Dumbo: you’ll see an elephant fly, but this film fails to soar

There is, presumably, a question to be asked when approaching the re-making of a classic film like Dumbo. Should the updated version cleave closely to the original, retaining story, and characters, or should it simply identify what was the heart of the first film and try to preserve that? In the case of Dumbo, Tim Burton appears to have attempted both and managed neither.

There is, of course, a flying elephant at the centre of the film, but Dumbo is the axis the film revolves around, not the focus of the film’s story, and certainly not the protagonist. That would possibly be Holt (Colin Farrell, working on screen through an internal crisis about how Irish he should be), a widowed, one-armed World War One veteran returned to the circus and the two children he left there in the care of Medici (Danny Devito, largely phoning his performance in), Joe (Finley Hobbins) and Millie (Nico Parker). Medici buys an elephant for his circus, Mrs. Jumbo gives birth to a huge-eared freak elephant, and the elephant, as we know from the posters and from 1941’s classic, flies.

Elephantine aviation then attracts the attention of V. A. Vandervere (Michael Keaton, clearly enjoying having this much scenery to chew), an entertainment mogul it’s quite likely Burton created with Walt Disney at least a little in mind. Vandervere contrives to buy Dumbo for Dreamworld, essentially a deco-noir fever-dream reading of Disneyland, kicking Medici in to the long grass with the rest of his circus, and dispatching Dumbo’s mum to the elephant equivalent of the knacker’s yard. Children, obviously, save the day, and, well, you can pretty much imagine the rest.

And so, while the film is to a degree about Dumbo, it’s much more about Hold and his children, about the greed of Vandervere, about Medici the huckster with the heart of gold. And on that level it’s not terribly good. This being a Burton production, it’s perfect in its execution of visuals — Dreamworld is a stunning visual treat, and Dumbo himself, beautifully drawn, could almost be real. But it’s not about Dumbo. What made the first film was the novelty of a flying elephant; sideline that elephant and you lose the magic of that film. And so, when a character as central as Timothy Mouse is lost — hinted at, briefly, then abandoned, in this version — the narrative changes. The film has a quite heavy-handed animal-rights message, it’s clearly opposed to the use of animals in circuses, but it also removes agency from its animal characters. Timothy Mouse no longer helps Dumbo to understand that he doesn’t need a feather to fly; instead, Millie, and to a lesser degree Joe, are the ones who save Dumbo.

And it’s also a film that’s let down by its central performances. Keaton is, well, Keaton, and he brings to this film the effortless charm that he invariably invests his films with, the malevolence of his Vandervere depicted quite magnificently often with little more than the curl of a lip, a glance, but he’s a secondary character. Farrell, on the other hand, admittedly working with an underwritten character, tries to rescue Holt with his own charm, an easy Dublin charm that usually is a potent force in a film, but isn’t enough to carry Holt. And DeVito, who you’d think would be as reliably engaging as Keaton, can’t quite find the depths needed in Medici. His character, like Farrell’s, is underwritten, and inconsistently drawn; Keaton’s Vandervere and Alan Arkin’s financier Remington treat Medici like a little boy, and Medici comes across as an early draft of Owen from 1987’s Throw Mama From The Train, arguably DeVito’s finest work.

What is retained from the original film is used oddly. The famous pink-elephant sequence is retained, but re-tooled; absent Timothy Mouse for Dumbo to get drunk with, Vandervere’s circus troupe make soap-bubble elephants, and the effect is equally weird, but even more unnecessary. And while a feather is still key to Dumbo’s flight, he no longer has to carry it. Instead, he now inhales each feather, snorting it like so much pachyderm cocaine that powers him into the air.

Dumbo simply isn’t a terribly good film. Burton’s better than this, and so are his actors. But this is an over-long, rambling, unfocused film. If it’s a children’s film, then to judge by the kicks in the back of my seat and the walkouts during the screening I went to it’s a failure. If it’s a film for grown-ups, then it can’t stand up against the original.

Tim Burton directing the live-action remake of Dumbo clearly made sense to someone at Disney Studios. After sitting through nearly two hours of a rather muddled, confused and ill-disciplined film, it’s really hard to see why.

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