Tim Burton remaking Disney classics never really sounded like a good idea in the first place. While he’s a filmmaker that certainly does a lot of exciting work visually, his narrative can get bogged down in whatever else the project is attempting to achieve, and it can often be difficult for him to find a balance that feels right. Burton’s remake of Alice In Wonderland, most specifically, is a complete debacle. It has his visual flair, but it’s got corporate Disney fingerprints all over it. This remake occurred during a time when Tim Burton and goth teenagers were having a moment, and every bit of that film seemed cynically and specifically designed to sell as much merch at Hot Topic stores in American shopping malls as possible. It may have done something right; it has made over a billion dollars worldwide and spawned an even-worse sequel, Alice through the Looking Glass. And it also allowed for a green light of Tim Burton’s next project, a live-action remake of the 1941 animated classic Dumbo. And while he and Disney seem to have learned their lesson early on in the film, you realize quite soon this isn’t the case.
In 1919, Holt Farmer (Colin Farrell) comes home from the war, having lost an arm, to discover his wife and co-performer at Medici Family Circus, run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito) has died of tuberculosis. His precocious children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) have been raised by Max and the circus performers since this tragedy. In the circus, Holt has now been relegated to looking after the elephants, and Medici has acquired an elephant that is about to give birth to a baby elephant that is mockingly named Dumbo. The kids realize that if they can get Dumbo to sneeze, they can get him to fly, leading to a circus extravaganza that takes the world by storm.
This is act one. The original Dumbo ran 64 minutes in length, and this one is pushing two hours, so what we have here is a half-remake/half-sequel, and once we get past the first 45 minutes or so (which, to be fair, are quite charming), it gets weird. In the newly conceived second and third act, we meet V.A. Vandevere, a villain played by Michael Keaton and his muse, a French trapeze artist named Colette (Eva Green). Vandevere buys the Medici circus and transforms it into a fantastical, futuristic, art deco theme park extravaganza with merchandising tie-ins and themed concession stands. What I’m saying is this is a Disney movie where the villain is basically Walt Disney, and every strange turn the film takes from there increasingly induces a cringe. We also have a horribly placed cameo as the new circus ringleader, so look out for that.
The idea of a Dumbo directed by Tim Burton sounded exciting to me. He could have doubled down with the circus aspect and done something different visually and stylistically. Instead, this is a combination of many other better Tim Burton films. While the film’s first act kind of captures the Big Fish sense of wonder, it loses that for something that feels less cute and sweet and more menacing. The Danny Elfman score, for instance, sounds almost exactly like the music from Edward Scissorhands, almost distractingly so.
And while Burton once made a brilliant adaptation of the Broadway musical Sweeney Todd, after stripping a third of the musical score, the lack of music in Dumbo does not go unnoticed. Obviously, the crows could not show up in 2019, and that song is gone. The Baby Mine sequence, which is one of the most emotionally devastating bits of the original, is cut down to what feels like 15 seconds in this version, and that’s pretty much it for the musical numbers. All of these Disney live-action remakes of famously animated properties (except for Beauty and the Beast) has been curiously distant to the famous music that has made these films so popular. Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book only did one croaked-out verse of The Bear Necessities. Also, I’d never seen Helena Bonham Carter (who actually can sing) more uncomfortable than when she half-sang Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. Unfortunately, Dumbo also doesn’t know what to do with the music that would fit nicely in the story. In the original Dumbo, the Baby Mine sequence is devastatingly emotional, and there isn’t a dry eye in the house. I can’t say the same for this one.
Tim Burton’s Dumbo might be trying even harder to make the audience cry than the original film did. Dumbo and his mother are separated not once, but twice, for instance. But nothing here holds the emotional heft that it needs to. If a movie about adorable animals in peril is not reducing me to a puddle of tears, it’s not doing its job.
Danny DeVito is the one actor who is not sleepwalking through his performance. He’s having a great time, and he always has a great time. He still has his trademark infectious energy. Colin Farrell is fine, I suppose, but he isn’t doing anything remotely interesting as an actor. At least not anything we haven’t seen him do better before. Alan Arkin randomly shows up for two scenes, and he feels like he just showed up during his lunch hour break from the set of a different movie. And child actor Nico Parker (Thandie Newton’s daughter) is terrible. She is delivering every line with the same bland, monotone voice, even when something fascinating is happening. Her character is a girl in the early 1900s who wants to be a scientist, and that’s all there is to her role. To be fair, it’s more of an arc than her brother has.
The ‘sequel’ story of the Michael Keaton and Eva Green characters coming to town and ruining everything, truly feels like it’s out of a different movie. There is no reason for Dumbo to have needed a ticking-clock chase sequence in the third act. Although, I’m quickly reminded that Mary Poppins Returns did the exact same thing a few months ago. Keaton is doing well enough with what’s on the page, but his character feels woefully unnecessary from the moment he appears. We’re led to believe that he’s a nice guy without any nefarious motivations, but the audience sees through him immediately. Eva Green plays his muse, and it’s a sad commentary on what she is to Tim Burton. She has been in every one of his films since he broke off his relationship with Helena Bonham Carter, whom he doesn’t cast anymore. The fact that he seems to have traded one very similar actress in for a younger one carries an undeniably gross vibe to it. If Burton respected Green, he could at least give her a decent role. At least her costumes are nice to look at.
Dumbo never quite soars. In a day and age where a movie can’t be sixty-five minutes long, the new material added to this story doesn’t exactly work. I appreciate the film’s critique of the entire Disney brand, but I’m curious as to how Burton and crew got away with it in the first place. It’s beautiful to look at, and Burton’s eye for visuals remains intact. It’s certainly better than his Alice in Wonderland. But once the film moves past the first 45 minutes or so, it becomes a series of filmmaking decisions that do not work. The overall message of the original Dumbo remains here, and it’s still a good one. However, this film, unfortunately, is not designed to stand the test of time.