New reviews, interviews, and features via RSS or Email.

Sponsored Links


(2019) ** 1/2 Pg
112 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Director: Tim Burton. Cast: Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Alan Arkin.

/content/films/5153/1.jpgDumbo is a strange beast, indeed. I don’t mean the character of an elephant born with ears so big he can flap them and take flight. And I don’t mean the 1941 Disney animated feature starring that elephant. No, I mean Disney’s new live-action, CGI-heavy reimagining of Dumbo, which turns out to be part bland kids-and-animals adventure and part Coen Brothers-esque period satire. The former will get by with kids, and the latter may get by with adults, but few are likely to have an euphoric experience seeing this elephant fly (again).

As is so often the case with the films of Tim Burton, Dumbo is less than the sum of its parts, but some of those parts are pretty nifty. The 1941 Dumbo told a more or less straightforward story of an elephant, born with a difference, who learns to make the most of it and find his confidence. That thread can still be discerned in Burton’s film, but as scripted by Ehren Kruger (Transformers: Dark of the Moon), Dumbo has morphed into a fable of modernized entertainment business models and the handling and packaging of IP. If you’re thinking that seems like strange thematic material for a PG Disney movie aimed at families, you’re right—and it gets stranger.

Burton’s Dumbo opens in 1919, when the Medici Bros. Circus tours backwaters by way of a train named Casey Jr. At the film’s outset, a one-armed war vet named Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) rejoins the troupe and his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). The children miss their late mother and struggle to connect with the awkwardly uncommunicative Holt, now assigned to elephant wrangling. The arrival of pachyderm newborn Jumbo Jr.—swiftly redubbed Dumbo following his first disastrous performance—begins a journey that will change the Farriers and the larger family that is the circus troupe.

The kids discover that Dumbo can fly, and though at first they’re not believed, a mishap leads to Dumbo performing his trick before a wowed crowd. And so, in almost equal measure to the story of the Farriers and their elephant charge, this Dumbo tracks the conflict between two huckster-showmen: the lovably gruff homunculus Max Medici (an energetic Danny DeVito), who runs the circus, and the dapper exploiter V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) who arrives to offer a partnership with Medici as a way of getting his mitts on star attraction Dumbo (a third Burton regular, Eva Green, turns up as Vandevere’s French trapeze artist Collette).

Naturally, Vandevere can’t be trusted. While his unconvincing hair and an emphatic plot point of family separation may put some in mind of Donald J. Trump, Vandevere is clearly an avatar for Walt Disney himself. That’s the big idea that saves Burton’s Dumbo from total irrelevance. The old-timey Medici Bros. Circus gets absorbed into Vandevere’s giant operation, a proto-Disneyland boardwalk-meets-world’s-fair called Dreamland. In an unfortunate bit of synergy for its corporate parent, Dumbo arrives just as Disney absorbs the now defunct 20th Century Fox to become a mega-studio, laying off thousands in the process.

Though Burton favors withholding mood lighting, the picture works fine as a family picture, one that’s occasionally charming and frequently a feast for the senses (Dumbo’s first flight around a stable gives the movie its Jurassic Park moment of “wow,” with the thunder of leathery, flapping ears swooping through the surround-soundscape). Flight remains a kid-friendly symbol of desirable confidence and freedom, the script pays lips service to Milly’s intellect (“I want to make scientific discoveries,” she explains. “I want to be noticed for my mind”), the bullies always get it in the end, and Dumbo’s sorta cute.

The adults will focus more on Rich Heinrich’s production design and Colleen Atwood’s costumes (neither of which disappoints), and grasp at any odd touch of Burton’s creativity (how he reframes “Pink Elephants on Parade” as an elephant’s non-drunken reverie of imagination, for example, or grants the South-Asiatic Dumbo a lipstick bindi at the film’s resolution). As usual, Burton isn’t making matters easy for his corporate overlords to just sell some plush toys and be done with it. Though he’s still clumsy with story, Dumbo’s got enough wit to deserve an audience.

Share/bookmark: Digg Facebook Fark Furl Google Bookmarks Newsvine Reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo! My Web Permalink Permalink
Sponsored Links