Dumbo: Tim Burton’s Gorgeous, Treacly Live-Action Reboot Subtle as a Stampede

By Kim Hughes

Rating: C

A beloved children’s story told by a director with a flair for the visually lavish fuelled by a marquee cast and Disney’s deep pockets… what could possibly go wrong with Tim Burton’s live-action reboot of animation Dumbo, the latest in a series of such films planned by the studio?

In a word: plenty.

Let’s begin with the pluses. Dumbo is all sorts of fun to look at, as electrifying as the circus where it’s set. There are animals real and animatronic, and assorted big top–worthy human oddballs colonising kaleidoscopic sets and beautiful costumes. Virtually any scene could be stilled, framed and hung on the wall.

A scene from Dumbo.

A scene from Dumbo.

But that opulence and attention to detail didn’t trickle down to the story, which is sappy and burdened by relentlessly overstated themes, as if Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger didn’t trust the small fry viewers to pick up on chestnuts such as money isn’t everything, family matters most, and being mean isn’t very nice.

The story begins when Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the Great War to his day job with the struggling mid-level Medici Bros. Circus where Joe and Milly, his precocious son and daughter, have been parked as Holt fought the good fight.

Read our interview with Dumbo star Danny DeVito

We know this because Holt is missing an arm, which turns out to be nothing more than a convenient segue into some sight gags. Holt’s uniform and thousand-yard stare would have plausibly established the PTSD angle, but it’s an early and illustrative example of how Dumbo wields a sledgehammer to nudge feathers.

Still, that’s just so much plot. A strange baby elephant with overlarge ears is in the midst, though a painful separation between mother and child looms imminently. Milly and Joe know all about filial links and painful goodbyes; their Mom now exists in the ether. Evidently they know about misfits too, because Milly (Nico Parker) is a girl interested in science! Wha? Cue the profound bond between Dumbo and the kids, who are clearly the smartest people in the room despite their tender ages, and can already envisage what lies ahead for a lonely soaring pachyderm.

While emotions run high in the barn, finances are dwindling in the office, which makes circus emcee Max Medici (a high-camp Danny DeVito) especially vulnerable to the malicious predations of impresario V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) who absolutely must add a flying elephant to his fancy-pants Dreamland amusement park, best interests of all but his moneyed Snidely Whiplash-style sidekick (Alan Arkin) be damned.

Vandevere has no compunction about stepping on animals or diminutive ringmasters for maximum profit. And anyway, he carries his conscience around like an external hard-drive in the form of Colette Marchant (Eva Green), a dishy French aerialist with a heart of gold and a fondness for outfits that look sort of itchy.

If you’re seven, and easily amused, Dumbo has you covered. But you might well ask why the CGI featuring Colette astride the elephant looks so weird — more precisely, it looks weirdly fake — despite the army of visual and digital effects personnel listed in the credits. Maybe elephants aren’t supposed to fly?

For all its cinematic bell and whistles, something about Dumbo feels hollow (I wrote that word three times in my notebook during the screening) as if it’s mouthing the proverbial words phonetically without knowing their meaning. Perhaps I walked into the theatre with too-high expectations. I slinked out with shoulders bowed.

Dumbo. Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins. Opens wide March 29.