Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated PG, 1 hour 52 minutes
Directed by: Tim Burton
The lights go down on a darkened theater filled with a sold out crowd. The spotlight turns on, centering on boxing announcer Michael Buffer, hollering a variation of his catchphrase, “Let’s get ready for Dumbooooooo!” This anachronism stands out, as there are no other irreverent moments such as this in director Tim Burton’s DUMBO.
The goth-teur takes the beloved story upon which Disney’s animated classic is based and takes almost twice the time to tell it. In doing so, he and screenwriter Ehren Kruger find a handful of new things to say beyond the 1941 feature – messages about hope, faith and belief that one’s perceived faults will sprout into special skills. Blessedly, it has a surprising pro-animal rights agenda wrapped in the subtly rebellious tale of a band of outsiders burning down a corporate establishment. While it’s eye-popping, dazzling and meticulous in aesthetic design, and the titular little elephant is absolutely adorable, the new polish applied over the original’s problematic areas barely adds enough to keep the wind in its sails – or ears, as the case may be.
The Medici Brothers Circus has fallen on hard times. Their headline acts have splintered due to war, illness and financial strain. However, they and Casey Jr.’s steam-train are still traversing the land, bringing smiles and laughter to those who need it the most – including the circus performers themselves. Expert horseman Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) has returned from the war an amputee, and finds his two young children – Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) – grieving the death of their fearless mother. But with the introduction of Asian elephant Mrs. Jumbo, their world will change for the better.
The pachyderm is pregnant and soon delivers a baby – one with big blue eyes and even bigger ears. At first, owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) wants to hide the baby’s deformity from paying customers. But when tragedy befalls the company, sending one member to the grave (don’t worry he’s a villainous creep) and Mrs. Jumbo into exile, the orphaned baby Dumbo’s destiny falls into place. Under the supervision of the kids, Dumbo learns to fly and becomes a sensation, attracting entertainment mogul V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) and glamorous aerialist Colette Marchant (Eva Green), who look to Dumbo to further their careers.
Updating the original’s successful blueprint adds a modicum of crowd-pleasing value. The way we view circuses has changed significantly since the 40s, with their treatment of animals coming under fire, so this modern iteration gifts audiences with a far more satisfactory resolution. Violence against the circus animals at the hands of any malevolent characters is kept to a minimum, so it’s not terribly upsetting, exploitative, or manipulative. Whips are threats, thwacking the ground but not the animals. We see chains and shackles holding the beasts back. The feeling of claustrophobia in their cages is palpable. The picture reflects both time-honored Disney classics and Burton’s signature stories about misfits challenging people in power. Rick Heinrichs production design and Colleen Atwood’s costume designs are gorgeous show-stoppers, immersing us in the entrancing, immersive world of Vandevere’s theme park, Dreamland.
By not having talking animals, the filmmakers play with a double-edged sword. Though they sidestep the most problematic aspect of the animated film (the racist stereotypes embodied by the black crows who encouraged Dumbo to take flight), they aren’t able to draw upon the strength of a character like Timothy Q. Mouse, who was Dumbo’s guiding voice. Here he’s a fleeting prop, barely seen in the film. Plus, watching a grown woman ride on little Dumbo is nowhere near as exhilarating as it was to see tiny Timothy flying in Dumbo’s cap. The comedic chorus of catty elephants who mocked the animated Dumbo, bolstering our sympathy for him, are replaced by less-effective and less-entertaining human detractors.
“Baby Mine,” the classic song sequence in which the imprisoned Mrs. Jumbo comforts her forlorn son, could make even the most stone-faced break into waterworks in the original film. Here, it’s given a cursory, almost obligatory treatment. The song is randomly sung by a carnie around a campfire, and the scene omits all the other animal families that reinforced the relatable parent-child bond. Worst of all, its placement within the narrative structure makes it feel unearned. In the animated film, the song lifts poor Dumbo up at his lowest moment, when virtually the whole world is against him, human and animal. Here, almost all of the humans at the circus care about Dumbo’s welfare. He’s not alone at all. Of course we have no idea what the other animals think, as they are voiceless.
Much of the emotive drive is hobbled not just by the material, but also by the actors’ abilities to sell it. It’s all so droll and passionless. Farrell shows some depth as a battle-scared war vet early on, but never gets back to that place for any sense of satisfactory resolve. With a deadpan delivery, Parker is wildly miscast – especially in stark contrast to her peppy co-star Hobbins. She would be incredible in a dark indie comedy as an acerbic teen, or in a thriller as a duplicitous enigma. But here, she never quite connects as the courageous beating heart of the picture. Keaton, DeVito and Green’s capabilities, so evident in their previous collaborations with Burton, seem dimmed and lifeless. Keaton’s egomaniacal corporate exploiter doesn’t have an ounce of the charisma of characters like the wildly unhinged BEETLEJUICE, or the magnetism of BATMAN. DeVito’s turn as the ringmaster lacks the same oomph as his similar role in BIG FISH. Green, who smoldered and seduced the camera in DARK SHADOWS, commands attention in her scenes, working Atwood’s stunning, sparkling costumes. However, she can only do so much of the heavy lifting. In a couple spots, she and Dumbo form a glimmer of a connection, but it’s fleeting.
Some moviegoers may show up because of the promise of DUMBO’s tug on their heartstrings. Others may avoid it for the same reason, unwilling to have their heartstrings snapped. Both will be surprised. This reviewer expected to need a whole box of tissues to get through the film, but the eyes were dry from beginning to end.
DUMBO opens on March 29.