‘Dumbo’ Review: Tim Burton, Still Looking For His Magic Feather
Dumbo must surely set a record for the most shots from the point of view of an elephant in a single film.
Although Tim Burton’s filled out his live-action reimagining of the Disney animated favorite with far more human characters than the 1941 original, the most emotionally alive creature onscreen is still the flying pachyderm who yearns for his mother. In the tradition of so many Burton movies, Dumbo is an outcast and misfit; mocked for his abnormally large ears. It comes as no surprise that this is the Dumbo character Burton, the guy who made Edward Scissorhands, can relate to. Dumbo’s basically Edward Giantears.
That could account for the fact that Dumbo has a bit more feeling than the disposable blockbusters Burton’s been pumping out for more than a decade. It’s still nowhere near the level of his early masterpieces, but it’s at least a little closer — and it seems to acknowledge, in a way that almost feels subversive, that at this stage of Burton’s career any kind of true creative comeback would be nearly as impossible as an elephant flying through the air.
Of course, a director acknowledging he’s not currently capable of a truly personal work of art doesn’t really excuse not making one. And even with its fleeting glimpses of inspiration and self-critique, Dumbo does often feel less like a new entry in the Disney canon than an act of cinematic renovation; updating an old property for modern tastes without the content that makes the original controversial (there are no singing crows this time around). There’s also no Timothy Q. Mouse, or any talking animals or circus trains. (Jumbo the elephant’s famous song to her big-lobed son, “Baby Mine,” is now performed, in extremely Tim Burton-y fashion, by a goth woman with a ukulele).
Instead, Dumbo’s protectors at Medici’s Circus are a pair of children, Joe and Milly (Finley Hobbins and Nico Parker, who looks like she stepped right out of one of the paintings from Burton’s Big Eyes), and their father Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell). Holt just returned from World War I, where he lost an arm in combat. He also recently lost his wife and his gig as Medici’s stallion rider; the circus’ scheming owner and ringmaster, Max Medici (Danny DeVito), sold Holt’s horses to cover his mounting expenses. Business is down and the days of the circus might be coming to an end if something doesn’t change.
That’s when Holt is placed in charge of the elephants, including the new baby Jumbo Jr., who soon earns his famous nickname from disappointed audiences laughing at his absurdly large ears. Jumbo naturally goes into protective mom mode, and in the aftermath of a near-riot at Medici’s, she’s shipped off to another circus and Dumbo is left alone. Then Milly and Joe discover Dumbo’s magical ability, which is somehow activated by snorting a feather into his trunk, and they suggest he use it to boost ticket sales so they can buy his mom back.
This is already a fair amount of plot, and I’ve only covered the first half of Burton’s Dumbo so far. At 64 minutes, the animated Dumbo is one of Disney’s shortest features. To pad the story out to a length acceptable to modern audiences spending $15 a ticket, Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger added a new second half in a new setting, a Coney Island amusement park called Dreamland (loosely based on the real one that existed in Brooklyn in the 1910s). There, Dumbo and Holt’s family encounter Dreamland’s eccentric owner, V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), and his best trapeze artist, Colette (Eva Green).
Keaton, sporting a preposterous toupée and an accent that fluctuates depending on his audience, doesn’t match the tone of strained wonder in the earlier scenes, but his energy and enthusiasm at least brightens what can be, both visually and thematically, a pretty dark movie. (Very little kids will probably be scared by several intense scenes.) Farrell and Green make a handsome couple, even if their roles — and really all the human roles — are sorely underwritten. It’s Dumbo himself, with his expressive face, that really gets most of Burton’s attention. He generally looks extremely impressive (and, yes, very cute) thanks to the work of the movie’s visual effects wizards.
The elephant POV shots let us see the world through Dumbo’s eyes, and it’s hard not to feel for the little guy through his trials and tribulations. Still, Dumbo’s great skill, flying around a tent in a circle, becomes a little old after it’s repeated ad naseam over the course of two full hours. Adorable though he may be, Dumbo’s kind of a one-trick pony, in a matter of speaking.
The most interesting part of Dumbo is a fluke of timing. The movie opens in theaters a week after Disney completed its acquisition of the 20th Century Fox studio. Fox was by no means a plucky mom-and-pop organization, but it was swallowed by an even larger corporation at the cost of hundreds or even thousands of jobs — a scenario echoed by Medici’s sale of his decrepit circus to Vandevere, the mogul who has consolidated all kinds of entertainment—circus, science museums, zoos, roller coasters—under a single corporate umbrella. Whether Burton and Kruger intended to make such a comment, Dumbo and the Farrier family’s rightful distrust of Vandevere sounds a warning about how producing corporate art only happens with great moral sacrifice. If Burton takes his own film’s message to heart, it could be the magic feather he’s been missing that might help him soar once again.
-The only real subplot in Dumbo involves Milly’s dream of becoming a scientist, a passion she pursues by never reading books or going to school (not a lot of classes in the circus), and repeatedly talking about the “scientific method” and performing “experiments” on Dumbo, which mostly amount to her stuffing feathers in his nose.
-The circus is almost laughably dangerous in Dumbo. Time after time there are accidents, tent collapses, fires, death, and assorted mayhem. I’m not sure a single performance goes off without a hitch.
-Do you think Tim Burton regrets not making Big Top Pee-wee? Dumbo kind of feels like his version. He’s even got his own gorgeous foreign trapeze artist who falls for the hero.
-It’s too bad there wasn’t a “Cat-Woman” in Medici’s sideshow, otherwise we could have gotten a full-scale Batman Returns reunion.
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