Harrison Burns — Staff Writer
From its colorful opening of a surging circus train launching across the United States, Tim Burton’s Dumbo promises an exciting adventure that retells the Disney classic. While the film visually succeeds in providing this exuberant atmosphere, every other aspect of the narrative ends up flat and uninspired.
This is not to say the film is wholly unsuccessful. When it focuses on the animal plotline of Dumbo and his mother, the film shines. This remake of the original 1941 animated picture largely follows the same basic story of a baby elephant born in the circus and separated from his mother. It wouldn’t be a Disney story without a touch of magic, so this abandoned elephant has the classic abnormally large ears that allow him to fly.
In many ways, the whimsical premise would seem like a perfect fit for the infamously whimsical director Tim Burton. The director’s flair for atmosphere is on full display throughout the film with the 20s aesthetic of circus life and amusement parks that engulf the viewer in the world.
Burton wisely makes use of the iconography of the original 1941 film, from firefighter clowns putting out a fake burning building to Dumbo holding a feather to help him fly. The most evocative image of Dumbo and his mom locking trunks through cage bars is just as powerful here as it was eighty years ago and acts as the emotional core of the film.
The film also does an excellent job at displaying the inner anxiety of Dumbo in pivotal scenes, a feat more impressive considering his character is purely CGI and cannot speak. The CGI throughout the movie can sometimes dip in quality, but it is clear the filmmakers put time into making the baby elephant come to life, allowing him to be expressive and interesting. In particular, Dumbo’s eyes are often featured prominently and capture a range of emotions often lacking in many CGI creatures. Whenever Dumbo succeeds in flying, the audience feels right along with him—the only moments to capture the sense of wonder that the rest of the film tries to accomplish.
Unfortunately, when the film diverts from the basic Dumbo storyline. Whatever wonder the plot produces is quickly overshadowed by bland human plotlines that clog the story. The animated film was just over one hour long as opposed to this nearly two-hour outing, and the numerous human characters feel like mere tools to extend the run time.
Colin Farrell’s character and his children, played by Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, become the central human plotline that competes with the elephant’s to be the main story of the film. They all do a decent job with acting, but the script provides little for them to work with other than cliché-riddled dialogue and a copy-and-pasted plot of a single father trying to connect with his kids.
I do not deride the film for trying to add to the slim source material. The parallels between Dumbo’s and the family’s conflicts held potential, but could have been executed better.
Unfortunately, all the human characters are wasted as means to an end. The talented cast, including Danny DeVito and Eva Green, try their best, but end up as caricatures rather than characters. Michael Keaton’s villain is also a walking cliché; however, while his corny escapades would be unwelcome in most films, his over-the-top presence actually works to energize an overall dull movie.
This mediocrity carries over to all areas of the film, from a surprisingly mild score from Danny Elfman, confusing editing, unsatisfying pacing and blunt themes that are practically spoon-fed to the audience.
Ultimately, Dumbo is disappointing despite inklings of Burton’s imagination in the visuals and, as Keaton’s character embellishes, the “mystique” of the film. The mystique proves to be a hollow shell that lacks the joy and wonder it promises, much like the nefarious “Dreamland” that the movie admonishes. Dumbo is not terrible, but it’s also not good. Save your money for renting it for the small screen instead of a theater outing.