Disney’s 1941 classic, about a wee circus elephant baby with giant ears, whose mom’s name (Jumbo), along with the baby’s huge ears, got him automatically nicknamed “Dumbo,” was a classic for a reason: It had great pathos. It was sadder than “Bambi.”
This new 2019 Tim Burton update is an attempt to improve on a classic. That’s generally a very difficult thing to do. Let me think of an example of improving on a classic. Otis Redding’s song “Respect” was an instant classic by virtue of the fact that everything out of Otis’s mouth was an instant soul classic. Along came Aretha Franklin, who turned “Respect” into such a mega-hit that Otis himself, when he heard it for the first time, could do nothing but shake his head and say, “She done stole my song.”
Tim Burton, who was weird and interesting in his early career, now faces industry expectations of what the Tim Burton flavor and ingredients will be, but no amount of sprinkling of Burton-ness on this new “Dumbo” is able to improve on the classic whatsoever. Dumbo #1 was a case of Can’t Touch This.
In 1919, after World War I, soldier Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a former horse stunt rider, comes home to the Medici Bros. Circus, located in its winter home of Sarasota, Florida, missing a limb. His kids are slightly traumatized. Holt’s gotta figure out how to stay employed.
This circus has no actual Medici brethren, just a singular Max Medici (Danny DeVito), the harried owner and ringmaster, who’s trying hard to pull the circus out of a slump.
He’s hoping that his latest purchase, a pregnant elephant named Jumbo, will give birth to a crowd-pulling, cute beh-beh. Oops, the baby is deformed! Gah! It trips on its ears! Stupid Dumbo.
Lo and behold, Dumbo’s dad must’ve been a giant bat, because his mutant ears turn out to be wings. So Holt and his kids, Milly (Nico Parker, Thandie Newton’s mini-me daughter) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), become Dumbo’s caretakers and protectors.
Who does Dumbo need protection from? Kids who make fun of him, of course, and also slick, slimy, bleached-silver, nasty entertainment mogul V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) and his futuristic, Coney-Island-on-steroids theme park.
Will Dumbo save the circus from certain demise? Will Holt fall in love with the slinky French trapeze artist (a vastly underused Eva Green) who Vandevere rescued from a life of questionable morality and who’s supposed to ride the aeronautical mini-pachyderm? Are your kids going to care?
The last question is the most important, and the answer is: You can take ’em and force-feed ’em this fluff, but in the same way that this realistic, CGI Dumbo has to flap his earwings really hard to get his 800 pounds airborne—your kids are not going to be terribly uplifted.
What Can Your Kids Learn?
One of the ways this update tries to assimilate to (and bank on) current times is to cater to the vegan, animal activism crowd. Down with circus oppression of animals altogether!!! That’s good; I’m all for the liberation of oppressed animals. The humiliating clown face painted on little Dumbo is pretty tragic, in fact, as well as his being tricked into flying around the big top, sans safety net, before he’s even really mastered ear-flight.
However, “Dumbo” 2019’s utopian, setting-all-the-animals-free vision of a “Jungle Book”-type outcome is perhaps unrealistic. The vastly more powerful scene was the original, where Dumbo’s mother spanks some bullying audience boys with her trunk and then gets put in a cart and elephant-shamed with a sign saying “Danger Mad Elephant.”
Colin Farrell, whose acting has been exceptionally wooden ever since “Miami Vice,” is here positively petrified, and even the normally brilliant Keaton is reduced to a small heap of Keaton-isms. Thandie Newton’s daughter appears to be soaked in teeny starlet imperiousness of I know I’m already a movie star. (Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and say the character she’s playing appears to be spoiled.) And while Danny DeVito also displays the full range of DeVito ticks, his is the only character you’ll care about.
Dumbo’s eyes are an elephantine version of those of Alita from “Alita: Battle Angel”—outsized, photorealistic, and definitely very cute. But again, you really need to leave classics alone unless you know deep down that you can knock it out of the park. Burton’s patented creepiness, assortment of oddities, and the CGI steampunk-iness on display here can’t compete with the simple pen, ink, and paint of the original.
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Release Date: March 29
Rated: 2.5 stars out of 5