As the Disney monolith becomes increasingly diabolical in its attempt to chemically engineer every release for maximum emotional — and monetary — investment, a Tim Burton remake of Dumbo seems like a no-brainer. What could possibly be a better fit for Hollywood’s most whimsically depressing auteur than an animated classic that served as an extended animal-cruelty PSA? Burton pinches that nerve hard in this reimagining of the story, and it is the man’s intention to have our eyes water when the slightest of harm befalls the floppy-eared hero. However, the film he builds around that tear fishing is one of his more reserved efforts. More Big Fish than Alice in Wonderland.
The heart of the tale stems from the trials between amputated war veteran Holt Fischer (Colin Farrell) and his two children (Finley Hobbins & Nico Parker). Returning to the circus that he preformed in with his recently deceased wife (classic), he struggles to find his footing as a loving authority figure. That is until emcee Max Medici (Danny DeVito) purchases an elephant who has just become a new mommy to a flying baby with big ol’ ears. As the story of the flying elephant spreads, the bond between Holt and his kids grows stronger — and is eventually put to the test when greedy billionaire V.A. “definitely not Donald Trump” Vandemere (Michael Keaton) comes into the picture to make Dumbo part of his futuristic amusement park.
As always, Burton’s aesthetics takes the driver’s seat, but this time they’re more subdued. He wisely bucks the expectation to build his 20th-century circus purely on bombast. It certainly boasts its fair share of quirky designs and characters, but they’re not screaming in your face and instead running through the background of his gorgeous compositions, letting us notice them ourselves. He waits until the performance sequences to crank up the style and even then, he lets his Busby Burkley’s flying circus production design do most of the work.
He lets the darker moments play as just that, with a more mellow Danny Elfman soundtrack underscoring the emotion. It helps that we have a creature at the center that most of the world will find irresistible. While I personally find the design of CGI Dumbo a little grotesque, I can certainly appreciate the fact that his large expressive eyes and baby-like whine is adorable in its own way. He doesn’t have quite as much personality as a title character should, with the movie mostly happening around him, but he gets the job done.
Farrell and DeVito bring a gravitas to Transformers writer Ehren Kruger’s hokey dialogue that only veteran character actors could. Where other actors might’ve made more of a show of working with Holt’s “southern boy” charm and single arm, Farrell just lets both bleed into his performance. His focus is on the earnestness of the character, and there’s never a moment where he doesn’t seem sincere.
If only Hobbins and Parker were stronger actors. Their wooden delivery often flattens these warm moments, as Farrell has to do most of the heavy lifting. DeVito brings his delightfully boisterous persona to his ringmaster, while still keeping his performance grounded. It’s a whimsical turn that somehow never falls into caricature. He feels like he was pulled out of Burton’s mind, instead of having to adjust to fit into it. Meanwhile, Eva Green brings a luminous old Hollywood charm to her slightly underwritten role as a trapeze artist who takes a liking to Holt. The same cannot be said for Keaton, who misses the mark completely as the sneering villain. He’s introduced as a seductively positive force, but we never doubt for a moment that he’s up to something. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going into Dumbo looking for unpredictability, but we could’ve at least had a some buildup.
While Dumbo never pushes itself far enough to truly break the mold, it is one of the more distinct Disney remakes thus far. Burton doesn’t make a circus of his stylistic choices, trusting the audience to connect with the story without shoving the messages in their face. It’s a little long, going a bit broke in its wild circus burning climax that starts to dilute the sweet nature of the story, but ultimately lands on its feet with a very moving final sequence. It’s certainly not essential viewing, but Disney completists will find that this version of the classic flies fairly high no matter what one’s familiarity with the original is.
Also, there are no racist crows. Solid choice, Tim.