Dumbo is a remake of the 1941 animated film of the same name. Set in 1919, the film follows the struggling Medici Bros. circus. The ringmaster, Max Medici (Danny DeVito), hires recent World War I vet and former circus star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) to clean up after his newly-acquired elephants, which he plans to use to reinvigorate interest in his circus. Farrier also reunites with his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), and their relationship is clearly strained since the death of their mother. One of the circus elephants gives birth to a baby with larger-than-normal ears, which makes him a laughing stock, and the audience names the animal “Dumbo.” Dumbo also attracts the attention of entertainment tycoon V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) and trapeze artist Colette (Eva Green).
One of the main issues with Dumbo is that the characters are obvious types and there is little exploration of their motives. Director Tim Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger hit familiar beats and themes we have seen in many family movies without adding new insight. The family dynamic between Farrell and his on-screen kids follow a familiar story that has been used countless times, while the behavior of Colette and Farrier is insufficiently motivated. Finally, characters make decisions that do not make sense in the context of what has already been established, particularly those played by Keaton and DeVito.
The saving grace of these characters are the actors portraying them. DeVito is always entertaining to watch, portraying his ringmaster as one would expect. He is busting with charisma. And as obvious as his character is, Keaton clearly revels in the role. Farrell is always emotionally affecting whenever he is on screen, and Green is always a welcoming presence. I only wish the screenplay provided them with more depth to explore.
One of the threads hit upon in the story is greed. It’s hard to look at this and not see Kruger and Burton taking a swipe at the recent Disney acquisition of 21stCentury Fox. But it is a Disney movie and, like most threads, it goes frustratingly unexplored.
While the human characters fall flat, the same can’t be said for the titular CG elephant. Is the character helped a lot by well-done visual effects that accentuate his cuteness? Yes, but one of the main strengths come from the expressions in his blue eyes. Flight sequences (and there are quite a few) involving Dumbo are, like the rest of the movie, visually arresting. With Burton at the helm, how could they not be beautiful? Accompanying those visuals is a fantastic score from frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman. Whatever Dumbo’s current fortunes, it is hard to not be emotionally invested in him. For kids and adults who have a nostalgic fondness for the original, they will surely get attached to Dumbo, while the film’s cuteness makes Dumbo a sure bet for merchandising tie-ins.
Dumbo is a sweet remake that is bound to tug on the heartstrings and is anchored by reliably beautiful visuals from director Tim Burton. Unfortunately, it is also very safe in its exploration of its themes and the characters leave little impact. Given the amazing talent involved, it could have done more than scratch the surface. |Bill Loellke