Well, that was as awkward as expected, but it being forgettable was surprising.
A baby elephant is born into a small circus troupe, and there a family discovers the elephant can fly on oversized ears! This draws the attention of another circus owner, promising them their dreams if the unique animal performs at his giant amusement park.
It is impossible to imagine any eyebrows that weren’t raised when it was announced director Tim Burton would direct Disney’s live action remake of Dumbo. It is a surreal choice (it would only be stranger if Guy Ritchie was to direct a live action Aladdin… oh wait…) and unsurprisingly, the final result is… mixed. In fact, it is actually quite forgettable.
All the way back in 1941 (wow) Walt Disney studios animated barely sixty minutes of cartoon, telling the tale of Dumbo, the flying baby elephant. It is famous for crushing small children’s hearts in sadness, and ending with a soaring “believe-in-yourself” message. It is a single note experience, narrow focus with few characters.
Now it is 2019, and we have a remake of nearly two hours.
Perhaps the best comparison is Disney’s other simple animated tale blown up into a bigger experience: 2016’s The Jungle Book. An excellent example of a story with untapped potential, being given a bigger scope for characters, visuals and storytelling. It felt revived, it felt like the remake had some reason to exist, without completely copying the original (cough-Beauty-and-the-Beast-cough). But where does Dumbo fit into this scale? Well, unfortunately, this one-trick elephant really doesn’t have anything else to offer with twice the film length.
Let’s summarise the screenplay:
Baby elephant flies in front of two children. Wow! Baby elephant flies in front of Colin Farrell. Wow! Baby elephant flies in front of Eva Green. Wow! Baby elephant flies in front of Michael Keaton. Wow! Baby elephant flies in front of crowd x2. Wow! Wow! Baby elephant flies some more! Wow?
To say that this film is tedious, is unfair. But to say the film is uninteresting isn’t far off the mark. The original film gave the emotional high of an elephant flying towards the end, but 2019’s experience really picks up that ball and just holds onto it for dear life. By the time we are supposed to be emotionally invested and scared for the characters, we’ve seen the darn elephant flying a dozen times already.
Of course, Dumbo isn’t alone. We have several human characters to boost the story and give more emotional investment right? Right?
The film has a dour atmosphere. It starts things off with two kids, Joe and Milly, who after losing their mother have anxiously waited for their father to return from the war. Holt, played by Colin Farrell, steps off the train to greet them with a missing arm. He is a struggling father, not connecting with his kids emotionally, and when the circus he belongs to has basically sold everything of his act, he has no way to make money. He takes the job of looking after the elephants, just in time for Dumbo to be born.
Wooooof. That’s a lot of heavy stuff to drop at audiences feet straight away. Not to mention the beats of the original it still has to go through, and…
Michael Keaton as evil Willy Wonka. The film transports our characters to a technical marvel of a circus wonderland. It even has a Halloween-esque “Nightmare Island” (of course it does, this is Tim Burton) which is really quite creepy, never mind unnecessary! Keaton’s character reminded me too much of his role in the dire RoboCop remake, a hoity-toity, power-hungry deceiver. A character who has very little to do that isn’t transparently obvious. Of course… he isn’t poor Colin Farrell, who has the worst material, taking part in the most half-assed character arc with his daughter seen in recent memory.
How is the CGI on Dumbo? It is… hit and miss. At first, it doesn’t look cute… and it never reaches the cuteness of the original, but you adjust to it over time. Then there are shots of Dumbo flying with Eva Green on his back… oh… oh dear.
So things aren’t looking good so far. There are some elements that rise out of the forgettable mash of screenplay problems. There are two moments of threat that did momentarily give some palpable dread, one being the circus-driven “towering inferno” scene (straight from the original’s finale). The film is also well shot; Burton has given everything a worn out aesthetic, and even the strangely retro sci-fi theme park is quite eye catching at times. The two locations are strongly depicted between warm glowing oranges and greens, then cold, metallic blues and greens. Even the train from the original becomes our opening scene, complete with catchy music, which was nice to see.
Then there is Danny DeVito as the circus owner and ringleader. This guy is the best. Who can hate Danny DeVito? He’s probably the only person on set who knows what film he’s in; a lovable, slapstick rogue. Easily he carries the film, and a lot of its score today comes directly from him.
But, everything is quite creepy (even the train!) because of Burton’s signature style. I don’t quite know why Disney is so intent on hiring him, he is a great filmmaker (most of the time…) but he isn’t cuddly Disney material. The film would probably entertain very small children, but unfortunately it is so unsettling at times it is hard to recommend… Nightmare Island is just absurd.
Unfortunately Dumbo is quite disappointing overall. An awkward experience that only proves that not everything can be boosted into a two hour feature.