Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito
Here’s an interesting fact for audiences who have never seen the original Dumbo (yes, Gen Z’ers, the Tim Burton live-action “spectacle” is not the first time a flying elephant has ever graced a movie screen): In the 1941 animated feature, Dumbo, with his ears as large as unfurled parachutes, only learned to fly in the last few minutes of the first movie! Think about that. Dumbo is the product of a movie era where stories were disciplined enough to get you to care about characters, get you invested enough in their battle against the odds, before they reveal their surprises. The last time I can remember feeling that surge of elation—that thrilling drop-lift of the stomach—was when E.T. lifted Elliott’s bicycle past the moon so they could escape the police.
Here are more movies that needed fixing:
These days, it seems like CGI has made filmmakers lazy, especially those that work for Disney. The studio is now raiding its vault of classics so you can see dancing candelabra, swaggering bears, and blue genies as photo-realistically as possible. Which is not to trash entirely the computerized imagery in Tim Burton’s live-action retelling. In the retelling, it is just after World War I, and the Medici Brothers traveling circus (which is actually a misnomer, because only one impresario is operating it—Max, played gleefully by Danny DeVito) is hoping that a pregnant African elephant will raise its sagging profile. The Great War has taken a toll on its audience, and on at least one of the circus’ denizens: an equestrian stunt rider named Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell, who has returned from the battlefield sans a left arm and any emotional intelligence to bond with his motherless kids, Millly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). When the elephant gives birth to a cutely deformed calf with large ears, the little pachyderm is at first shunned—until Holt’s kids discover that it can achieve lift off if they offer the visual cue of a feather.
Technology has progressed to the point where Dumbo’s flying scenes, which start early in the movie and then happen at a frequent clip, achieve that sense of exhilaration, that convincing mix of freedom and vertigo. But something vital is missing, and most of the blame lies squarely on Ehren Kruger’s deficient script, which plunks human characters in a story that didn’t need them before…and then doesn’t summon enough interest in them. Tim Burton has made a career out of putting outsiders front and center in his films, and the best of them—Ed Wood, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands—explore the cracked beauty of their freakishness. So what better playground for Tim Burton’s off-kilter sensibilities than a circus, a big top chock full of freaks, right? And yet, Kruger demotes Medici’s denizens to bit players. What’s worse: He takes the obvious metaphor of his armless hero’s infirmity—he’s damaged just like Dumbo—but doesn’t explore it, certainly not to a degree that feels emotionally satisfying.
And so the onus of Tim Burton’s Central Outsider falls on CGI Dumbo, who is invested with enough smarts to grasp a complicated psychological concept like emotional crutches. (Why? Because the script is too intellectually sluggish to think of more ingenious ways to save its central creature from his captors.) But Dumbo, cute as he may be, is not meant to have the layers of an inept director whose movies are so bad they’re practically genius, or a supernatural trickster who just wants to join the land of the living, or a lab experiment whose shears-for-hands thwart his desire to connect. Dumbo is only an innocent who has things happen to him. And, boy, do they: Once word of Medici’s hit spreads, amusement park magnate V. A. Vandervere (Michael Keaton) offers to buy the circus impresario out and absorb his troupe into his glitzy operation. And of course, it’s not long before we discover that Vandervere has nefarious plans for the flying pachyderm and his caretakers.
Forget for a minute how hard it is to swallow a story about the evils of a large corporation gobbling up a small operation… from a behemoth corporation who has gobbled up many smaller operations. Everything about Dumbo feels as artificial as Michael Keaton’s platinum marcel wig. Even more dispiriting: Dumbo also feels expected. The beats are so rote, even Dumbo’s quest to reunite with his mother—and the attendant effects on the story’s human characters—lack emotional punch. Sadly, the live-action remake of Dumbo doesn’t fly as high as it should.