Almost 80 years after it was first released – I know! – Dumbo stands out as something of an oddity in the Disney animation canon. It’s only just over an hour long and is more remembered as a series of moments than it is as a coherent movie to which people have an emotional connection. The floppy-eared character of Dumbo has certainly aged better and with more prestige than the film in which he first appeared. In many ways, that makes Dumbo a prime candidate for revamp as part of the House of Mouse’s current campaign to transform all of their classic animations into live-action behemoths designed to send every other movie studio cowering in fear at the box office. Indeed, with Bard of the bizarre Tim Burton at the helm and a cast packed to the brim with stars, this seemed like a very solid proposition. And solid is very much the word for the finished product.
Burton’s Dumbo is set around a circus run by fast-talking charlatan Max Medici (Danny DeVito). When his former horseback riding star Holt (Colin Farrell) returns from the First World War – his horses had to be sold to keep the circus afloat – he is handed the job of looking after Max’s newest acquisition – a pregnant elephant. When the baby arrives, he has abnormally large ears and is quickly shunned as an “aberration” and a costly waste of time. At least, that’s the case until it turns out he can fly, drawing the attention of Michael Keaton’s multi-millionaire theme park proprietor – I think he’s called Megabucks Von Evilface, or something similar – who wants to turn him into a marquee attraction.
Anyone who keeps even a cursory eye on entertainment news could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at that last sentence. But yes, this is Disney – the corporate juggernaut that just acquired a slightly smaller competitor – making a movie about a corporate juggernaut acquiring a smaller competitor. And not just any juggernaut, but a cartoonishly evil one. It’s either a cackling act of multi-million pound trolling for the ages, or it betrays a shocking lack of self-awareness over at Disney. Pick your poison; each is equally troubling.
Away from its baffling behind-the-scenes resonance, Dumbo 2019 is a fairly inoffensive and utterly run of the mill blockbuster production. Burton, well known as one of cinema’s most idiosyncratic auteurs, is on rather sanitised form here in a movie that’s light on his macabre vision and stylised goth-quirk. On the one hand, it’s a blessing to see a Burton project that doesn’t blow its entire budget on eyeliner and black hair dye but, on the other, there’s something depressing about seeing Burton chuck himself into the homogeneity of the Disney sausage machine.
The film also both benefits and suffers from its extended plot. On the one hand, DeVito is excellent comedy value and the scenes of Dumbo taking flight are genuinely spectacular, as is the considerably less substance-induced homage to the famous ‘pink elephants’ scene. However, it’s easy to see the plot threads being stretched to within an inch of their life, from an entirely chemistry-free romantic union between Farrell’s identikit sad dad and Eva Green’s Monty Python accented trapeze artist through to Alan Arkin as an oddly impulsive bank manager. Transparent attempts to earn ‘girl power’ points by mentioning at every possible opportunity how much Farrell’s daughter loves science also fall on deaf ears – enormous grey ones, obviously.
It doesn’t help either that there’s not all that much threat posed by the movie’s villain. Keaton goes full pantomime when Burton gives him the opportunity, but no amount of yelling can mask the fact he doesn’t actually get all that much chance to be properly evil. It’s true that his recklessness and desire to prioritise his bottom line at all costs puts Dumbo and the other circus performers in danger, but he’s a long way from the pantheon of great Disney bad guys. The shadow of the other recent circus-themed blockbuster also hangs over Max’s troupe of oddball carnival acts, deployed only when the story needs some supporting players to run about a bit.
But none of these shortcomings prevent the film from working as a whole, benefiting from the little ball of CGI joy that is the titular hovering heffalump. Like so many of the computer-generated animals in Disney’s recent run, Dumbo is a firecracker of cuteness, with an expressive face and soulful eyes that sell every instance of heartache and tragedy better than the script ever does. When he first takes to the skies in front of the baying mob of a circus crowd and Danny Elfman’s score soars to a crescendo, you almost want to stand up and punch the air. It would take a heart of stone not to be a little bit moved by these triumphant moments.
As with so many of the adaptations that have formed this new wave of Disney live-action efforts, Dumbo is just basically okay – and that’s fine. In our current landscape of turmoil, anger and sadness, sometimes it’s enough to see an animated story we loved as kids transformed into its real world equivalent, even if it falls short of being something genuinely exciting. Dumbo might well be ‘The Greyest Showman’, but we’re a long way from the big screen joy of that particular big top.
Dir: Tim Burton
Scr: Ehren Kruger
Cast: Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Alan Arkin
Prd: Katterli Frauenfelder, Derek Frey, Ehren Kruger, Justin Springer
DOP: Ben Davis
Music: Danny Elfman
Run time: 112 mins
Dumbo will be released into UK cinemas on 29th March.