Tim Burton has been the mind behind some of the most unique films ever made. Unfortunately, this is not one of them. The first of four Disney live action remakes this year(!), Dumbo adapts from the 1941 animated classic, and though Burton brings a wonderful cast and attempts his usual visual flare, the end result is underwhelming.
I have been bitter about the Disney remakes for a while now, with Beauty and The Beast particularly irritating me. Though this one isn’t as bad, it still feels very unneeded to adapt the classic tale of an Elephant who can fly after he is born with huge ears. It’s a daft concept that works as an hour long animated feature, but adapting it into a 2hr live-action adventure doesn’t quite work, and all the additional story and threat that was added felt weak and boring.
The cast, at least, make the two hours manageable. Danny DeVito is by a country mile the best thing about this film, giving the biggest laughs as well as more sentimental moments. It’s also wonderful to see him and Michael Keaton on screen together in a Tim Burton film, the first time since Batman Returns, and their on-screen chemistry hasn’t aged in 30 years. Colin Farrell and Eva Green also star, but are given very little to do. Rounding off the cast are Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins as Colin Farrell’s kids. Like a lot of Burton’s work, a lot of the characters are rough sketches without enough meat to flesh them fully out, and this felt disappointing.
During the 1990’s, when Tim Burton was at his very best, CGI wasn’t what it is now, and this meant his madcap vision was limited to what could actually be built as a set. This led to his worlds being rich in detail and feeling real in their own bizarre ways. Now however, with CGI being so commonly used, his style has dulled somewhat. Dumbo, while eccentrically designed, has a shiny gloss that never used to exist in the gothic underworld that Burton’s work lived.
However, it must be said that the CGI used for Dumbo and the other Elephants is very well done. It’s nearly photorealistic, but has just the right cartoony look to it. It’s impossible to make Dumbo look real and believable (it’s a flying Elephant, come on) but this is as close as they could get, and it works.
Burton’s unique sense of comedy does manage to rear its head from time to time as his originality tries to peak out of this massive commercial project. One key highlight was a shot of many body contortionists doing their work. One of them splits her legs open wide, and then he cuts to an audience shot as one man surreptitiously grabs his binoculars for a closer look. It was these moments that kept Burton’s charm alive in what otherwise is a fairly bland film.
Danny Elfman’s score is wonderful as ever, and presents new thematic ideas as well as re-workings of the original’s music. Best of all, he also created the various Circus music used throughout the film, and these felt right up his street and provide wonderful listening, both within the film and separate from it.
Overall, Dumbo is a bit like the circus itself. It’s going to entertain younger kids, but older folks probably won’t be fooled by it. It’s well designed and the cast are entertaining to watch, but it’s underwhelming and adds nothing new to the story. Ultimately, it still hasn’t proven that all these remakes need to happen, and judging by its underwhelming box-office returns, maybe Disney will also take that hint. However, with Aladdin, The Lion King and Maleficent still to go this year, we aren’t out of the woods yet.