In 1941, Walt Disney Productions and RKO released Dumbo, the story of a flying elephant with mommy issues. Running just over an hour, the film about a floppy-eared pachyderm and a bunch of circus performers has become an animated classic. Following latest trend from the studio, it’s also another old property to be mined, magnified, and expanded to elephantine proportions with a CGI/live-action hybrid.
Tim Burton’s vision for Dumbo is to almost double its girth, add a bunch more darkness, and somehow take seriously what was originally a trifle about the need to believe in oneself. In this version, we meet Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a veteran who returns to the circus run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito) only to be tasked with scooping scat rather than his previous horse act. Milly (Nico Parker) is his precocious, science-minded daughter, while son Joe (Finely Hobbins) is equally inquisitive.
Following the death of their mother and an awkward reunion with their father, the kids meet Medici’s newest addition to the troupe, a newborn baby elephant with ridiculous, oversized ears. The elephant’s flying abilities draw the attention of impresario V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who, along with trapeze artist Colette (Eva Green) and financier Remington (Alan Arkin), set to make this newest attraction the focus of their business.
Stepping metatextually outside the film, there’s something more than a bit surreal about the story’s cynicism toward theme park operations being released under the Disney banner. Burton has always been able to get away with more at the Mouse House than most, and here his sly, bemused outlook is a welcome addition. Casting his Batman and Penguin in the film makes for lots of scene chewing, while Arkin floats through the film with the breeziest of airs.
Farrell’s performance is committed if lacking in nuance, and one can’t help but picture that Burton regular Johnny Depp may well have brought just a bit more teeth to the role. DeVito’s energy is fine. Green isn’t given a tremendous amount to work with, but manages to make her scenes sing
The CGI animation of the animals is as excellent as expected, and the film has more than a few allusions to original scenes, including a bubble performance evocative of the pink elephants sequence from the 1941 version. These moments, along with the musical sequences, may well please fans. However, like many of these live-action remakes, I question why you wouldn’t simply watch the old version instead.
With all the explosions, undue repetition, circus trappings, and narrative asides, Dumbo feels particularly bloated. There wasn’t a lot of ground to cover from the original, yet somehow Burton’s vision and Ehren Kruger’s script feel dour and aimless, adding elements that do little to engage viewers. Attempts to graft subtle character moments against the backdrop of a flying elephant are admirable, and Burton is the right one to pull this off. The director has made a career of highlighting offbeat and strange characters in seemingly quotidian situations. Unfortunately, this ride has little going for it save for a few swoopy moments, and feels overwrought and aimless overall.
Dumbo lands with a thud. It’s a flawed attempt to expand the original story by adding in human emotions and frailty, merging socially rich drama with the fantasy of a flying elephant. Perhaps with a bit more concision the trick would have worked. Instead, we’re left with a handsome but ponderous tale that’s disproportionate in its attention, misguided in its execution, and faulty in how it attempts to elevate the 1941 classic.