People say Hollywood has run out of ideas and that Disney is growing too big for everyone’s own good, and you have to look for farther than remaking a 60-minute 1941 animated film and having it be the first of four live-action redos by the company set to come out in 2019.
“Dumbo” is the latest “Disney remakes one of its classic animated features with real life people” films, and it stars Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green and Alan Arkin. Because the original film is only 64 minutes this puts an entire new spin on the story, focusing on a human family at a failing circus helping the large-eared elephant instead of anthropomorphic animals. Tim Burton directs.
Eventually we will get every animated film in the Disney Vault remade, but “Dumbo” is probably the second-least popular to date to get the treatment after “Pete’s Dragon.” It is one of those films that everyone knows about and likely saw once as a kid, but no one is really a ride-or-die Dumbo nerd. Still, if there was anyone who could take on the tale of a traveling circus and flying elephant it is the twisted mind of Tim Burton, and while there are certainly some faults and no true magical whimsy, “Dumbo” is actually among my favorite of these live-action remakes to-date.
Let’s start with the production design, because since this is both a Tim Burton film and a $170 million(!) Disney production, we have come to expect certain things. It certainly isn’t as nightmare or twisted as Burton’s previous works but just like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (which is a great film and I will fight anyone who says otherwise) he puts enough of his gothic style and flair on things to make you impressed. Circus freaks, the Nightmare Island attraction, Michael Keaton doing his creepy smile, there is plenty here to remind you that you’re watching a Tim Burton joint.
And speaking of Keaton…oh boy. His performance is…hmm. How do I put this diplomatically? I think Michael Keaton did a great job playing Johnny Depp playing a greedy business tycoon. His delivery is inconsistent, his motives cliché (if even explained at all) and his presence adds nothing. I love Keaton, he has been so good in recent years during his mini-career resurgence, but this was a bad performance. Eva Green is also…here.
Not turning in bad work are Danny DeVito as the circus’ owner and ringleader and Colin Farrell as a World War I veteran who is assigned to be Dumbo’s trainer. They both give off a sense of warmth and charm, and are by far the microcosm of what Burton and Disney were trying to make the whole film feel like (more on that in a second).
There are a lot of Easter eggs sprinkled throughout this film, some more subtle than others, but I appreciated all that I caught. From Michael Keaton reteaming with Burton and Danny DeVito from “Batman Returns” to Timothy Q. Mouse (Dumbo’s main talking friend in the original) receiving non-speaking cameo, there are plenty of entertaining “oh that’s funny” moments to keep viewers attentive throughout.
The sequences were Dumbo flies are at times memorizing and whimsical, and me seeing it in a Dolby theater made things all the better because I felt the woosh as Dumbo flew in my screen. There is a scene where Keaton says (in awful delivery, but still) “this makes me feel like a child again” and I think kids who see this will indeed be in awe by the visuals and Danny Elfman’s score. Some of the stuff in between is “ok, cool, let’s get back to the flying” but overall this thing is pretty zippy for the first two acts.
There are parts from the original film that wouldn’t work here, like storks dropping babies off like a UPS delivery, the scene where Dumbo and the mouse get drunk and have a bad hallucination trip (yup, that was a thing in a children’s movie) and a bird character named [clears throat] Jim Crow, but two of these things are depicted in this film (guess) and I really liked how Burton and company paid homage to the scenes but were able to work them into the world of this film.
“Dumbo” is a simple film that doesn’t try to be much more than that, and I was enjoying myself for most of the runtime. Like any circus there are some parts that work better than others, some aspects that may hold onto your attention more astutely, but I think I actually like these Disney retellings more when they take the mold of an original and put their own spin on it, instead of being shot-for-shot remakes.
Critic’s Rating: 7/10