Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Ehren Kruger
Starring: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin
Runtime: 112 Minutes
The question that’s been hanging over this live-action remake of Dumbo since its announcement and throughout its promotional campaign has been what on earth the film is even supposed to be. A strange hodgepodge of embellishment, box-ticking of nostalgic moments from the original 1941 classic and the visual eccentricities of director Tim Burton behind the reigns. But now that the film is here, all that’s really to be said is that the film lacks any identity beyond exactly what was presumed of it in the first place.
While the original was a simple story of a ridiculed baby circus elephant learning he can fly at the climax, that storyline is burned up in the first act and then gives way to further plot developments involving a ruthless and enigmatic entrepreneur, and amusement park owner who buys the circus to exploit the titular elephant for his bohemian amusement park, Dreamland.
The film is overly busy on multiple fronts, from the abundance of one-dimensional characters who serve no deeper function than to fill in the gaps of the story and scope as support to Dumbo, to Burton’s increasingly garish and washed out aesthetic and visual design that just makes everything look like clutter as opposed to the whimsy and extravagance it’s supposedly displaying.
Dreamland is a thinly veiled parallel to Disneyland, with Michael Keaton’s entrepreneur V. A. Vandevere a mincing parody of Walt Disney with retro-futurist ambitions in an effort to throw commentary on Disney’s current penchant for eating up smaller enterprises by buying them out and separating the pieces amongst profit, marketability and putting on a show. But it’s so much defensiveness disguised as humility and doesn’t really lend itself to much subtext beyond just sitting there as fat, ugly text.
The dialogue only makes the dimensionless characters even more emotionally empty and lacking in depth, and all have literally one defining character trait that ends up having an expected payoff later on. None of the actors end off coming off well, with Colin Farrell looking bored as an amputated World War I veteran and single father, Danny DeVito sleepwalking through his role as a benevolent ringmaster and two vacant child performances as Dumbo’s support family. Keaton takes the cake in the film’s most scenery-chewing performance, but Eva Green (Burton’s new muse of the moment) comes off best through nothing but sheer charisma and physicality as a Dreamland performer.
Amongst all of this is Dumbo, buried in the margins in a supporting role in his own film. Although brought to life through digital effects, the design still eschews toward the artificial with large saucer blue eyes and overly animated expressions, and the disconnect feels somehow stronger once the film starts trying to apply real physics to how this creature would actually get off the ground and fly.
But he has his cute moments at points if lacking any of originals emotionality, and in the early stages where he is learning to fly, memories of the magical realism of Big Fish spring to mind and it makes some sense as to why Burton may have been led adapting to such material.
But then again, that’s all that Dumbo ultimately is. A mix of intentions and themes that never really coalesce into anything more interesting, substantive or engaging, with scenes such as the Pink Elephants rendition playing out for no reason other than as an acknowledged reference as Dumbo nodds his head along to Elfman's bombastic score. Once the film starts throwing in the big messages right at the end without warning, it’s even more jarring just how little the rest has had to say about anything that’s been going on beyond visual distraction.
Dumbo is by far and away the weakest and least thought-out live-action Disney adaptation to date. Lost in a void of damp spectacle and muted colours, the film is ugly, arch and mean without much purpose, checking off the beats and call-backs as it goes along with a busy and uninvolving screenplay and visual pallet. Had it been stranger or more daring in approach, it might have been something more memorable.