Stars: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Alan Arkin, Roshan Seth, Sharon Rooney, Sandy Martin
Writer: Ehren Kruger, based on the novel by Helen Aberson & Harold Pearl
Director: Tim Burton
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Release Date: March 29, 2019
The new live-action DUMBO is an oddity. The title character, a baby elephant who flies thanks to his oversized ears, is an extraordinary CGI creation. If Dumbo’s eyes are too large for a normal elephant, they are still profoundly expressive. Though DUMBO relies heavily on visual effects, its uncanny valley problems are less with living beings than with its tone.
Directed by Tim Burton from Ehren Kruger’s screenplay, based on the novel by Helen Aberson & Harold Pearl, this DUMBO veers from the 1941 animated Disney feature. In the earlier film, although Dumbo didn’t talk, the animals around him did. The story was told from Dumbo’s point of view, and apart from the circus ringmaster, humans didn’t figure much into the plot.
However, live-action usually means actors, and actors usually mean human characters. So we’re in 1919, with former circus trick rider Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returning from WWI, having lost an arm in the fighting and his wife on the home front. His motherless children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), are bearing up well, all things considered, but they’re very glad to have their father back.
Circus master Max Medici (Danny DeVito) has sold off the horses – once Holt’s wife died, there was no one to ride them – so Holt winds up put in charge of the elephants, including the newly-purchased, very pregnant Mrs. Jumbo. When Mrs. Jumbo has her baby, Max is horrified by its peculiar appearance, with each ear bigger than the rest of the little fellow’s body. Then Milly and Joe see the baby elephant, dubbed Dumbo, react to a feather and fly around in his enclosure. Once Dumbo finally does this in public, Max realizes he’s got a hit on his hands. And then Dumbo becomes a little too successful for everybody’s good.
There’s plenty of other stuff going on here – Dumbo wanting to reunite with his mother, Holt trying to reconnect with his kids, Milly wanting to be a scientist, even though her dad wants her to be a circus performer like her folks, the introduction of an evil impresario (Michael Keaton) and a game trapeze artist (Eva Green) – but it doesn’t fully jell. You can see the movie straining to make parallels between the human and pachyderm parent/child relationships, but it doesn’t work. Events are in perpetual motion, but we never get a sense of where we’re heading. The climax comes about through a series of third act crises, rather than something we’ve been building towards throughout.
DUMBO does have moments of wonder and delight. Dumbo himself is adorable, and he’s lovely to look at when airborne. But because the filmmakers don’t seem to know how to get into his head, he plays as a beloved pet rather than a hero. Even this doesn’t cause the main tonal issue. The humor is mostly gentle, although Sharon Rooney and Sandy Martin in supporting roles as, respectively, a circus performer and Max’s secretary earn big laughs with their dialogue. Circumstances are sad, but nobody ever breaks down and weeps. Characters derive satisfaction but not joy from their success. Dumbo, this sweet little animal, and his mother are both in some kind of perpetual jeopardy, but this is seldom specific. The upshot is that the mood in DUMBO is neither transporting fantasy nor engrossing adventure, but instead one of moderate anxiety. (All this, of course, presumes that Dumbo et al don’t remind you of the real-world predicament of elephants and depress you so much that your emotions are being stirred by issues outside of the film.)
There’s not as much whimsy as we might expect from a Tim Burton film. There is a sense that the director and the creative team were somewhat stymied by having to inject standard family drama into the story. The movie (probably wisely) avoids creating huge stakes on that front; it never seems likely that Holt and the kids will stop speaking to each other. On the other hand, there the scenes are, without much enthusiasm in them, except that brought by the actors. It’s all kind of earthbound, but not grounded.
It’s great that most of the animals in DUMBO, with the exception of dogs and horses, are CGI rather than captive wild creatures forced to perform. The human actors are fine, with the dignified young Parker and the ever-intriguing Green as standouts. As always, director Burton comes up with some marvelous images, and he keeps things moving along. This DUMBO is quite watchable; it’s just not much actual fun.
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