We all know how much Tim Burton loves an outsider: a unique, distinctive individual (or individuals) who are distinctive individual (or individuals) out of place and out of touch with their surroundings. Pee-Wee, Edward Scissorhands, Alice, Mars aliens, even Bruce Wayne/Batman, are some of the characters the director has tackled in his thirty decades worth of work, each with their own curiosities that cause them to swim against the tide, whether something physical or mental, but that Burton has always celebrated. So, the story about a young elephant with abnormally large ears and the circus folk that surround him, would be right up his street.
Having already made the ridiculously successful Alice in Wonderland reimagining/quasi-sequel for Disney in 2010, he is a filmmaker that the studio trusts and, with such a huge expectation – both positive and negative – on their slate of big-screen live-action versions of their classic tales, someone like Burton is a solid choice, even if it was a little bit of a curious one in the first instance. The challenge with this particular remake is that the original film was only an hour long and was, quite frankly, pretty great the way it was. So there’s nowhere to go but, ahem, up but while the titular mammal does soar,
the film doesn’t quite hit the same dizzying heights.
Planting the new version in 1919, we are still at the circus but the focus of the story has shifted somewhat from Jumbo to Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and both his immediate family – daughter Milly and son Joe – and his extended one, the Medici Circus led by Danny DeVito. Their latest attraction is Mrs. Jumbo, who is recent purchase that Medici hopes will inject some new life into his roadshow, but unbeknownst to him his newest asset is pregnant and soon gives birth to a beautiful baby boy who is much more than he appears. It’s he who becomes the star attraction – you’ve seen about everything, but you’ve never seen an elephant fly – and grabs the attention of fairground entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) who, in many ways, is very much pro-Disney.
You can never fault Burton and his mesmerically skewed visuals and here they are as transcendent as ever, as their all-encompassing gloriousness washes over you, colours sparkling and set-pieces enthralling, with the visuals on Dumbo and his animals counterparts as beautifully rendered as you would have hoped in a post-Jungle Book/Planet of the Apes world. And here, while it has all the glossy colourfulness of a Disney animated feature, there’s also the essential sprinkle of Gothic that makes it unmistakably Burton.
But, as is becoming alarmingly commonplace in his films, it is in its narrative that the film falls back down to Earth with a thud: clunkily designed by screenwriter Ehren Kruger, you never feel yourself drawn to any one other than the titular flyer – despite great turns from Farrell, DeVito and newcomer Nico Parker – as everything has a strange detachment that makes the film feel overwrought and quite dull in places. It was always going to be something of a difficult task to expand on the original film into a two-hour plus adventure but there were surely a few better ideas than what we have given here.
In a year when the Disney remake machine is going into hyperdrive with this, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin (whose recent trailer left a lot to be desired) and the “live-action” The Lion King makeover, you may begin to question whether all of this was even worth it in the first place. Dumbo, though, goes some way to making it feel like a worthwhile exercise but unlike the original, this won’t stay close to the heart when the credits roll.
Scott J.Davis | [rating=3]
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