Greetings again from the darkness. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of Disney’s commitment to live action remakes of so many of their animated classics; however, I’ll readily admit that teaming the always creative Tim Burton with every child’s favorite pachyderm piqued my interest. In case you don’t recall, Disney’s fourth animated feature film was released in 1941, and told the story of a baby elephant who could fly thanks to the flapping of his enormous ears. DUMBO was, at its core, a story of how being different can cause you to be an outcast, while also delivering the strength to overcome those who might treat you poorly or look to profit at your expense. It was a sweet and simple message delivered in a brief 64 minutes.
Taking up almost another hour, filmmaker Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger seize the original book by husband and wife writing team Harold Pearl and Helen Aberson and deliver a story that is anything but simple. Rather it’s complicated, convoluted and at times nonsensical. What does work is the visual splendor of watching a cute little elephant fly around a circus … first a tattered old-timey tent camp and later a futuristic amusement park.
It takes only about 30 seconds for us to recognize the silver screen stylings of Tim Burton. The ragged train cars in need of paint followed by the black smoke from Casey’s ‘smiley’ face engine, all point to the familiar visuals that harken back to Mr. Burton’s memorable films like FRANKENWEENIE, BEETLEJUICE, BATMAN, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, BATMAN RETURNS, CORPSE BRIDE, and ALICE IN WONDERLAND (to name a few).
It’s 1919 as the train clackety-clacks from Sarasota, Florida through small southern towns and up to Joplin, Missouri, where youngsters Milly (Nico Parker, lookalike daughter of Thandie Newton) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) give a hug to their father Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell). Holt has been away serving in WWI, and returns minus one arm and one wife … while he was at war, she lost her battle to illness, leaving the children in the care of the circus performers. Holt and his wife used to be featured performers in the Medici Brothers Circus run by Max Medici (Danny Devito), but times are tough and Holt is assigned to elephant-tending duty, where Max has recently purchased a pregnant Mrs. Jumbo elephant.
We don’t have to wait long for the baby to arrive, be called a “freak” by Max, learn to fly, be separated from his mother, and be targeted by a greedy amusement park owner named V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton). Vandevere’s Dreamland has some familiar Disneyland elements, and serves it purpose for reminding us that traditional circuses are being replaced by high tech amusement parks – an environment more in line with today’s youth.
Where the film suffers is with its unnecessarily complicated story and underdeveloped characters. The usually reliable Mr. Keaton never really kicks in as the greedy and evil amusement park owner. Mr. Devito mostly yells his lines, and Mr. Farrell just seems categorically miscast. In what is the first film for both, young Ms. Parker shows flashes of talent, while Mr. Hobbins is given next to nothing to do. Eva Green does bring a welcome element as aerial artist Colette, but Alan Arkin’s role as a banker seems tacked on as a favor. Unfortunately we barely get to know the circus troupe, though Miss Atlantis (Sharon Rooney) strums her ukulele as she sings “Baby Mine”, the Oscar nominated song from the 1941 original, penned by Ned Washington and Frank Churchill. Adding to the Burton oddities, Michael Buffer makes an appearance as ring announcer … albeit a different ring than what he is most often associated with.
It likely won’t surprise you that Mr. Burton delivers a film much darker than the original, and at least he avoided the temptation of talking animals (the legendary Mel Blanc voiced Dumbo in the original). He does offer up a nod to the Pink Elephant sequence from the original, as well as the presence of mice … though wisely no crows this time around. Danny Elfman’s score is a perfect fit (as usual) and Oscar winning Set Designer Rick Heinrick (SLEEPY HOLLOW) works his magic, as does 4-time Oscar winning Costume Designer Colleen Atwood (ALICE IN WONDERLAND). The technical mastery of the film is finalized with the work of Cinematographer Ben Davis, whose work on such grand scale films as CAPTAIN MARVEL, DOCTOR STRANGE, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY allows him to make the best of the visuals, even while the story disappoints. There is a contemporary message delivered near the end regarding the captivity of animals, and despite the dark, overly complicated story, it’s still quite fun to watch Dumbo fly.
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