Stretched thin, live-action 'Dumbo' doesn't achieve liftoff

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service
"Dumbo" opens Friday at Regal West Manchester Stadium 13, Frank Theatres Queensgate Stadium 13 and R/C Hanover Movies.

Disney's 1941 animated feature "Dumbo," about the little circus elephant who could fly, left some deep emotional wounds. It's one of Disney's most devastating films. But it was also aesthetically daring, almost avant-garde, and ahead of its time, rich with intense pathos and visual innovation.

Thanks to "The Greatest Showman," circus culture is hot right now. So of course "Dumbo" has been given the live-action retrofit, this time courtesy of offbeat auteur Tim Burton, who has tackled a few beloved children's properties ("Alice in Wonderland," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"). On paper, there's so much potential, but the result is a strange amalgamation of influences and agendas. Stretched thin, this dramatically inert film tries, but ultimately says almost nothing at all.

"Dumbo" fulfills the checklist Disney remakes these days require: a young heroine interested in science, a dead mother, a father scarred by war. It inexplicably warps an inherently archaic story premise into politically correct revisionist history with a relevant message, suggesting that in the exploitative, bullying world of 1920s circuses, wildlife conservation was also a concern.

But within this rigid Disney formula are a few flickers of resistance. Burton makes his signature stamp, manifested here in the visual design. And journeyman screenwriter Ehren Kruger's script shockingly contains shades of subversion and anarchy, a little bit of rage against the machine. But everything seems dulled down, sharp edges blunted.

Burton dutifully dispenses with the quick hits of the "Dumbo" story within the first act, hitting each point in a manner that is perfunctory at best: mama elephant Jumbo, baby elephant Dumbo, big ears, bullying, jeers, feathers, flying. The film also gives us Milly (Nico Parker), her brother, Joe (Finley Hobbins), and dad, Holt (Colin Farrell). The family, reunited after Holt lost his arm in World War I and their mother lost her life to influenza, rally around the young elephant as his protectors.

Before long Burton has scrapped the iconic (but problematic) crows for Collette (Eva Green), a French trapeze artist, and Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a sniveling, snidely theme park entrepreneur — a nefarious Walt Disney type, one could say. He's snapped up the mom-and-pop Medici Bros. circus that discovered Dumbo and folded it into his Dreamland empire, hoping to turn a generous profit and attract high-rolling investors. Talk about mergers and acquisitions.

Colin Farrell, Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins star in  "Dumbo." The movie opens Friday at Regal West Manchester Stadium 13, Frank Theatres Queensgate Stadium 13 and R/C Hanover Movies.

What is remarkable is somehow Burton and Kruger managed to make an anti-corporate, anti-capitalist, pro-labor, environmentalist, circus-themed horror movie out of a Disney-produced "Dumbo" remake.

Despite all that, this iteration of "Dumbo" doesn't achieve liftoff. The characters are barely sketched and the story transitions don't work at all. The tone never finds its groove, the CGI-live action blend is an uncanny valley hellscape, and the performances are merely serviceable. While Green and Farrell are fun to watch, Keaton goes full throttle "Scooby-Doo" villain.

Strangest of all is Burton doesn't bother to extract any emotion. This could be merciful when it comes to the wrenching scenes where Dumbo keens for his mother (the "Baby Mine" lullaby is thankfully brief), but because we don't really care about anyone, it's impossible to sustain interest in any of the action that transpires during the film's incredibly dull climax.

We've now seen enough of these Disney remakes, seemingly made by committee, that it comes as no surprise that an auteur such as Burton was subsumed into a machine that chewed up his aesthetic and spit out four-quadrant pleasing pablum. Unfortunately, this "Dumbo" goes splat.

2 stars
Cast: Nico Parker, Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Danny DeVito.
Directed by Tim Burton.
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
Rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language.