VOD film review: Dumbo (2019)
Mark Harrison | On 30, Jul 2019
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins
Watch Dumbo online in the UK: Disney+ / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Tim Burton kicked off the trend of re-adapting Disney animated classics in live-action (or something like it) with 2010’s billion-dollar blockbuster version of Alice In Wonderland. Almost 10 years on, he returns to what is now a roaring trade to deliver his take on Dumbo, the 1941 classic about a circus elephant who learns to fly.
For better or worse, his take on Alice pioneered these remakes with full-on revisionism, rather than nostalgia or reverence, and in a similar vein to later films Maleficent and the underappreciated Pete’s Dragon, this Dumbo takes a different tack to the original. While various touchstones from the earlier film are covered here, there’s no sign of Timothy Mouse, singing crows, or indeed, any kind of talking animal.
Set in 1919, the film follows the travails of the Medici Brothers’ Circus, which is down one of the eponymous brothers and lacking in interest from paying audiences. After returning from the war, injured equestrian performer Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is demoted to looking after the pregnant elephant Mrs Jumbo by circus owner Max (Danny DeVito).
When she gives birth to a child with unnaturally large ears, Holt’s children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) discover baby Dumbo’s incredible gift. As more and more visitors flock to see the incredible spectacle, the circus attracts the attention of New York entrepreneur V. A. Vandervere (Michael Keaton) and his trapeze artist muse, Colette (Eva Green), who contract Medici’s troupe to perform at their theme park Dreamland.
The film is still a far cry from Burton’s creative heyday, but it is strange and creative enough to mark itself apart from the steady stream of remakes coming out of the House of Mouse. Indeed, a running gag featuring famous boxing announcer Michael Buffer as a version of himself (doing exactly the line you think he would do – twice) doesn’t even feel like the strangest thing about it, even though it definitely is.
But as in many of the director’s later films, the tonal weirdness doesn’t always feel like a natural complement to the story at hand. It’s like a kid-friendly rollercoaster ride, which appears to play fast and loose and twisty, but is still very much on rails for the duration. It may be a self-aware construction, but that’s not to say it’s any less engaging or enjoyable.
One aspect that really comes to the fore is the treatment of live animals in entertainment, with the grown-up characters being marked by their attitudes towards Dumbo, be they Farrell’s caring parental figure, Green’s insecure performer, DeVito’s avuncular promoter, or Keaton’s shark-eyed futurist. As you might expect, it’s Keaton who really runs wild here, as his character represents a mad combined caricature of Donald Trump and Walt Disney himself.
But even while writer Ehren Kruger’s reimagined plot amplifies the plight of animals in captivity, the flashy CG-heavy treatment doesn’t necessarily evoke the same emotional wallop as the animated original. Digital renditions of the “Baby Mine” scene and the famous pink elephants on parade sequence are exceptionally well done, but the plot machinery around these beats don’t work well enough for the film to sustain much urgency or momentum.
With all of the director’s eccentricities on display, Dumbo evokes warm, nostalgic feelings that aren’t wholly contained to the Disney property on which it’s based. Although it runs a little long at 112 minutes, it’s an extra helping of kindly retro fare that doubles as a mildly thrilling morality fable. All in all, it feels like enough of a departure from the original, and that means we’ll take it over another Beauty & The Beat-for-Beat remake any day.
Dumbo (2019) is available on Disney+, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.