Having just seen Tim Burton’s Dumbo I wish I bore better news. Dumbo is the most visually alive Burton has been in quite some time. It is also the most wishy-washy, gutless, and soulless he’s ever been. It is, in short, a swirl of contradictions.
Dumbo is the latest in the seemingly never-ending live-action remakes of Disney animated classics. With each passing film, the artist behind the camera becomes more fascinating, yet the visuals before, while bright and shiny, become more limp and lifeless. I think it is safe to say the whole exercise has yielded mixed results.
The classic 1941 animated classic ignored the humans and instead gave us a story from the animal’s point of view. Burton has long had a love affair with outcasts and characters shunned by society for traits and features beyond their control. Poor Dumbo, of all of Disney’s characters, is almost tailor-made for the likes of Burton—on paper.
But Ehren Kruger’s script guts the story entirely. We are saddled with the Farrier family. Mainly the two kids Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) who of course are sad and forlorn because being in a Disney film means their mother has died offscreen before the credits have rolled. She died of influenza. I know what you are thinking and no she was not on the Oregon Trail.
Their father, Holt (Colin Farrell) has returned home from World War I missing an arm. The ringleader of the circus Max Medici (Danny DeVito) has sold his horses and demoted Holt to be an elephant handler. Times are tough and everyone must make sacrifices. All of this happens within the opening minutes, causing a cloud of almost comical gloom to settle over the whole affair.
It doesn’t help that Holt comes off like a mannequin come to life. Farrell puts on, what I can only assume, is an Irishman’s idea of a midwestern accent. It is a stock accent borne from Hollywood and not a specific location. Sadly Holt’s accent is the only interesting, and entertaining, thing about him. Emptyheaded and dimwitted, he is there only to pine for his glory days and stares at his kids in dumbfounded consternation.
A dead wife/mother, a shell shocked father missing an arm returning home from war, his livelihood sold off from underneath him, demoted from the star of the show to cleaning up after pachyderms, the circus is dying, and he’s unable to bridge the growing gap between him and his children. Kruger and Burton have jammed so much misfortune in the opening that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. My god, it’s a wonder Holt doesn’t turn and chase after the train as it leaves the station.
From here it should come as no surprise the elephant Holt is to look after is pregnant. Her offspring is, of course, our floppy-eared hero. His oversized ears give him the seemingly magical ability to fly.
At his best, Burton makes us feel as if his surreal world of morbid beauty is alive and extends beyond the edges of the frames. At his worst, his films feel as if he has spent more times on the costume design and less on the script. Dumbo falls square in the middle. While not his best work, it is his best in a long while.
Ben Davis, the cinematographer, gives us scenes that feel like a painting. Davis is one of the in-house cinematographers for Disney and Marvel. Dumbo is by far the rare time when he has been allowed to play with color. Burton’s keen eye seems to be coming back into focus as he and Davis shoot most of the movie at twilight. The sky being a perpetual golden hue adds an aura of fantasy to the film.
But so much of Dumbo is shot on a soundstage and the artificiality overwhelms almost everything else. Unlike say, Edward Scissorhands, the over-exaggerated surrealism hinders the story as opposed to enhancing it. Dumbo is a fairy tale, which means it should eschew logic and not be concerned with plot holes and motivations. But the characters still have to have some kind of motivation.
Milly and Joe fawn over Dumbo because they are children. The three share a kinship of youth and confusion at the world around them. Milly is a budding scientist and Joe is a boy. We know Milly is a scientist because she keeps repeating the lines, “ Test and research. It’s the scientific method.” Curiously missing is the part of the scientific method where she has to come up with a hypothesis to test.
But that would involve Milly to actually think and not just pretend to think. Little girls loving science is often used as a lazy screenwriting shortcut to show intelligence and curiosity. These shortcuts only work if the characters actually exhibit any one of these traits. Merely reciting half-assed remembered phrases the screenwriter heard in his 8th-grade biology class does not a character make.
Still, Milly fares better than Joe, who’s entire characteristic seems to be standing nearby. He runs, jumps, laughs, and gets into all manner of boyish rambunctious shenanigans. Here endeth Joe’s purpose to the plot. He has no bearing one way or the other. Dumbo flies whether Joe is there or not.
At least Milly is useful. Max comes up with an idea involving Dumbo, clowns, a platform, and controlled fire. Shockingly, things go awry. Dumbo ends up trapped atop a platform next to billowing flames, so Milly climbs to the rescue. Her failed rescue attempt is the reason Dumbo flies and all is well with Medici circus. Though I would suggest the circus members form a union of some sort.
To Kruger’s credit, this is where Dumbo begins to take flight—sort of. A billionaire, V.A. Vandemere (Michael Keaton) sees the story of Dumbo in the papers. He arrives and offers to give everybody a job at his amusement park Dreamland, with Dumbo as his star.
Underneath all the playing safe, mealy mouth changes to the original Dumbo, there lies a furious razor-like incisor of a metaphor in the remake. V.A. Vandemere is clearly Walt Disney and his Dreamland is clearly Disneyland. Burton draws a sharp contrast between the shambling backwater of Medici’s circus with Vandemere’s bright shining futuristic mechanized land of tomorrow.
Medici Brothers is a genuine community, a patchwork family of outcasts. Whereas Vanmere’s Dreamland is a reflection of that community through a warped capitalist funhouse mirror. The allegory is so clear and savage that in a way it’s kind of breathtaking. Considering the finale consists of Vanmere’s Dreamland aflame and collapsing onto itself, it’s a wonder it made it past Disney’s front office. Then again, studio executives have a long and storied history of being so artistically inept as to miss even the most blatant use of symbolism.
No matter, as bright as the satiric plot point might be, Dumbo never takes flight in a way that feels like or Burton or Disney. Even the normally vibrant Eva Green as Colette the French trapeze artist struggles to find a foothold for her character. A French trapeze artist who seems trapped by circumstance in a relationship with Vandmere while torn by the slow smoldering embers of something more with Holt is a role Green could do asleep and one arm tied behind her back.
Even Keaton’s over the top wild eyed corporatist seems off. The charm of Keaton is his how he imbues his performances with a hint of wily unpredictability. Flourishes of movement or diction that catch us off guard and bring the character to life are absent in a film yearning for it. Keaton comes off as a cartoonish villain but not in a way that is fun or entertaining.
Impressive as the dramatic allegory between Medici Circus and Vandmere’s Dreamland may be, the characters do little to none of the heavy lifting required. Burton has defanged Dumbo, a movie that traumatized a generation, and instead made it a boring crowd pleaser.
Except it won’t please most crowds. Dumbo is the cinematic equivalent of a wet rag. Like the other live action Disney remakes, technically, the movie is sound. But it has no heart, no joy, and more importantly, no drama. Burton and Kruger have gone to great lengths to make the film as harmless as possible. In the process, they’ve removed the heartache of loss and replaced it with nothing.