It’s difficult not to walk into Dumbo with a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s the third collaboration between director Tim Burton and Disney, following his lifeless Frankenweenie in 2012, and the second live-action remake he’s directed for the studio after he kick-started the trend with his garish, career low-point Alice in Wonderland in 2010. Those expecting a similar disaster will be surprised, but so will those hoping for a return-to-form. Dumbo is distinctly middle-of-the-road in just about every aspect, though that alone is enough to make it Burton’s best movie in over a decade.
But the reason for Dumbo’s competency is also perhaps the reason for its biggest disappointment – that Burton does very little to add his own voice to the story. This is very much still the Dumbo you already know – expanded upon, yes, but despite the third act being an entirely new invention it’s still so predictable. Burton’s version follows the return of war vet Holt Farrier (the always reliable Colin Farrell) to the now-struggling circus he used to work at. He’s assigned by ringmaster Max Medici (a delightful Danny DeVito) to care for a new-born elephant that’s seen as the laughing stock of the circus due to his oversized ears. But when Holt’s children discover the elephant can fly, the circus is propelled to new heights and catches the attention of entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (a suitably villainous Michael Keaton), owner of the magnificent Dreamland amusement park.
There’s little in the way of surprise in Dumbo; Burton’s new inventions merely add excess fat to the economical storytelling of the 1941 original. Though he draws compelling performances from his regular cast members, he gives us very little to cling to with these mostly underwritten characters. Farrell is soulful enough that he’s never anything less than a delight to watch, and Eva Green continues her streak of being a standout beacon of charisma in late-period Burton, but few other characters fare the same.
The two central child performances are stilted and lifeless; though Nico Parker (daughter of Thandie Newton, making her debut performance here) is the spitting image of her mother, she’s unfortunately not quite the same degree of thespian yet. She stars alongside Finley Hobbins as characters who should really be the heart of the film, and while it’s understandably difficult to spend so much time acting opposite a CG character that isn’t really there their performances leave a lot to be desired. Similarly underperforming here is Alan Arkin, who only appears in a handful of scenes but delivers a performance so utterly phoned-in it ends up being hilarious to watch.
As most of the plot itself plays like an inevitability that you just have to endure, the main pleasures of Dumbo lie with its title character. Despite being an entirely CG creation Dumbo is the most arresting character in the film, wonderfully realised and immaculately rendered. Though watching the film frequently feels like a chore above all else it becomes worth it when Dumbo takes to the air, imbuing the film with a much needed sense of life, and supported by a typically rousing Danny Elfman score.
In hindsight it’s blindly obvious that this would be the main takeaway from the movie. Burton has made a career of creating rejects and losers for the screen - he’s perhaps the foremost cinematic loner. It’s why his portrayal of Dumbo is by far and away the most touching, sensitive aspect of the film, and it’s shame the rest of the movie isn’t up to the same standard.
I do wonder if there’s some level of self-reflection here for Burton – directing a movie essentially about a child wonder, who goes from being a misunderstood laughing stock to attracting the love and attention of the masses when his peculiar talents are revealed. The fact that those talents are then hijacked by a capitalist enterprise that twists and distorts them feels analogous to Burton’s own career, his originally defining sensibilities being put to waste in soulless blockbusters like Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When a character remarks that “[Dumbo’s] Dreamland doesn’t deserve him”, the allegory starts to feel a little more set-in-stone, especially as Burton’s own imagination has become a selling point for his movies.
If the reason Dumbo feels so devoid of Burton’s typical gothic stylings is because he no longer wants to answer to the same trappings that have led to continually diminishing returns over the past two decades, then it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here. For as ultimately minor as Dumbo may be, it at least feels like a step in the right direction – a decidedly low-key venture that soulfully realises a typical Burton loner, and the returns are truly joyous when the focus is just on that little elephant taking to the skies. If only he’d trimmed a little of the fat, Burton may too have soared.