Tim Burton’s live-action remake of the Disney animated classic fails to take flight.
By Rosie Knight
Filmmaker Tim Burton’s later-stage offerings have been a mixed bag, with his directorial choices replacing visual ingenuity with a lot of CG. The early trailers and promos for Dumbo hinted that this might be the film to buck the trend, but alas the faded palette and what looks like massive amounts of post-production work take away much of the visual charm that a circus film by Burton starring Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito promises.
Disney’s current trend of adapting their classic animated films to live-action has thus far served them pretty well. A mix of nostalgia, brand recognition, and curiosity have made box office smashes out of Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book. The success of those explains Disney’s eagerness to continue that streak with three flagship ‘live-action’ releases just this year, beginning with Burton’s Dumbo. The film was first announced a few years ago, but sadly for fans of the original and the lauded director, the uneven and uninspiring offering wasn’t worth the wait.
Dumbo is also just a generally strange prospect. Whereas you can hypothetically imagine a world where even if their animated counterparts didn’t exist Disney might still make live-action films about fairytale princesses or jungle creatures, the tale of an early 1900s circus and its mysteriously talented flying elephant feels less likely, and Burton’s adaptation does nothing to convince the audience otherwise.
Another major problem with adapting Dumbo comes from that very same source material. In the original film the entire core cast of characters are animals. Rather than going the Jungle Book or Lion King route and creating a CGI roster of creatures, Burton shoehorns in a selection of mostly forgettable human characters who are barely there when it comes to motivation, heart, or wholeness, and seemingly exist solely to push the plot along.
The only true standouts here are: Nico Parker, who plays the charming, intelligent and curious Milly, daughter of Colin Farrell’s bafflingly bland amputee soldier; Danny DeVito, who keeps the first act alive with a scrappy performance as Max Medici and is exactly as enjoyable as you’d expect DeVito playing a carnival barker to be; and Michael Keaton, who luxuriates in playing the machiavellian circus magnate V.A. Vandevere.
The basic premise is that Farrell’s Holt and his two children, Milly and Joe, are part of a travelling circus which, despite being a little run down, is still full of friendly faces. Unlike many Tim Burton movies those faces are a little more diverse here, but Dumbo definitely falls into the trap of a period piece that follows outdated tropes rather than subverting them, with a Black strongman, an Indian mystic, and a funny fat woman who are all (a very small) part of the Medici Brothers Circus.
Burton has always enjoyed the aesthetic of difference, freak show sensibilities, and shock value, but his decision to stick to stereotypes–as well as making Holt an amputee (which has little to do with the plot) whilst casting someone with both arms in the role–showcases a lack of commitment or interest in the reality or authenticity of the lives of people who actually live and thrive in these circumstances.
The titular elephant turns up pretty quickly and is depending on your perspective either very cute or completely terrifying. After the arrival of the big-eared baby things get pretty rote, with the story diverting from the plot of the 1941 flick whilst still treading well-worn ground. There are some things to enjoy as Dumbo moves into its second act, with Burton teasing exciting visuals which hark back to his heyday without ever really delivering. Fans of the original will likely be amused by the nods which range from interesting diversions to terrifying recreations.
It’s a relief that times have changed enough that the most notoriously racist moments from the animated film have been erased, but one does wonder what drove them to remake this specific story at all. It hints at the flair of Burton’s best, but the heart and character on which he built his audience is nowhere to be seen. As the curtains close on Dumbo we barely know anything about the people and creatures we spent two hours with.
If you’ve got a young one who happens to have a specific love for the circus, or you hold particularly fond memories of the Disney cartoon, then maybe Dumbo will hit just right. Otherwise, this film seems like an odd choice that fails to inspire and highlights the weakness of solely relying on brand recognition and nostalgia to sell a blockbuster film.
Maybe if Tim Burton had made Dumbo before his Alice In Wonderland phase it could have had something more interesting to say, or perhaps at least some more original visuals. Sadly, this routine remake doesn’t manage to recapture the surreal strangeness of the original Disney classic or elevate the dated premise into something better.