Few filmmakers mix childlike wonder and freaky oddity quite as effectively as Tim Burton. So when it was revealed that he’d be helming Dumbo, Disney’s latest in a long line of live action adaptations, he seemed like the perfect fit. Fans of his could hardly wait to see how he’d interpret the iconic ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ dream sequence. Surprisingly though — even with circuses, campy cane-wielding villains and the cutest protagonist you ever did see at his disposal — Dumbo feels like one of Burton’s most watered-down pictures yet.
Much like the 1941 animation, the film focuses on a baby elephant with unusually large ears. Max Medici (DeVito), the ringmaster who invested in the infant’s pregnant mother as a means to save his struggling show, puts him in the clown act and when the routine goes awry, he discovers the animal can fly and makes him the star attraction. Dumbo’s extraordinary ability soon makes headlines and bags the attention of wealthy entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Keaton), who offers the entire Medici Bros troupe shiny new gigs at Dreamland, Coney Island but the deal doesn’t turn out as well as they’d hoped.
Almost doubling the original’s runtime, Dumbo boasts a plethora of human characters to flesh out the story. There’s Farrell’s war-weary cowboy Holt, who’s forced to come to terms with losing more than just his stallion act on his return to the circus and Green’s high-class performer, who is reluctantly bound to Vandevere since he discovered her on the streets of Paris. But their backstories never really influence the plot in any interesting way, leaving them feeling rather inconsequential. Elsewhere, Keaton’s baddie Vandevere barely makes an impression, arriving late with ambiguous motives.
Nico Parker’s budding scientist Milly proves a promising addition though, as screenwriter Ehren Kruger draws a heart-wrenching parallel between hers and Dumbo’s journey of self-discovery, culminating in a touching sequence that sees her relinquish a psychological crutch and encouraging Dumbo to do the same.
The film’s best moments undoubtedly centre on Dumbo and, like a minor character declares on more than one occasion, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen an elephant fly. When Dumbo first takes to the air during a moment of peril, you can’t help but feel like you’re in that big top, gawping in awe. The problem is, the spectacle wears thin as the amount of times its played racks up and you soon realise you’re just staring at characters gawping at Dumbo, rather than doing it yourself.
Still, those after a fairly uncomplicated retelling of the Disney classic will likely be satisfied with what Dumbo has to offer. DeVito breathes humour and life into every scene he’s in, the elephant’s sweet, sorrowful expressions are beautifully animated — (heck, he sells the more emotional scenes more so than any of the cast members) — and Burton’s production aesthetic, from its shadowy shots of creepy, dimly-lit fairgrounds to colourful, ornate costumes, continues to be a visual treat. But for a film loosely about merit stemming from what one does rather than what one looks like, it’s a bit of a shame that that’s the best thing it’s got going for it.