Next in line for Disney’s live action/CGI remakes of its own canon comes the loveable, long-eared elephant. He’s a typical Tim Burton forlorn outsider, except he isn’t, because he can fly, so the circus starts to love him…
It’s all very confused and conflicted as a story. Where The Greatest Showman embraced all the “freaks” and made them a family in the retooled-for-millennials circus world of PT Barnum and had a huge hit, this Dumbo reboot doesn’t really know what to do with itself. You don’t come out whistling a tune or feeling elated.
It’s a bit of a downer even though Dumbo himself flies and that’s amazing. Suddenly Danny De Vito’s ringmaster Max Medici has a hit on his hands. But it’s hard to believe his early scepticism. Why would he find Dumbo’s big ears so freakish and offensive? This is a circus, after all.
I assume this is the reason for the film being set in 1919, so that there can be animal cruelty and outmoded attitudes. Except there isn’t really any of the dark circus business you’d expect, nor much diversity (indeed the black strongman with his two-finger typing is a very dodgy stereotype). The date also means that Colin Farrell’s horseman can return from the trenches of France with one arm – he mourns the death in his absence of his wife, from flu, and of his Wild West act, but now he can also re-bond with his children. Except he doesn’t believe them when first they say the little elephant is special.
Just when any sense of fun might rear its head, Burton puts a dampener on things, as is his wont. Dumbo’s mother is sold (for reasons that make no sense other than to manipulate us emotionally) and so we can’t really celebrate the miracle of the baby elephant’s flight.
Rather quickly, the new act’s renown means the rapacious showman Vandevere (Michael Keaton) shows up and brings Medici’s circus into his own larger established entertainment empire of Dreamland. Now, there may be some comment on our thirst for exploitative commercialisation here – odd, that, coming from the Disney who’ve just bought the Fox – but just when it might get interesting, Burton loses the thread.
There could have been a great double act between Eva Green’s French trapeze artist and the elephant, but there’s no chemistry. Understandable really, given that Dumbo’s CGI, but we have seen such interactions work before (in the Jungle Book, for example) and consequently there’s an absence of charm.
I didn’t ahh, I didn’t ooh and I didn’t laugh. There are no songs, and no moments that really make the hear soar. I kept wanting to feel these things but felt them being snatched away from me.
“It’s a bit sad, really, ” brooded my 10-year-old, even if ultimately he said he liked it. Welcome to the depressed world of Tim Burton, kid – but I just felt the wrong choice for this material.
That said, it looks great, beautiful even – the set design is wonderful, the costumes by Coleen Atwood amazing and the elephant is lovely and cute when allowed to be, although the ‘ he only flies with a feather’ thing gets a bit tiresome. Danny Elfman’s music wasn’t his best and I wasn’t really sure what the message was – animals in captivity is bad, sure, but so are money, greed and bullying and stuff. My 8-year-old thought it was good because “it says everybody’s unique” but he didn’t like that there was “so much anger in it.”
They pick up on stuff, these kids. It’s not terrible, this Dumbo, but is a bit of a muddle and could have done with some sparkle. And a tune.