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DUMBO (2019) review

March 30, 2019

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written by: Ehren Kruger
produced by: Justin Springer, Ehren Kruger, Katterli Frauenfelder & Derek Frey
directed by: Tim Burton
rated: PG (for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language)
runtime: 112 min.
U.S. release date: March 29, 2019

 

If you find all these needless live-action remakes, sequels, and/or reimaginings (however they’re spinning it) of Disney classic animated features a waste of time and talent, well you can blame Tim Burton. The eccentric filmmaker not only started it all nine years ago with “Alice in Wonderland” his live-action mess of a sequel, but he wound up making a hit moneymaker for the House of Mouse, which in turn greenlit a handful of followers with the same approach. So far, only “Cinderella” stands out as doing anything unique or different, with the rest reminding you how superior the originals are. Such is the case with Burton’s unnecessary remake of “Dumbo” a classic from 1941 that clocked in a few minutes over an hour, yet hear screenwriter Ehren Kruger extends this sweet, vibrant and heartbreaking tale into something unwieldy and uninteresting and that’s a shame.

Set in the aftermath of World War I, “Dumbo” finds a one-armed soldier, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returning to the traveling circus he used to work doing horse tricks with his late wife. A broken man, desperate to get back into the swing of things and make himself useful, Holt feels awkward around his children, son Joe (Finley Hobbins) and daughter, Milly (Nico Parker), and soon gives into feelings of uselessness. Unfortunately, the owner of the Medici Brothers Circus, Max (Danny DeVito) can’t console Holt with a promise of work, since he sold the horses in order to keep his circus troupe together. Max hopes that focusing on training the female elephant, Jumbo, would eventually bring in larger crowds at each city. He assigns Holt to elephant duty and soon enough they discover a baby elephant in Jumbo’s cage.

 

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This baby elephant is immediately seen as a freak by a mean trainer and ridiculed by just about everyone else, due to his enormous ears that almost envelope his entire body. Joe and Milly take to the young pachyderm and care for him, but the cantankerous Max can’t help but sell off Jumbo after she lashes out with the way her son is treated. The ridiculing continues and as Max tries to incorporate the awkward newborn into the circus act, the audience points and laughs, giving the poor fella the unflattering moniker, Dumbo. However, when it is revealed that Dumbo can use his giant ears to fly in the air (although he needs the assistance of a feather in this update), fervent word-of-mouth spreads, turning the circus act into a moneymaker thanks to Dumbo becoming an overnight success.

Word of Dumbo’s fame spreads and catches the attention of New York City investor V.A. Vandervere (Michael Keaton), who arrives one day in hopes of acquirring the elephant and ultimately Max’s circus. In no time, the suspicious entrepreneur buys the circus and transports Max and his troupe to the east coast where they’ll be based at an amusement park named Dreamland with the goal of making a ton of money. While Dumbo learns an aerial act with trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green) that captivates viewers, he longs to be reunited with his mother, yet there is growing concern of Vandervere’s greed which could jeopardize both Dumbo’s safety and bring bad luck upon the beloved circus.

The original “Dumbo” was barely over an hour and now this “Dumbo” is just under two hours. What made that movie a classic is its emotional core, which told a bittersweet mother and son relationship in a sweet, heartbreaking and whimsical manner. Walt Disney was wise to tell such a story using simplicity and brevity. Much of Burton’s first half uses the skeleton of that story (which adapted the novel by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl), but for some reason Kruger (the wordsmith behind a handful of those Michael Bay “Transformers” movies) feels the need to tack on another movie entirely for the second half of this update and the result is a bloated mess filled with tired formulaic beats and wrongheaded spectacle for its chaotic climax.

 

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Obviously, there are differences here from the source material, which is something we’ve come to expect with these live action remakes, but Burton and Disney are really missing out by ignoring the enjoyable vibrancy and whimsy the original is known for. When you think of Dumbo, you think of bright colors and infectious tunes, but right from the opening we get this dour and dull palette with grey skies and muted colors, which is carried throughout the movie. The color choices here, coupled with many darkly lit scenes just give the movie a real downer feel. The original movie had enough to be bummed out about what with the cruel treatment of Mrs. Jumbo and her son by the other elephants and the separation of the pair by humans, but it’s colors and tone were always bright and inviting. That’s not the case here.

It’s to be expected that there are no talking animals in this version and that’s something that just wouldn’t work here, this isn’t “The Jungle Book” after all, but the absence of animal friends for Dumbo like Timothy B. Mouse or those controversial crows is still sorely missed. Overpopulating the movie with humans inevitably takes away from the titular character and it doesn’t help that only DeVito stands out amongst the cast. The venerable actor is as reliable as ever, providing a curmudgeonly charm to the movie, fitting right in with Burton’s milieu for the fourth time around (he played a somewhat similar albeit feral role in “Big Fish”), but unfortunately he’s not given nearly enough to do. DeVito has uncanny energy and the pep in his step the movie needs, but he’s too often sidelined by Farrell’s sad sap dad and his precocious children, played by two actors who are far from endearing. I typically try to apply some grace when it comes to sizing up child actors, especially when they make their acting debut, like Nico Parker (Thandie Newton’s daughter) does here, but both kids lack an engaging personality and are written as such undeveloped one-dimensional characters that they simply become props or an afterthought.

Keaton and Green are also Burton alumni – he’s worn a certain utility belt twice to protect Gotham and played a demon from the Netherworld and she played a vengeful witch and a strict headmistress of a set of peculiar children – and while they’re usually interesting and fun to watch on screen, neither of them are given material that stretches beyond stereotypes. Green is fine, but pretty much relegated to being one of the few adults who befriends Dumbo and wearing sparkling sequence and feathers. I’m not sure what kind of character Keaton is landing on here, but he sure is channeling many of the Keaton-isms he’s know for. There are scenes between Keaton and DeVito that are cool to take in simply for the “Batman Returns” nostalgia it elicits, but it also left me wishing Michelle Pfeiffer was cast here as well.

 

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Without a doubt, the highlight of this “Dumbo” is the CGI creation of the main character from the talented artists at RISE Visual Effects Studio. At no point does this shy, wrinkly character with soulful blue eyes feel like a special effect as he stands alongside his human co-stars. And what about his flying? Yeah, it’s pretty great, especially when he’s initially figuring it all out and then we eventually see his point of view. I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise with the advancements in this field, but for a character that’s supposed to be the focus of the story (sadly not the case), Dumbo’s look seamlessly blends in with everything around him. The only time he looks a little odd is when humans are riding him, which is understandable, you’d probably look odd too with a couple of kids on your back.

The movie is scored by longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman and its probably the most predictable of his scores, hitting all the recognizable Elfman-isms we’ve come to know including sweeping strings and choir that crescendos at just about every turn. Certain songs from the classic (by composer Frank Churchill and lyricist Ned Washington) are used in subtle or slight ways, yet it seems like another missed opportunity to not feature a full version of “Baby Mine” (a sweet song which is the heart of the original’s mother/son focus) rather than the throwaway ukulele bit with a couple of lines from the song that we get from the trademark fat lady (played by Scottish actress Sharon Rooney) of the circus. The version of the song by Norwegian singer Aurora heard during the trailer is nowhere in the movie and the Arcade Fire version (which is just fine, not great) plays during the end credits. If you recall where the song was placed in the original movie, there’s no doubt it made an indelible impact on the story, but not in this movie.

 

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There are other great visuals, thanks to a couple Oscar winners who lend their notable talents to the movie. The use of an Art Deco style (a staple of Burton films) look of Vandevere’s Dreamland spread (which is about the size of a certain amusement park in Anaheim) overseen by production designer Rick Heinrichs (who worked with Burton on several other features, such as his last great movie “Sleepy Hollow”) and anytime costume designer Colleen Atwood is involved you just know everyone’s apparel will be just right for each character. Still, even though movies are first and foremost a visual medium, they always need a good story with characters that draw us in. Sadly, that’s not apparent here.

Burton loves his misfits, but he rarely does anything different or unique with them and that’s not different here. For most of the movie there are too many eye-roll moments in Burton’s iteration. He’s actually got boxing announcer Michael Buffer as the Dreamland ringmaster, who rolls out a painful, “Let’s get ready for Dummmmmboooooo!” Yikes. His climax is going for pure spectacle that includes a raging inferno and mass destruction.

When Alan Arkin‘s moneybags character sums up the cacophony that closes the film with, “This is a disaster! Let’s go get a hot dog!”, it inadvertently becomes a meta line. I couldn’t agree with him more. The triumph and jubilation notes the original ends on are nowhere to be found at the end of this version, which feels like a prelude to Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book”.

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RATING: *1/2

 

 

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