2019, PG, 115 min. Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Colin Farrell, Finley Hobbins, Nico Parker, Eva Green, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Alan Arkin.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., March 29, 2019
Do we need a new Dumbo? Well, do we need any of Disney’s pillagings from its classic animations vault? I’m not convinced any of these live-action redos – a practice that picked up speed with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 2010 – have sufficiently made the case for their existence; maybe the live-action Aladdin and The Lion King, soon to leave the factory floor for May and July product launches respectively, will win over reluctant minds like mine. Still, if Dumbo 2.0 does have to exist, then you could do far worse than this sweet and occasionally quite nifty revamping.
Burton, back at work-whistling alongside Mickey Mouse, and screenwriter Ehren Kruger have stripped the original 1941 film down to its studs and reconstructed it for a 21st century audience, even if the action is now set way back in 1919, in the aftermath of World War I. The bones are the same – a circus, a mother elephant named Mrs. Jumbo, and the dopey, giant-eared junior she protects with a scary fury – but the focus has moved. That shift is signaled artfully in the first moments of the film, as the ramshackle Medici Bros. Circus train lumbers along railroad tracks, the side of the cars advertising the notably human entertainments within: a strongman, a mermaid, a horseback-riding daredevil. Less artful is the way Burton regurgitates the same circus performer introductions in the next breath; still, we get the drift. Dumbo may get his name in the title, but the baby elephant who can fly is no longer top-billed.
And that’s all right. With the shift to live-action, it’s a reasonable strategy to size the story down to human-scale, now centered around Danny DeVito’s comically hapless ringmaster and the Farrier family in his employ: widower dad Holt (Farrell), who lost an arm in the war and with it his lassoing acrobatic act; daughter Milly (Parker), who dreams of being a scientist, not a star under the red-striped tent; and son Joe (Hobbins), who has no discernible personality traits. The Farriers are in pain – Mom died in the influenza outbreak, because of course a Disney movie was going to find a way to kill a parent off – but they band together to nurture the young, tenderfoot Dumbo and then train him once they discover those goofy ears give him wings.
Nearly doubling the original film’s succinct 64 minutes, Burton’s Dumbo sends the plot in a new direction with the wrinkle of a rival circus maestro, V.A. Vandevere (Keaton), and his eye-popping amusement park, Dreamland. Vandevere is limply characterized; you know he’s no good, he’s just not bad in any especially interesting ways. Well, except for the ways he may or may not resemble Uncle Walt. Dreamland, after all, is just five letters removed from Disney’s premier theme park, and Burton makes a point of showing how Dumbo is being commodified as a plush toy by Dreamland Corp. Did the call come from inside the house, or was I just searching dusty corners for the subversive Tim Burton of his Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands days of yore, cheekily thumbing his nose at corporate overlords?
A delicious what-if, but Dumbo isn’t really about rattling the cage. An all-around well-rounded cast marches through emotional beats and bromides that are worthy if perfunctory for Aughts animated films (underdogs should be uplifted, family is what you make of it, it’s okay to be emotionally vulnerable, girls can be STEM-smart, durr), and their sturdy predictability makes for a welcome ballast when the storyline turns more stressful. Which it does. In fact, we only truly get Dumbo’s perspective – his literal, wide-eyed point of view – when he’s staring down the stressors of extreme heights and jeering crowds. Dumbo’s palpable anxiety might prove too intense for younger viewers; this fully grown person may have leaked tears in commiseration. But mostly there were tears of joy, because movies can still make the heart sing. Mine borrowed the words from another Disney cartoon not yet scavenged for parts: You can fly! You can fly!