Dumbo is Tim Burton’s best movie in years. But that’s not saying much. Over the last decade, the filmmaker once dubbed as a seminal visionary delivered such messy, mediocre movies as Alice and Wonderland, Dark Shadows, Frankenweenie, Big Eyes,, and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. All of which felt like echoes of his glory days, bordering on self-plagiarism. He’d shove Johnny Depp into a new grotesque costume, slather some pretty young woman in white pancake makeup, slap black spirals onto the sets and costumes, then unspool another story of pop-goth whimsy and stunted sentimentality. As someone who still considers Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns blazingly original, thematically rich, deliciously twisted, and starkly poignant films, it pains me to recognize how far Burton has fallen. Then comes Dumbo, which reveals there may still be some spark in this once masterful showman.
This Dumbo is a dogged live-action re-imagining of Disney’s 1941 animated classic, remodeled for modern audiences. This means the adorable cartoon pachyderm is now photo-real CGI, the cringe-inducing crows are gone, and the 64-minute original runtime is crudely stretched by wedging in a maudlin family drama. In this version, none of the animals talk. Instead, Ehren Kruger’s script centers on the Farrier family, who has experienced a stretch of tragedy. Once the headliner of the Medici Brothers Circus, handsome cowboy/stunt rider Holt (Colin Farrell with a “Texan” accent that is charming yet ludicrously inauthentic) has endured heavy losses. While serving in World War I, he lost his left arm, his late wife, his job, and his status. All he’s got left are his children, perky Joe (Finley Hobbins) and stoic Millie (Nico Parker), who is a disappointment because she wants to be a scientist instead of a circus performer. Sympathetic ringmaster Max Medici (a game Danny DeVito) offers him a new—albeit unglamorous— gig tending to the elephants, including the new acquisition, the pregnant Mrs. Jumbo.
Shortly thereafter, Dumbo is born. And the adaptation’s choices begin to itch. In the original, the other elephants shunned Dumbo for his big ears, which made sense because they were small-minded conformists with a fierce sense of superiority. And that emphasized the cartoon’s message about the evils of such fear of difference, because their narrow-mindedness blinded them to Dumbo’s worth. In the live-action version, it’s Max and other humans who jeer and cringe over Dumbo’s big ears, which is bizarre on a couple of levels. First off, CGI Dumbo is inarguably adorable. So their disgust is genuinely confounding. Secondly, MAX MEDICI IS A CIRCUS RINGMASTER! He was hoping a baby elephant would be a draw and now he has one unlike the world has ever seen and he’s DISAPPOINTED?! It’s a plot point that feels more like a studio note than a justified character choice. Dumbo is juggling a lot of that.
Did I mention Millie is into science? Because she will. A lot. And look, on one hand, it’s great that Disney is using their platform to encourage girls to get into the male-dominated fields of STEM. On the other hand, it’d be terrific if it felt integral to the story instead of wedged in like a meme they don’t totally grasp. In the live-action Beauty and the Beast, we’re told Belle isn’t JUST into reading, she’s an inventor like her dad. Her masterful super empowering invention: a washing machine. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms made better use of the STEM inclusion, giving its heroine an interest beyond toys and romance. Plus, her mechanical know-how even impacted the plot! But in Dumbo, Millie’s interest in science isn’t part of her personality, it’s a substitute for one. She idolizes Marie Curie and spits out words like “experiment,” “scientific method,” and “rules of science.” But Burton gives her no emotional range and Kruger gives her no arc. She goes from stoic girl who talks about science a lot to stoic girl who talks about science a lot and had an elephant adventure. Her character—who is maybe the protagonist of the movie?—is as paper thin as the romantic subplot between Holt and French aerialist Colette Marchant (Eva Green), which I won’t bother dedicating much time to because Dumbo certainly doesn’t. A shared glance, a kind word, boom. Love. I know it’s easy to imagine falling for either Green or Farrell (who looks good even in sad clown makeup), but it’s still lazy. And that’s the overall problem with Dumbo, it takes for granted that the audience is on board.
Look at this pretty, sad girl. You care, right? No need to give her any dimension. Adorable elephant! You love him, right? No need to give him much to do beyond look cute and hit the requisite set pieces from the animated original. Look, a handsome man and beautiful woman. They’re in love, right? Hey, Dumbo did one semi-successful flying show, so we can jump right to some shady suit (a delightfully scenery-chewing Michael Keaton) trying to scheme him away from the Farriers, right? Kruger’s script feels like an outline, where the actual plot and character development were never worked in. It’s studio notes and plot points on parade! Oh, and nods to the original movie. The songs will be snuck in through instrumentals, lines of dialogue, or a mournful circus performer keening “Baby Mine” over a campfire. Check, check, check.
Still, there are places where you can feel the old verve of Burton. The casting for one. Keaton and DeVito reteam onscreen for the first time since Batman Returns. Both clearly relish going big together. DeVito plays broad, while Keaton puts on an accent that is exhilaratingly strange. It seems to be a manufactured American accent of a man who thinks himself a sophisticate, like a pauper’s impression of the Mid-Atlantic accent. The way he says “protégé” should be taught in technique classes. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Sandy Martin brings her growling granny shtick for a short but sharp appearance as a cantankerous secretary with a whiff of Large Marge. But, it’s a shame Burton didn’t encourage the Farriers to embrace the same kind of theatricality as he allowed Geena Davis (Beetlejuice), Sarah Jessica Parker (Ed Wood), or Dianne Wiest (Edward Scissorhands). Just because they’re playing the “normal” characters doesn’t mean they need to be constrained to boringly blasé performances. Confined to playing circus performers whose key feature is heart-of-gold, even Farrell and Green—who have gone with the gusto for camp and bravado in the past—feel muted here.
But most shocking is how wasted the setting of a circus feels! A place of bold costumes, misfits, and marvels, this should have been the perfect setting for Burton to recapture his magic! But the circus ensemble is a faintly colorful background to the flat Farriers. There are clowns, magicians, a strong man, a cowboy, an aerialist, and a flying elephant! Yet their set pieces that should be show-stopping cut up the anticipated action to check in repeatedly on the in-film audience. Behold the crowds gawp, marvel, cackle, and heckle! A shot or two to set the scene, I understand. But the wonder of the center ring is buried under reaction shots of background actors! Even in his climax, Dumbo can’t keep the spotlight.
In the end Dumbo, is a clumsy but cute beast. Seemingly tripped up on studio notes, its story is plodding. Its heroes are pretty and pretty dull. Yet there’s some spark in the supporting cast and a cute CGI critter that sometimes actually gets screen time in the movie that carries his name. And at least it doesn’t have Johnny Depp in it.