The history of the movies in the last 75 years is a bit like the history of the rides at Disney World: It starts out with things like Dumbo and builds to Pandora, the World of Avatar. But once you’ve been transported to marvelous new civilizations, are you really going to be content to be spun around in circles a few times?
The challenge for director Tim Burton in his live-action remake of Dumbo is to go back as far as the original (1941) and re-create its wonders in a low-tech setting. Moreover, the atmosphere of the first movie is a bit low-key for today’s high-strung era of film. The first Dumbo, at only 64 minutes, is a cute fable from the dawn of animated features, when there was something automatically special about them because they offered more soul than cartoon shorts, which were defined by slapstick comedy.
Confronted with an already-thin story, Burton decided to stretch it out, creating a movie that’s neither grand nor a waste of time. His version, starring Danny DeVito and Colin Farrell, pokes gently along without much forward energy or conflict for 75 minutes, at which point it turns frenetic. For the most part Burton is content simply to revel in the heavily digitized, storybook production design, which is as rich and splendid as is usual for his films. For much of the movie, the only unresolved conflict is that Dumbo would quite like to see his mother again, though since he doesn’t speak, this translates on screen only in his sad eyes.
Burton’s career is a balance of knockout imagery on the one hand and stilted characterizations and campy humor on the other. At Burton’s most irritating, in movies like Batman Returns, Mars Attacks!, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the archness drowns out all else and keeps the characters at an ironic distance. At his best, as in Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, he delivers plenty of heart. Here, he’s wisely chosen to elevate DeVito to the actor’s first starring role in many years. Avoiding the kinetic weirdness that defines so many Burton characters, he delivers an endearing, human performance as the kindly proprietor of a traveling circus who strives to hold the craziness together.
As this is a Disney picture, Burton dials back the usual macabre details, but the cast of carnival misfits is otherwise of a piece with the rest of his oeuvre. Farrell plays an old hand, Holt Farrier, a returning World War I veteran who used to star in a cowboy act and has lost both his wife and his left arm. It is the widower’s two sweet children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), who discover that the freakish-looking baby elephant with the huge ears who was just born to Mama Jumbo can, if given a feather for inspiration, fly. Unfortunately Parker (the daughter of Thandie Newton) maintains a single blank expression throughout the film and isn’t up to the job of serving as an emotional conduit between the audience and the magical animal.
Dumbo, as the young pachyderm is accidentally named due to a mishap with a sign advertising Jumbo, is a difficult figure to build a movie around, being mostly passive and unable to express himself. And Burton is slow to bring in the conflict, which involves a scheming circus magnate named Vandevere played by a growling Michael Keaton. Keaton, mannered and fussy and trying way too hard to make an impression in his ascot and wavy hair, is a typically annoying Burton figure: neither scary nor funny, just tiresomely strange. He would have been wiser to play Vandevere as an appealing entrepreneur whose enthusiasms are infectious and whose dark side is well-hidden. Instead he’s an obvious double-dealer from his first appearance, which means his character never surprises us. Moreover, his trapeze-artist companion Colette (Eva Green) doesn’t really comes into focus, even though she turns out to be the leading lady of the film. Love stories are not Burton’s forte, and he doesn’t establish much romantic charge between Colette and Holt.
Thanks to the look of the film — especially an art-deco pastiche of Disneyland called Dreamland, which is Vandevere’s Coney Island amusement park — kids should be sufficiently enchanted, and they’ll be hooked by Dumbo’s sad yearning for Mama. Adults, meanwhile, will wonder why Burton seems so uninterested in dramatic tension and keeps taking time out for set pieces such as a dance of the pink elephants rendered in bubbles. When things finally do start to happen, they happen all at once, as everything literally crashes and burns, with many a hair-raising escape by the heroes. It’s just an adequately action-packed third act, no more. But at least it’ll give the box-office barkers something to shout about: “Step right this way for a confrontation, a conflagration, and a culmination the likes of which you’ve never seen.”