Welcome to day 1,450,670,801.3 of Disney remaking its past classics for younger audiences… or in normal parlance, for the money. This time, they’ve set their sights on Dumbo: The floppy-jollopy eared baby elephant who can fly. Originally released as a 64-minute animated film in 1941 during the height of Disney’s Golden Era, the 2019 remake is a 112-minute live action film directed by Tim Burton — the Gothic auteur of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Sleepy Hollow. Burton’s Dumbo is a hodgepodge and ramshackle mess that, like its protagonist, often struggles to lift itself from ground — yet still manages to win you over with the same empathetic glint that shines from the elephant’s eyes.
The film opens towards the conclusion of World War I, two children run through a circus whose red and white big top is held together by patches. The Medici Brothers’ circus is barely holding together, with carnivals becoming a dying breed. The two children are Milly and Joe Farrier, their mother is recently deceased from the Influenza along with much of the circus, and their father Holt (Colin Farrell) — a trick-pony rider — is returning home from war with one less arm.
The first act of the film, centering around Holt trying to find his place (he was once the star attraction, but is now shoveling elephant crap) and the birth of a baby elephant, is mostly carried by Danny DeVito‘s over-the-top antics as Max Medici. For a while, DeVito appears more excited than us and his cast mates. Dumbo‘s first act is a straight up mess, tonally saccharine and undoubtedly painful.
Burton’s film doesn’t find its wings until Dumbo does, and with such discovers comes the tandem of V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) — known as the “Architect of Dreams. The Columbus of Coney Island” — and his companion Colette (Eva Green) — a French trapeze artist known as the “Queen of the Heavens.” They come baring gifts, and hope to leave with a prize. Vandevere offers the troupe a spot in his Dreamland, a massively hollow and glitzy amusement park bankrolled by J. Griffin Remington (Alan Arkin who looks to be hilariously phoning his performance in) that creates an alluring comparison to Disneyland.
Keaton is hammy as the cut throat New Orleans — who never sounds like he’s from Louisiana — trickster and fraud. Miles away from his previous Burton roles in Beetlejuice and Batman, Keaton embodies the director’s cartoonish sensibilities over the macabre. The transformation works and offers some of the more hilarious portions of the film.
The CGI, for the most part, in Dumbo is spectacular. The pink elephants portion, which offers a beautifully reliant purple and pink cinematography, is ingeniously captured in a bubble-infused performance under Dreamland’s big top. The sequence is the best in the film.
While the depth of field is obnoxiously skewed every time a character touches an elephant — enlivening your eyes to notice Burton’s own shallow mystique — the VFX team should be proud of the empathy they’ve created within the elephant. Dumbo’s emotional communication to the viewer is only possible through his eyes. His eyes here are sincere sapphires pleading with the characters to find their better angels, often given great importance through intimate p.o.v. shots. That authentic empathy — where it could have been saccharine — is an incredible achievement.
However, Dumbo doesn’t completely escape the schmaltzy. The children are sentimentalized to a strained degree, often delivering lines that will rigorously beat you over the head. If you had Disney in your office pool of the first studio to needlessly exploit the rise of feminist role models for monetary and cringe worthy gain, then you’ve won two first-class tickets to Dreamland. There are subtle ways to build a strong female character, while not using the words “science” and “girl” in the same sentence as if you’re expecting a sticker. But screenwriter Ehren Kruger hasn’t learned that secret yet, and Milly’s character is the main casualty of such shortcomings.
Worse yet, Dumbo‘s overall message is skewed and buried under a mountain of narrative peanuts. A lack of focus causes our attentions to swing between these outcast circus performers — which Kruger’s screenplay wants to say more about but never finds the chance — and the plight of Dumbo with his mother. Too often Dumbo is the sideshow to the Farrier’s interpersonal crisis, often leaning heavily into the Mary Poppins/Saving Mr. Banks territory, and not just because Farrell is here. The narrative relies on a practical father, burden by life, who needs help to see and believe in his children. The primary set up isn’t all too dissimilar from the Mr. Banks character.
Nevertheless, even with a high-wire act of a plot that’s often left without a net, Dumbo somehow manages to lightly soar. The film’s secret can be found in a little Easter egg, one where Dumbo is flying around Dreamland’s big top. There’s a quick glimpse of a girl holding a vintage Winnie the Pooh-esque teddy bear. Pooh Bear is a simple creature, one who wants honey and to be with Christopher Robin. He’s pure joy and emotion. That’s the basis for Burton’s Dumbo, who only desires a feather and to be with his mother, and who is also pure joy. The sentiment arises just enough in Dumbo to create a wellspring of delight and triumph.
While far from perfect, Tim Burton’s Dumbo is the best film from the director since Sweeney Todd — a wonderful mismanaged overflow of emotions that still burrows deep into your heart. And as the flying elephant swoops through waterfalls, in the film’s look-at-me closing seconds, we soar as high as he does… if only for a second.