Disney’s 1941 animation Dumbo is a lot of things: a psychedelic trauma of underage drunkenness and pink dancing elephants; an inspiring story of friendship in the face of prejudice; an uncomfortable example of racial stereotyping; and a melancholy tale of familial sacrifice and dedication. Tim Burton’s 2019 live action Dumbo is little more than a two-hour distraction narrowly focusing on a flying baby elephant. The latest in the ongoing series of updates to the Disney catalogue jettisons much of what made the original so repeatedly watchable. It is the latest, noncommittal offering from the obviously increasingly indifferent imagination of Tim Burton It is an easy and uninspiring watch. A story of a baby circus elephant born with unnaturally huge ears and the incredible ability to fly that never feels magical.
Watching this newest Dumbo, feels like watching a neutered and lifeless version of the original. Burton’s tinkering feels noticeable and ill-advised at every turn, never for the better. Little differences like setting it immediately after the First World War rather than in 1941, or a contemporary setting (presumably the presence of elephants in a circus is too anachronistic), feel like a neutral bodging of the story. Eliminating the songs and robbing the animals of their voices are more drastic errors that result in a contradictory sense of grounding and realism that saps the joy out of everything. A much-less sinister aesthetic – a watercolour palette morphing into proto-steampunk – feels lazily tossed off from a director fresh out of ideas and who has forgotten the welcome anarchy that made his early work riveting and freakish. A younger Tim Burton would have applied his neo-gothic stylings and kinetic genius superbly. It’s a shame that this Tim Burton seems to have given up the ghost.
So gone is Dumbo’s best friend Timothy Q Mouse, and with him the heart of the story. Gone are the songs, too, and none of the creatures can speak, never mind sing. Instead, Burton has shifted the focus to the humans and a largely uninteresting domestic drama in which war veteran and absentee father Colin Farrell attempts to reconnect with his kids. The animals rights subtext is cranked up significantly in the movie’s second half which, in this day and age, you can understand, but never seems remarkable, profound or at all enjoyable. Michael Keaton tries his level best to liven things up with some much-needed scenery chewing as a theme park magnate, but it’s not enough to spark anything more than temporary amusement. Even Dumbo himself, for his floppy ears and big eyes, looks faintly embarrassed to be there.
Chris Banks | [rating=2]
Family, Fantasy | USA, 2019 | PG | 29th March 2019 (UK) | Disney UK | Dir.Tim Burton | Michael Keaton, Colin Farrell, Danny Devito, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Eva Green, Alan Arkin