Dan's Review: Uninspiring "Dumbo" crashes and burns
Mar 28, 2019 04:26PM
By Dan Metcalf
Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, and Finley Hobbins in Dumbo - © 2019 Disney.
Rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language.
Starring Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Roshan Seth, DeObia Oparei, Joseph Gatt, Sharon Rooney, Michael Buffer, Frank Bourke, Jo Osmond.
Written by Ehren Kruger, based on Disney's "Dumbo" by Otto Englander, Joe Grant, and Dick Huemer, based on "Dumbo" by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl.
Directed by Tim Burton.
Disney’s gotta ‘Disney.’ The studio and media corporate giant is like a runaway virus that feeds on itself, repurposing its locked-away-in-a-vault content to create more stuff from the same matter. Having run out of new ideas and unwilling to take risks, Disney has opted for the “sure thing” of remaking all of its classic feature animated films into live-action epics (and by “classic” I mean films that are less than 30 years old, like Lion King and Mulan) The latest retread is Tim Burton’s vision of Dumbo, one of the earliest Disney feature classics from the early 1940s.
Unlike the original animated version, the new Dumbo is less about the cute, big-eared baby elephant and more about the humans around him in the Medici Brothers Circus, featuring a small traveling band of performers. Central to Dumbo’s human handlers is Holt (Colin Farrell), a World War I veteran and amputee who rejoins the circus after the death of his wife in 1919. Holt’s kids are Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) who take special care of Dumbo after his mother is carted away following the death of a mean circus worker who was bullying the baby elephant. The kids discover that Dumbo can fly, and the elephant makes a grand debut, soaring over the audience. The novelty of a flying elephant travels fast to amusement park tycoon V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) who brokers a deal with circus owner Max (Danny DeVito) to bring the entire Medici Brothers group to New York City and become part of his “Dreamland” park. Once there, Vandevere insists that Dumbo performs with the boss’ girlfriend Collette (Eva Green), a French trapeze artist. The Dreamland experience sours almost immediately, as the Medici circus people are pushed aside and Vandevere pushes Dumbo and Collette into risky performances. Things are complicated further when it’s discovered that Dumbo’s mother is at the park, chained inside a house of horrors. Dumbo and his human friends (including a new ally) plot to escape from Dreamland with the hope of returning to the elephants to their natural habitat in India.
Before launching into my review of the new Dumbo, I’ll admit that I’m not a real fan of the original Disney film. Whenever I watched it with my kids, I was mostly bored, except for the tear-jerking scene involving Dumbo and his chained-up mother as the “Baby Mine” lullaby is performed. Yes, the scene is repeated in the new film, but just like the original, that’s pretty much the only part worth seeing.
That said, I’m sorry to report that the new film is a worse experience than the old one. Pushing aside the narrative of a freakish baby elephant who overcomes bullying and separation from his mother to soar to great stardom and success, screenwriter Ehren Kruger strings together some of the least inspiring and mundane dialogue into a script equal to the caliber of an after-school special. The story strays into an animal rights yarn, set against a host of one-dimensional characters who look, talk and dress in cryptic, weird fashion. The worst character (and performance) belongs to Michael Keaton, who wavers between a whisper and some kind of unknown dialect until he goes completely overboard in the climactic final scenes. Throughout the film, there is little nuance, and no subtlety as to who’s good or bad, or what they’re up to.
The real head-scratcher for the new Dumbo is trying to figure out how Tim Burton got away with openly mocking Disneyland (a.k.a. “Dreamland”) and then <spoiler alert> burning it to the ground into some sort of a “Hell” motif. Not sure how this got past the Disney marketing cabal, but here we are. You paid for a Tim Burton film, you get a Tim Burton film.
Walt himself used to boast that he and his Disney team were “imagineers,” or folks who were willing to experiment and take risks until they could produce some of the most compelling films of the 20th Century. With crap like Dumbo, it seems the only folks who work for Disney these are “re-imagineers,” including Burton (having previously reworked Alice in Wonderland into two films for Disney), who seems to be content on becoming part of the same self-feeding virus.