Dumbo (2019) | Tim Burton | March 29, 2019
The latest Disney animated classic to be reimagined in the world of live action is Dumbo, a reboot and reimagination of the 1941 original. Tim Burton takes the helm for this new version (returning to Disney 9 years after the live-action Alice in Wonderland remake), which is extended to 112 minutes, nearly double the length of the snappy and brief 64-minute runtime of the animated version that came nearly 80 years before.
The move to the live action realm isn’t the only change here. With the extended runtime comes a new interpretation of the story with plenty of familiar hat tips and nods that fans will recognize, along with plenty of new aspects to the story that split the focus between Dumbo and the humans that surround the circus animal world.
Milly and Joe Farrier (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) desperately await the return of their father Holt (Colin Farrell) from World War I, where he lost his arm in battle. It’s been a tough time for the siblings, who tragically lost their mother to influenza. This has made their time living at the well-meaning ringleader Max Medici’s (Danny DeVito) traveling circus anything but easy. They’re glad to have their dad back, but integrating back to carnie life isn’t so easy for Holt, the former marquee star of the show who is now relegated to clown duty due to his missing limb.
He finds a purpose when Medici assigns him to tend to the recently-bought pregnant elephant Mrs. Jumbo, who gives birth to a cute baby elephant, of course, graced with droopy ears that cause him to be initially viewed as a troublesome prospect by many at the circus and dubbed Dumbo. Things are only made worse when Dumbo is separated from his mother, but with the help of the two children, Dumbo’s true talents are discovered. As he takes flight, so does the circus’ success. This attracts the attention of mischievous entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton). He sees the flying elephant as his next big ticket item, hoping to put his own leading lady Colette Marchant (Eva Green) on the flying Dumbo’s back as the main attraction at his massive Coney Island amusement park Dreamland (baring an uncanny resemblance to Disneyland, if it was reimagined by Tim Burton) and make him very rich.
Vandevere is unquestionably the villain here, looking to fool the well-meaning Medici to sell his name and brand over to him so he can, in turn, make a nice profit and give them all the boot once he is good and ready. It’s a bit ironic that a Disney movie is juggling the theme of why monopolies or big corporations absorbing the little guys is bad, but that theme is there, as is denouncing the use of wild animals in outdated carnivals or keeping them in captivity. Along with Disney-friendly themes of family, stepping up and doing the right thing, and more, there’s plenty of well-meaning aspects delivered from Burton here earnestly.
However, to get to this point, there is a noticeable change about halfway through the film when Vandevere’s character is introduced, which dramatically shifts gears in a way that forfeits the simplistic charm of the original. Whether the film needed to be remade is a different conversation, but if it did, I admire Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger for trying to expand upon what came before, adding a new story while keeping the original soul intact. It’s just that there’s a noticeable difference between the first hour and the second that makes Dumbo feel like two different films entirely.
One of the biggest choices is to strip the animals of any spoken dialogue, instead favoring the humans. While Farrell, Green, Parker, and Hobbins are all fine in their respective roles, they’re not nearly as interesting as our beloved Dumbo, yet they manage to share the screen nearly as much as the (very well) animated character. Danny DeVito is the undeniable heart and soul of the film with a performance that he could do in his sleep at this point, yet he still brings so much heart and dimension to the role and he practically steals the show. On the other hand, Michael Keaton feels woefully miscast and delivers a cartoony left-field performance that doesn’t land at all. Equally bland is Alan Arkin in a disappointingly forgettable performance.
There are enough moments of majestic wonder and Burton-laced heart and wonder to keep fans old and young entertained. It’s hard not to be dazzled seeing Dumbo take flight, soaring higher and higher to the triumphant score from Burton’s trusted longtime composer Danny Elfman. But it’s the additions to the story that, while understandable, don’t land quite as well and fail to carry over into the film’s less-than-effective second half, which seems to lose focus of what really makes Dumbo work.
Sometimes less is more, and while Dumbo is mostly a fine viewing experience, it didn’t do enough to completely warrant a second flight.