Starring Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin. Directed by Tim Burton.
Of the slew of live-action remakes we’ve seen from Disney, the best of the lot has been The Jungle Book – probably helped along by the fact that the original film is by no means a good film, it’s a loose collection of bits, with one or two decent songs, and the remake doubled down on story and kept only the bare bones of the good songs.
Here, Dumbo follows suit, by taking a charming but flawed Disney animated classic and giving it a deeper meaning, whilst doing away with the weak songs and the racist crows.
Dumbo, the titular elephant of the Medici Brothers, circus catches the eye of his owner Max Medici and billionaire owner of Dreamland V.A. Vandemere, but his beloved human family – WWI Veteran and amputee Holt – and his kids see the true evil under the magic dreamland visage.
Tim Burton has always made films about outsiders, and here he has one of the best outsiders around. Here Dumbo lacks photorealism and instead Burton plumps for a cuteness it’s hard not to warm to. Burton also is in his element here, despite lacking his trademark opening credits (though a training montage would have allowed it), there are many hallmarks that make this film very much his own thing.
Burton has a circus troupe of actors himself, with returning people from previous movies Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice, Batman, Batman Returns), Danny DeVito (Batman Returns, Mars Attacks, Big Fish), Eva Green (Dark Shadows, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) and Alan Arkin (Edward Scissorhands), alongside newcomer to the pack Colin Farrell.
It’s hard not to think that perhaps in days gone by Johnny Depp would have been Farrell’s role, or maybe he’d have requested Keaton’s villainous turn. Even so, the cast is deeply endearing, especially Nico Parker (daughter of Thandie Newton) and Finley Hobbins as the kids who befriend the loveable elephant.
Similarly, Danny Elfman, perhaps the most important Burton collaborator delivers one of his most whimsical scores in a long time, weaving in themes from the original film and hitting the emotional notes. The wonder, the horror, the silliness is all there for those who know what Elfman does when Burton calls on him.
Once we reach Dreamland we’re in comfortable Burton land, the theme park looks like Gotham’s branch of Disneyland, a massive hell hole from which mass-produced wonder and fun is pumped out for profit, and amazement is simply a byproduct.
Burton manages to work “Baby of Mine” into the film in a way that feels organic, and his take of the Pink Elephants sequence is a bonkers as you’d want it to be.
Even so, the decision to only have CGI animals is a mistake, meaning none of them look real – a recurring CGI monkey begins to show the holes in the effects. There’s also a lack of danger, there’s a lot of fire and falling, and mean second-in-commands but for a PG film, there is a decided lack of tension in the film’s climax. Ironically for a movie that is all about soaring, the film never takes off in any real way.
By the end, you’re left happy that your time wasn’t wasted, and parents with young kids will enjoy that it doesn’t force any difficult questions, and doesn’t want to offend. Plus, it’s got a non-plussed attitude to physical disability, as well as race (the family at the centre are mixed race), and the racist crows don’t make an appearance. It’s an outcast among the Disney remakes, but it isn’t a failure, it’s decidedly okay.