Director Tim Burton’s live-action repurposing of the animated 1941 feature “Dumbo” offers more of many things: more mayhem, more angst, twice the unethical-treatment-of-animals pathos and five times the number of tear-jerking elephant mother/son separations and reunions.
This movie also offers less: less wit, less charm, and only a few scraps of the old movie’s crucial songs (though “Baby Mine” receives its moment, in a campfire rendition). Burton has taken on this sort of adaptation for Disney before, with the 2010 billion-dollar-grossing “Alice in Wonderland.” I found that one easier to take, if only because Mia Wasikowska brought humanity and restraint to a project that felt like a corporate directive, not a great idea. Similarly, in terms of aesthetics, a live-action “Dumbo” seems like a mistake to be overcome, not a creative challenge to be met.
Over and over, the movie strands its central, dewy-eyed, flappy-eared pachyderm in a series of unfortunate narrative events dreamed up by screenwriter Ehren Kruger. The writer has been miscast. He brings the same light touch and airy whimsy he brought to three separate “Transformers” pictures.
Example: Amid the most expendable action climax of Burton’s career, after a proto-Disneyland theme park called “Dreamland” burns to the ground, a potential investor played by Alan Arkin turns to Michael Keaton’s oily theme park entrepreneur and says: “Wow. This is a disaster.” Even if the phrase on the page included exclamation points, you know Arkin: Mr. Deadpan, cutting bombast down to size.
In code, he’s reviewing the movie itself.
“Semi-disaster” is closer to it. “Dumbo” has its moments, and some of the designs lighten the load. It’s set in 1919. The recent influenza epidemic has killed off various employees of the traveling circus run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito, straining to engage without benefit of fresh material). Young Millie (Nico Parker) and her brother, Joe (Finley Hobbins), have been traveling with their adoptive circus clan while their father, Holt (top-billed and most welcome Colin Farrell) fights overseas in World War I.
In the opening, Holt returns, minus an arm. With his trick-riding days temporarily behind him — hard times have led Medici to sell the horses — he picks up a shovel and reports for elephant-keeping duty. Though these characters are new, much of the first hour of “Dumbo” follows the animated version’s template. Eventually Mrs. Jumbo’s little boy, also known as “Big D,” risks it all and takes his circus-saving, revenue-generating flight around the big top.
Then come all the dubious additions. Dumbo has no time to savor his long-delayed happiness. Instantly, a suspicious city slicker reeking of money and greed (Keaton) arrives with one of his kept women in tow, a former Paris street performer (Eva Green). The showbiz maven buys out the scrappy independent operation, absorbing the merry multiethnic family into his Coney Island attraction. Dreamland isn’t very Jazz Age; rather, it’s more like Tomorrowland with a mini-Tomorrowland inside it, or something out of the 1939 World’s Fair. Plus there’s a menacing spook-house housing some humiliated beasts in chains, because it’s Tim Burton.
Dreamland represents a poke, I suppose, at Disney’s own Disneyland. It’s a land of crass commercialism and baby elephant merchandise, with Jurassic Park overtones.
Refashioning “Dumbo” in 2019 (two years after Barnum & Bailey went belly up) means a movie has some contextualizing to do regarding animal cruelty and human fallibility. Screenwriter Kruger turns Joe into Dumbo’s protector (no more Timothy Mouse for comfort and support; none of the animals talk in this version). By the end of the movie we’ve landed in an alternate early 20th century dreamland, where a progressive traveling circus staffed by lovable outsiders and zero animal acts can thrill a small town without getting run out of it first.
One problem with Disney live-action remakes of animated titles relates to photorealistic digital trickery. The eye reads the details, the flames, the animals’ terror as “real,” more or less, without the benefit of pictorial distance or a distinguishing style. That’s a minus, not a plus. Add in all the leaden new story complications, mostly on the theme of abandonment, plus a misguided attempt at a scary “gotcha!” moment or two, and “Dumbo” becomes a grim equation indeed.
Times change; no longer does lil’ Dumbo get drunk on Champagne and see pink elephants (they’re soap bubbles this time), and the remake stays far, far away from the racially patronizing likes of the crows who sang “When I See an Elephant Fly” back in ’41. That’s for the best, even if there’s no wordplay, sung or spoken, in the new “Dumbo” half as sharp as Ned Washington’s lyrics to that tune.
Farrell and Green fare best by playing it straightest. Keaton, scheduled to re-team with Burton for a “Beetlejuice” sequel, turns in a game but indistinct comic characterization, his energy beaming on and off along with his diction. Those who miss the traveling circus heyday may feel warmly toward “Dumbo.” I felt warmly toward Dumbo, but not “Dumbo.”
Burton has learned all too well to tamp down his weirder impulses, along with our expectations, when dealing with a franchise line item along these lines. There are times, though, when no one in particular seems to be behind the camera. Too many shots of mute, staring circus folk are merely static, and for all his prodigious visual invention, Burton has never been strong on working out the rhythms and dynamics of a complex action scene.
That may be why Alan Arkin’s mini-review of the fiery, instantly forgotten climax provoked unintentional laughter at a recent press screening.
Meantime, mark your calendars and hope for better results: The live-action Disney “Aladdin” opens May 24, with “The Lion King” arriving July 12.
Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Michael Keaton, Alan Arkin, Danny DeVito, Nico Parker, Eva Green
Rated: PG Grade: C
Running time: 112 minutes