In what is an on-going, non-stop stream of Disney animated-feature-to-live-action remake(Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin, The Jungle Book, etc), here’s yet another one, but this one is from an old Disney maestro, Tim Burton, who gave us the glorious The Nightmare Before Christmas. Will it be any good?
One thing is for certain, fanciful storytelling in NOT in Tim Burton’s wheelhouse. Look at his remakes of Charlie & The Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland; hardly what you’d call ‘family-friendly fare’. Tackling an iconic Disney cartoon like Dumbo seemed like a slam-dunk, but Burton decided to, you guess it, make it dark, moody, and sullen at times. It’s 1919 and the Medici Brothers Circus is on the road again, run by only one guy, the cantankerous Max Medici (Danny DeVito). Pulled by the mighty Casey Jr. railroad (one of many Disney homages), this lackluster and pitiful little circus troupe has seen better days. Coming back home to the circus is one-armed WWI veteran Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a former trick-rider reduced to caring for the elephants.
At least Holt’s practically expressionless kids are glad to see him. Ten-year-old Joe (Finley Hobbins) wants to help out, but older daughter Milly (Nico Parker–who looks like a 12-year-old Angelina Jolie) just wants to be a scientist like Madame Curie. But their lives turn around when a circus baby elephant is born that has enormous ears and is laughed at by most of the company. However, the kids (sorry, no Timothy Q. Mouse to the rescue here) find out, much to their delight, that this elephant can fly when he sucks in a feather with his trunk.
Having an prodigious pachyderm that can fly makes Max very happy and, faster than you can say “exploitation”, Dumbo is a bone-fide smash hit. Ah, but success brings out the cockroaches and in strolls ruthless V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton with a really bad blonde wig). He owns Dreamland, a gigantic and garish steampunk-like Disneyland (actually based on the real 1917 Coney Island amusement park). Along with his superstar attraction, French trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green), Vandevere strikes up a deal to buy Dumbo and the whole Medici circus. Sounds pretty good, right? C’mon, this is a Tim Burton film! Things have to go sideways!
Dumbo, weirded out being in a new place, performs under the tutelage of the kids (apparently, this elephant can understand English) with the promise of getting to see his mother again. But even though Dumbo wows the massive crowd, that evil Vandevere just can’t let well enough alone. There’s thrills and chills, along with deep sadness and pathos combined with a surprising lack of humor or whimsy. Just like that dreadful remake of Pete’s Dragon in 2016, this version delivers on the truly remarkable CGI effects, but loses when dealing with painful family loss, unnecessary deaths, stark drama, and not enough enjoyable family fun time with an elephant that can fly. It wants to be amusing and for the kids, but can’t quite manage it with all it dark undertones and unhappy characters.
But what can you expect from screenwriter Ehren Kruger, whose body of work is comprised mostly of Transformers movies and those scary, creepy Ring films. Hardly the kinda guy you’d want to script a lovable, laughable kids movie, huh? I half expected there to be a bigger body count and an axe murderer lurking in some corner. But, it’s not all that bad, I suppose. What time we spent with that cutsie Dumbo is both delightful and remarkable; his flying and facial expressions are damn impressive for a CGI character. The kids are both newbies (and it shows), but Farrell, Green, DeVito, and Keaton are all excellent. It’s cool to see DeVito and Keaton together again in another Burton film, I just wish Michelle Pfeiffer showed up for the trifecta!