Almost 80 years later, Disney’s original “Dumbo” remains one of the studio’s finest works. Only the fourth feature-length project in the studio’s history, the film’s production was brisk and high-stake, designed to take the company out of the red after expensive flops “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia.” The result was a flawlessly economical two-hander, the tale of an outcast young elephant and the chipper mouse trying to give him a makeover. Applying a feather-light comic touch to squirmy encounters with embarrassment, the original “Dumbo” is the quintessential circus movie, nailing the format’s alienating alchemy of whimsy, horror and sorrow.
On the other hand, Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” is the latest prototype to come off of Disney’s production line of live-action remakes, continuing a vicious cycle that perverts and plunders any and all good will the public has toward the company’s library. An impersonal reimagining of an artistic Hail Mary for the purpose of a box office guarantor, the film is one of those chores that’s somehow both bloated with inanities and empty of vision. Watching it entails engaging in a dispiriting scavenger hunt in search of anything, no matter how fleeting, that could possibly pique interest and grasping onto the memory of it like a life preserver.
As anyone would expect a remake of “Dumbo” to begin, the film kicks off with hot dad Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returning from war to the traveling circus he once rode stallions for. After Farrier discovers his wife has passed away and that his horses have been sold to cut costs, the chummy ringleader Max Medici (Danny DeVito) puts him in charge of the elephants. Among them, a floppy-eared newborn inexplicably flies and makes headlines, attracting the attention of the sinister V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who buys up the traveling carnies to perform in his ostentatious chrome kingdom Dreamland.
It’s almost impressive how tactless it is for Disney to be releasing a cautionary tale against the predatory acquisition of remarkable talent by a colossal entertainment conglomerate mere days after the studio’s own merger with 21st Century Fox. The irony of this concurrence is enough to make the story leave a bad taste, but it would still be utterly flavorless otherwise.
To give credit where credit is due, however, “Dumbo” at least attempts to distinguish itself from its originator, unlike the lion’s share of the studio’s other live-action remakes. Recreating a brisk 64-minute movie requires more additions than simply reimagining what’s already been told. Most of these appendages are dead weight though, particularly the dreary family drama between the widowed, no-nonsense Farrier and his two lifeless kids — the son mostly moans a lot, while the screenplay tirelessly flexes the older daughter’s interest in science instead of writing any line that would indicate a personality.
Once Medici’s crew is vamoosed to Vandevere’s Dreamland, the film thankfully loses track of the Farriers but begins to spread itself thin. Though positioned as the primary dramatic thrust, Dumbo’s separation from his mother feels more like a footnote than anything to be moved by. Meanwhile, Vandevere quickly shows his callous side and his marquee star Colette Marchant (Eva Green) seems destined to betray the tycoon for the clan of misfits from her introduction.
Succumbing to digression isn’t enough to break a movie — Burton even weaponized that for comedic purposes early in his career — but things become aimless when there’s nothing substantial to turn to. Burton is collaborating once more with a trifecta of some of his most gonzo performers (Keaton, DeVito and Green), yet he can’t find a pulse on any of them. All of these actors have gone bigger in Burton’s films before and “Dumbo” could definitely benefit from the aplomb they’re capable of. Moments like Alan Arkin offering to buy Danny DeVito a hot dog feel like oases of zaniness when they should be grace notes at most.
There is a comparative mutedness to the performances which is disappointing considering how much time the film elects to spend with humans rather than its titular elephant. Dumbo feels like an afterthought in his own movie. Most of the film is spent twiddling fingers waiting for the story to kick in before one realizes the movie is already in the thick of it. Dumbo’s first flight is one of the few engrossing sequences, a rare instance where Burton’s protective empathy and penchant for iconography come out to play. Ultimately though, one senses he’s little more than a caretaker for property here, making a movie only because it’s all he’s done for 30 years.
Jackson Kim Murphy covers film. Contact him at [email protected].