeous, color-drenched, magical circus world with a touch of steam punk. But the director’s good work is undermined by its rambling, dull script by Ehren Kruger, which shifts the focus from the little elephant to a story about the circus and a circus family. Small children and some grown-up die-hard Disney fans might enjoy the live-action DUMBO, but others will be disappointed, as it just does not compare well to the original.

Disney’s classic animated film DUMBO charmed children and parents alike with its tale of a little elephant overcoming bullying and discovering his own hidden talent, with the help of his loving mother and an encouraging circus mouse friend named Timothy The focus of that sweet story is on the mother-child relationship and the young elephant’s discovery of his own special talent, with the help of his mouse friend.

In this live-action version, the CGI animals don’t talk. While both the mother elephant and a circus mouse are still present, the job of encouraging the little elephant falls to two kids, the children of the little circus’ one-time star attraction. However, the change does not work very well and the film does not make much of an effort with it anyway, as the focus is shifted to the adults in the story, particularly the kids’ father and the owner of the struggling little circus. The baby elephant with giant ears who can fly becomes more a supporting character. Not what fans envisioned.

This story is set in 1919, with brother and sister circus kids, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), eagerly wait for their father Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) to return from serving in World War I. Before the war, the kids’ parents had been the stars of the little Medici Brothers circus with a daring bareback riding act. The tight-knit community of performers in the aging little Medici Brothers Circus cared for the kids after their mother died in the 1918 flu epidemic but they hope for better times when dad returns, However, when dad steps off the train, the kids get a new shock when they see he has lost his right arm in the war. The circus’ owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is struggling to keep the rundown little circus afloat and it is not clear what a one-armed horse trainer is going to do, but the impresario will figure something out. Having lost his star attraction, the circus owner invests in a new big draw, an enormous elephant named Jumbo. Better yet, she’s pregnant so the circus is getting a two-fer. When the baby elephant is born, it has freakishly large ears, and the impresario thinks his dreams of sold-out shows are over.

When some of the crew mistreat both elephants, the kids and Holt intervene, and the kids bond with the little elephant, particularly after mom Jumbo is sold. Both the big-eared baby elephant and Holt wind up in the clown act where the little guy gets nicknamed Dumbo. A tickling feather reveals Dumbo’s hidden talent: he can use his enormous ears to fly. The flying elephant draws the attention of V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a millionaire owner of a big, flashy amusement park, who tells the owner of the little circus he wants to help, although we all know there will be a price for that. Vandevere has a plan to star the flying elephant with his French aerialist Colette Marchant (Eva Green). Alan Arkin plays Vandevere investor J. Griffin Remington.

The CGI is wonderful and the scenes of the flying elephant are breathtaking but Dumbo is more a supporting character while the family take the center spot. Unfortunately, the emotional connection between mom and baby elephant is muted, and the kids don’t create the same emotional connection with the elephant as Timothy Mouse did. In fact, the scenes with the kids and the elephant feel flat and forced. The kids’ parts are underdeveloped, with the the girl’s interest in science feeling tacked on and her younger brother is little more than a shadow. The adult actors are the real story focus.

Danny DeVito does his crusty character best as the owner of the little circus, as he falls under the spell of the charming but manipulative wealthy amusement park owner, played with style by Michael Keaton. Colin Farrell does his best to tug at hearts as the always-optimistic Holt, and there is a romance subplot with Eva Green’s French aerialist, who is paired with Dumbo for a Dreamland show.

Visually, DUMBO is a dream. Tim Burton works his magic completely, creating a gorgeous fantasy circus world, both the fading vintage charm of the Medici Brothers Circus and the big, eye-popping extravagance of the millionaire’s Dreamland. While the Medici circus is all sawdust old-fashioned warmth and cotton-candy brightness, darker shades emerge in the coolly-gleaming polish of the big, flashy Dreamland, which has a steam punk vibe.

Audiences may note that amusement park Dreamland has an eerie resemblance to Disneyland, right down to a hall of science that echoes Tomorrowland. It is one of the film’s most intrigue aspects, and given that this is a Disney film, the subtext is curious. Tim Burton reportedly has a fraught history with the company, and when the D falls off the amusement park’s entrance sign, the message seems clear. Maybe the company, fresh off its acquisition of 21st Century Fox, decided to just let this one go.

DUMBO is a very pretty film but a pretty slow, rambling one. The story is a mess, without the sweetness and appeal of the original. While little kids will likely still enjoy it, it might be more of a slog for parents, particularly disappointing if they are grown-up fans of the original.

DUMBO opens Friday, March 29, at multiple theaters.

RATING: 2 out of 5 stars