Eva Green and the elephant in Dumbo (Photo: Disney)
★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Tim Burton
STARS Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton
The animated 1941 classic Dumbo runs just over an hour and the 2019 live-action clunker Dumbo runs just under two hours. In other words, in the time it takes to watch the misbegotten new version once, a viewer could have watched the enchanting original twice (hardly a chore) or watched it once and then had time left over to get started on taxes, prick a painful blister, or undertake any other unpleasantry that, on balance, would still prove to be more enjoyable than sitting through this laborious new version.
It’s a shame that the new Dumbo is such a lumbering bore, since Disney had mostly been on a roll with its live-action renderings of its animated gems. Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Maleficent and The Jungle Book were all better than they had any right to be — indeed, the only sore spots were those Alice in Wonderland adaptations, with Tim Burton directing the so-so first film and serving as producer on its excruciating follow-up (Alice Through the Looking Glass). Burton is back in the helmer’s chair for Dumbo, but this picture doesn’t even bring to mind those Alice endeavors as much as it recalls Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful, another torturous undertaking that found a formerly exciting and innovative filmmaker (in that case, Sam Raimi) shucking aside all creativity simply to mangle and mutilate a cherished motion picture from yesteryear.
While the 1941 Dumbo opted to anthropomorphize its animal stars, this new interpretation decides to silence them by either shunting them to the background (Mrs. Jumbo), dismissing them with a fleeting cameo (Timothy Q. Mouse) or deleting them altogether (Mr. Stork and the crows). In their place, Burton and scripter Ehren Kruger (whose credits range from the underrated pair Arlington Road and Ghost in the Shell to the awfulness of The Brothers Grimm and three — count ‘em, three — Transformers flicks) decided that they should instead focus on the human characters, because Lord knows that’s what people really want to see when they attend a movie ostensibly about a flying elephant.
Thus, Dumbo quickly becomes a supporting character in his own story, as the focus shifts to Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a returning World War I veteran, and his two children, a son (Finley Hobbins) so nondescript that I wouldn’t even be able to pick him out of a police line-up and a daughter (Nico Parker) so anachronistic and forced that she talks like a contemporary 30-year-old woman rather than a Depression-era preteen. Holt returns from the war to resume his job as a rootin’-tootin’ horseback rider for a circus owned by Max Medici (Danny DeVito), but between Holt losing an arm in battle and Max having sold the horses to make ends meet, the only available post is looking after the elephants. Holt and his kids are especially taken with baby Dumbo, who’s initially the object of scorn but soon becomes a sensation thanks to the oversized ears that allow him to get airborne.
Dumbo’s triumph over his tormentors — and over gravity — is pretty much where the ’41 film ends, but here we’re just getting started. After Dumbo attains celebrity status, he’s noticed by V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a zillionaire who enters into a partnership with Max so he can incorporate the circus into his own opulent theme park, Dreamland. Of course, this is just a scam; Vandevere is only interested in the profits he can generate from Dumbo and plans to get rid of everyone else, man (via firing) and beast (a bullet for Mrs. Jumbo) alike. Naturally, it’s up to Holt and his younglings to save the day, although they receive unlikely assistance from Vandevere’s mistress Colette Marchant (Eva Green), a French trapeze artist who develops a conscience quicker than you can utter, “C’est quoi cette merde?”
As expected for a Burton romp, technical values are top-notch, with the director turning to regular collaborators like production designer Rick Heinrichs (Oscar for Sleepy Hollow) and costume designer Colleen Atwood (Oscar for Alice in Wonderland) to punch across his vision. But such visual splendor is all for naught when wrapped around a film as emotionally uninvolving as this one. The CGI Dumbo is adorable enough in design (even if the surrounding effects aren’t as convincing), but there’s no genuine pathos to this rendition since the li’l elephant is mainly used as a prop simply so the human protagonists can all feel a little better about themselves. And what dullards these mortals be — a far cry from the colorful types Burton used to showcase back when he had a propensity to frolic with the freaks (how this movie could have used a Joker or an Edward Scissorhands or even a Pee-wee Herman!). Even the cherished moments from the original that have survived are given no value — the magical “pink elephants” sequence, for instance, has been reconfigured as a blasé circus number.
The performances are mostly fine, with no one ultimately able to escape the crushing weight (heavier than Mrs. Jumbo!) of the worn-out dialogue and banal developments. But special mention should be given to Michael Keaton, who enjoyed a career comeback with his Oscar-nominated turn in Birdman and deserved (but didn’t receive) additional nods for his exemplary turns in Spotlight and The Founder. Here, he speaks in a strange, clipped cadence and sports more facial tics and smirks than even Beetlejuice. Frankly, I didn’t think it was possible for him to give a performance as awful as the one he brandishes here — then again, perhaps he figured it was the only way to stand apart from the numbing homogenization of the rest of this white elephant.