The first of 2019’s three Disney live action remakes, Tim Burton’s Dumbo takes place in the financially struggling Medici circus, run by the cranky but lovable Max (Danny DeVito), whose performers eagerly await the arrival of a new baby elephant that will help raise the circus’ profits, a hope that is dashed when he is born with noticeably oversized ears. Undeterred, the two children of former soldier and horse wrangler Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) look after the elephant and are soon amazed to discover that he can use his ears to fly, catapulting the failing circus into newfound fame and fortune and soon, the newly christened “Dumbo” catches the attention of slimy businessman V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) who absorbs the small family of performers into his own huge revue: Dreamland. But with Dumbo desperate to get back to his estranged mother and the revelation that Vandevere has some less than noble intentions, the children and the whole Medici troupe must band together in order to protect the young elephant.
The first half of Dumbo is the weakest. Straight away, the film starts off on very shaky ground as it introduces some very awkward writing, uncomfortable performances and an attempt at being warm hearted and sweet but so many early scenes actually come off as twee, fake, cloying and emotionally manipulative. It’s also slightly rushed because the film tries hard to “tick all the boxes” early on within a very short space of time (introducing Dumbo, making him feel like an outcast, giving us some obviously nasty characters who torment Mrs. Jumbo, separating mother and son, getting him to fly) and as the film goes through the motions, getting through the familiar plot points, there’s no time dedicated to properly developing these characters (or if there is a backstory, it’s done in an awkward, eyeroll-inducing way) and as a result, the film’s characters are quite one-note and aren’t really worth caring about.
It also doesn’t help that most of the film’s dialogue is awkward and cheesy, more than capable of incurring eye-rolling in the audience, and most of this burdensome writing is shouldered by the children of the piece – including Milly, the daughter, who we are implicitly TOLD wants to pursue science and to use her mind rather than her performance skills. Obviously, it’s nice that a film takes steps to include a young female character with smarts and a brain but this part of the characterisation is far too ham-fisted and rather than letting the audience decide on their own what to think and how to feel, they are instead told, which makes Dumbo regrettably disingenuous and mawkish. Dumbo also tries to be funny by including some harmless and deliberately inoffensive humour but with this, it fails miserably as 99% of the jokes fall flat and the family friendly humour comes across as forced and limp.
So all in all, Ehren Kruger’s screenplay lets the film down greatly and Kruger (of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Dark of the Moon fame) is mostly to blame.
Things pick up a little bit in the second half though as the film seems to move off from its predecessor, story-wise, and do its own thing and as it somewhat ditches the annoying sentimentality, it ups the ante by becoming more of an adventure story, giving us plenty more flying scenes and properly exploring the colourful location of Dreamland – an expansive little world with loads of good looking, interesting and big screen-worthy areas for the audience to explore. It’s still not perfect though because the story of the second half, though decently engaging as well as being not too intellectually challenging (is that a positive or a negative?), isn’t exactly revolutionary and it has a few predictable plot twists – with instances of bad guys turning good which you just KNOW is coming – and stock villain behaviour. Still, the second half visuals are pleasing and the cheese factor dies down, so that’s a plus.
The film’s cast are good sports and they do their darndest with what their given but, likable bunch though they are, the material isn’t as good as they are. Colin Farrell is alright as the “doesn’t listen to his kids at the start but he does by the end” father character, Danny DeVito is as entertainingly DeVito-y as you’d expect, the sublime Eva Green is perfectly watchable as the “starts off as the villain’s girlfriend but grows increasingly fond of the kids” French acrobat, and the ensemble cast who play the parts of the Medici performers are all decent and they do their best, though their parts all fade into the background.
But on the flip side, young actors Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins don’t do so well as Milly and Joe, the children of the piece; maybe Burton didn’t direct them properly or perhaps they’re just not natural actors but, cute though they are, their delivery is forced and they struggle a little with the material. And, sadly, Michael Keaton fares the worst in his wholly two-dimensional role of V.A. Vandevere; as a scenery chewing, moustache (if he had one) twirling, cookie cutter villain who wouldn’t be out of place in a kid’s animated film, Keaton’s performance is far too hammy, his accent is weird and unplaceable, and his character is unoriginal and totally one-note – you eventually expect him to express his annoyance towards those “meddling kids”!
Visually, the film can’t really be faulted as, despite the odd dodgy effect that are seen during the flying scenes, Dumbo is appropriately bright and colourful and there are one or two genuinely lovely looking parts of the film (Eva Green included!); the design of Dreamland, as hinted at before, is particularly laudable as it’s grand in scope and scale and while watching, we are able to get truly immersed in the spectacle of it all. The CGI animals are also effective as Dumbo and co. are given noticeable emotion but at the same time, the expressions that our titular pachyderm shows don’t inspire much sympathy from the audience and we aren’t able to emotionally connect with Dumbo as we did in the original 1941 film.
And in collaborating with Tim Burton for the umpteenth time, Danny Elfman manages to inject a sense of adventure into the second half of the film but the more emotional pieces are a bit too oversentimental and overall, Elfman’s music is too safe, familiar and it’s like something that we’ve heard in one of Burton’s 90s films – it’s the kind of score that Elfman can do on autopilot. There are also a couple of versions of the beloved “Baby Mine” included but they’re just pale imitations and don’t have much of an impact.
In conclusion, this is the weakest live action Disney remake that there’s been so far; the cast give everything they’ve got and there was probably the best of intentions from the filmmakers going in, but this version of Dumbo was completely unnecessary and pointless and it suffers from some bad dialogue, an uninspiring story and a cloying, mawkish, oversentimental atmosphere.