The new live-action remake of the Disney animated classic Dumbo is helmed by the darkly eccentric director Tim Burton and his latest film is like nothing I’ve ever seen from the master of juxtaposition: Safe, almost tepid, and it’s monotonously boring.
Most of Disney’s animated classics have a dark history behind them. The origin of Cinderella is filled with dark secrets. For example, the stepmother making her daughters cut off their toes to fit their feet in their slippers. And, no joke, eventually having their eyes devoured by pigeons at the wedding. In Sleeping Beauty, Aurora is not woken up by a kiss but by giving birth to twins. Naturally, the bastard runs off, leaving her to raise the children on her own. So, naturally, I was excited when I heard the darkly eccentric Tim Burton was at the helm of a new live-action version of the Disney animated classic Dumbo. The master of juxtaposition behind such gothic, almost fairytale classics as Edwards Scissor Hands, A Nightmare Before Christmas, and Beatle Juice. His latest is unlike anything I’ve ever seen from him before: Safe, almost tepid, and it’s monotonously boring.
The film begins with a soldier (Colin Farrell) named Holt. He is coming home from the war with injuries that go beyond his right arm being amputated. Holt lost his wife to great influenza. He is now home to help heal not only his own broken heart but that of his two young children named Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins). They welcome him at the train station with his old boss Max (Danny DeVito). He runs the circus he and his wife perform in. Max has been looking after his kids, and his band of traveling entertainers is on its last legs.
That’s until Jumbo the elephant gives birth to a doe-eyed calf with an abnormally sized pair of ears that make Max feel they are more of a defected investment than a gifted one. Soon, they realize “Dumbo” can fly and save their big-top, until V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) gets wind and wants Dumbo for his latest attraction, Dreamland. He sees the future. The fast-rising star is the perfect attraction for financing to keep his theme park afloat.
The original Dumbo (1941) clocked in at 64 minutes, while Burton’s version is just under two hours. The new version of Dumbo feels like a bloated version of the original. With a story you have seen thousands of times before. Filled with great special effects but lacking any true character development needed for a movie of two hours and source material half of that. One explanation is that Ehren Kruger wrote the film script, best known for writing three of the five films in the Transformers series. This time, we don’t have robots blasting each other to help pass the time for two-plus hours, and you can find more three-dimensional characters in a Fathead factory.
As mentioned, the film has some good qualities. The top-notch special effects, The overall message of acceptance (though most of these are manipulative and full of melodrama). The first scene of Dumbo being able to fly effectively is done. Though, it’s repeated a handful of times in the same way, making me think it was all about filler. The film is a safe picture for families, and any child under ten may find it entertaining. Most of the humor falls flat. Anyone who is a fan of the genre will quickly find themselves in very familiar territory.
Then there is director Tim Burton. Who, by all accounts, took his check and cashed it. You can even speculate that he let the good people of Disney steer him to safer waters. With a source material that has a short run time, you would think a man with Burton’s pedigree of dark, gothic, and aberrant filmography would have a wide palate to expand on the classic film and put his own twist on things. His version of Planet of the Apes has more personality than this film. This Dumbo doesn’t really have a dark Burton bone in it, which is desperately needed.
If you want some fun, charming, gothic, eccentric storytelling with an unusual plot and delightfully different characters, rent Burton’s Big Fish, which has only gotten better with age, or watch the original Dumbo with your kids. Otherwise, make sure the phone is charged and sit in the back row, so you won’t bother other guests while you browse social media and play a game of Angry Birds or two.