‘Dumbo,’ the beloved elephant with oversized ears, is reimagined in live action.
WALT DISNEY STUDIOS
Disney’s new “Dumbo” is just like the film’s flying baby elephant: an outsider who stands out from previous live-action rehashes by being something more than the same old trunk show.
Director Tim Burton expands the simple narrative of the original 1941 cartoon and bathes the pachyderm protagonist in the filmmaker’s signature dark whimsy, not unlike what he did with Batman nearly 30 years ago. Tapping into Americana and the technological advances of the early 20th century, “Dumbo” (★★★ out of four; rated PG; in theaters nationwide Friday) is a visually sumptuous effort with wondrous sights, though its character development falls short of those same heights.
Set in 1919, the story by Ehren Kruger (who starts to make up for writing three terrible “Transformers” films) begins by returning World War I veteran Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) to his family and home with the traveling Medici Brothers Circus.
The ensuing years haven’t been kind to Holt – he lost his left arm in battle and his wife to influenza – and the one-time equestrian star gets demoted to elephant keeper by ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito). Holt also has trouble reconnecting with his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins): “It’s still me,” Holt tells his kids as they stare at the space where his arm used to be.
First reactions: ‘Dumbo’ is beautiful, but characters are ‘undercooked’
Holt and the youngsters are tasked with caring for elephant mother Mrs. Jumbo and her baby who is labeled a “monster” by relentlessly cruel patrons who mock his oversized ears under the big top. A tragic incident leads Max to sell off Mom, although the struggling circus takes a turn when Holt’s kids discover that Dumbo’s huge flapping ears are really helpful for taking flight.
Dumbo becomes a hit with the crowds that once jeered him, and word of his airborne exploits brings out businessman V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), whose sketchiness is obvious after about five minutes. He makes a deal with Max to bring the Medici Circus to Vandevere’s sprawling Dreamland amusement park and team Dumbo up with French aerial star Colette Marchant (Eva Green), although Holt and Co. realize their little friend is more important than superstardom.
‘Absolutely petrified’ Eva Green overcame her fear of heights to fly on ‘Dumbo’ trapeze
Unlike others in Disney’s current rehashing of its classic animated tales (including “The Jungle Book” and “Beauty and the Beast”), “Dumbo” actually redefines the source material, thanks to Burton’s quirky style. The young elephant’s imaginative new adventure carries over the original film’s same sense of wonder for children, though this movie might not be for really small tots because of some nightmarish creatures and a little fiery peril.
This “Dumbo” also emphasizes its human personalities, though they’re thin across the board. Farrell does what he can with Holt, though the film misses a real chance to connect him and Dumbo on a deep level, and there’s an interesting subplot with Milly preferring science to the three-ring family business (“Maybe I don’t need the world staring at me”). But many characters are an afterthought to Dumbo and his whiz-bang surroundings.
That said, it is a sight to behold, especially for those who adore the weird aesthetic that Burton has cultivated for decades. Dreamland is a twisted, sepia-toned Disney World with marching clowns and Dixieland bands, and the director creates a dazzling big-top affair with synchronized dancers and trippy bubble elephants. (Could we have done without real-life boxing announcer Michael Buffer announcing, “Let’s get ready for Dumbooooooo!” and jarringly taking us out of the fantasy? Most definitely.)
Tim Burton’s biggest ‘Dumbo’ challenge? That famous baby elephant never showed up for work
“Dumbo” also isn’t subtle in taking an admirable stand on animal rights, and while the veritable zoo of CGI critters are mostly hit-and-miss, the expressive title elephant is done well enough to drive much of the film’s emotion. (If you cried in the cartoon, you’re probably crying here, too.) When he soars, so does the movie, and letting Burton be Burton lends needed freshness to a tale that could use it.
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/movies/2019/03/26/dumbo-review-live-action-redo-flies-thanks-tim-burton-whimsy/3266687002/